This month my school, Woodside High School, will be the first in London to get a permanent rainbow crossing. We are delighted about it – but we also know it is likely to be a matter of days before it is vandalised.
We are very open about our stance on equality and diversity. This month, for LGBT History Month, we have a rainbow flag flying high for all to see, and had you visited us during Black History Month, you would have seen one celebrating that flying also. We do a great deal throughout the year challenging the stigma around mental health, celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history, disability history, commemorating the Holocaust, marking anti-bullying week and so much more. Our students speak openly and courageously about the importance of challenging prejudice in all its forms. However, despite all of this, the topic we get the most amount of pushback on is the topic of LGBTQI+.
Last year when our student equality group put up the rainbow flag for the first time, we had members of public complaining to the school – people who do not have children attending Woodside nor, in some cases, people who even lived in the UK, felt they ought to comment upon it. We received tweets and emails and messages on the school’s Instagram page about it – a flag – and there seemed to be something powerfully triggering about the visibility of what we call our ‘Woodside Pride’ to a number of people.
Visibility gives our students the space to open up, and to grow up to be kind, compassionate, engaged adults.
The disturbance that visibility causes is something that I understand all too well. At a school years ago, as deputy head, I was summoned to the head’s office once and asked to be less visible in my own LGBT identity. I was told that I “really didn’t need to talk about it quite so much” and that it was not pertinent to my role as a teacher – despite my responsibilities including student voice, school behaviour, community engagement, SMSC and overall safeguarding and pastoral lead. How encouraging our school community to challenge prejudice and have responsibly guided conversations about the issues present in young people’s lives today, issues around racism, bullying, identity, self-image, confidence, expression, should exclude any mention of the LGBTQI+ community I am still confused about, but that was what I was told to do.
Visibility is powerful. Only this week a student was challenged about something he said that strayed into homophobia and he said that I was the only gay person he knew and I was okay. A grudging acceptance from a teenager in a tricky situation that helped a broader, far more important conversation about prejudice. Visibility – through our rainbow flag, through our Stonewall Gold School Champion status, through our clear and open stance on equality – can cause us problems, but it can also be a wonderful thing. It gives our students opportunities, it attracts amazing people to our school community, it gives us all the space to be ourselves. Visibility is powerful because it gives our staff and students the platform to have these critical discussions, to give students the space to open up, and to grow up to be kind, compassionate, engaged adults who are equipped with the skills and knowledge to stand up not just for themselves but for others also.
There are students at Woodside who have attempted suicide because they have been so fearful of telling their families who they really are.
We have a number of staff and students who have specifically chosen to come to our school because of our values, and that is something I am enormously proud of. And in a world where there seems to be a rise in people accusing organisations of adopting causes as a way of ‘virtual signalling’ or superficially supporting issues, of ‘rainbow washing’, let me be clear: what we do saves lives. There are students at Woodside who have attempted suicide because they have been so fearful of telling their families who they really are. We have children who have been attacked by family members, who self-harm and who torture themselves daily because they are ashamed. The rise of hate crime in our society is something they are acutely aware of, and outside of our school walls, they know all too well just how vulnerable they are, and how vile people can be.
It is easy to feel hopeless and despair at the lack of progress we seem to be making. For despite the increase in LGBTQI+ people being represented in the media, the impact of that does not seem quite so powerful when faced with a terrified 14-year-old, locked into an ambulance for his own safety whilst his raging family members who forced him to go to so-called ‘gay conversion therapy’ are beating the sides of the vehicle. I sat in that ambulance with that child, at 11pm at night, and tried to make him feel safe, all the while trying to push the memory of being a child and my own family taking me to the doctor and asking him to ‘fix me’ when I told them I was gay. In that moment not much seemed to have changed.
However, much has indeed changed, thank goodness, and the removal of toxic laws like Section 28 means that as a head, I can ensure that no child at Woodside is taught to hate, and for that I am extraordinarily thankful. So, while I know that what we do at Woodside is not always well-received, it is transformative, and we will continue to fight the good fight.
Gerry Robinson is headteacher of Woodside High School in Haringey, London
Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on firstname.lastname@example.org