Faith, or rather that of my teachers, parents and family loomed large in my child-hood.
My Dad, raised as a Catholic (but by now a Methodist) would light a candle by my bed each night, teaching me to read using a musty, hard-backed Bible. Most of the stories were from the Old Testament and I can recall that whilst Dad was assuring me God was a force for good, many of the tales left me uneasy, with sacrifices, murder and what felt to me pretty obvious attempts to control people through fear. The New Testament was easier for me to relate to and this was underlined by the Christian ethos at my Church Primary School. I enjoyed marching on the spot to 'Onward Christian Soldiers in assembly and I liked the school ethos that seemed to promote being terribly nice to one another- an ethos which is not too far removed from that of my own secular school now. I attended Sunday school and wore a wooden cross, occasionally being labelled and bullied for being a 'bible-basher.' It was the festivals I enjoyed most, especially Christmas and Easter; these events afforded family time, decorations and songs that seemed to connect one directly to Biblical times. All in all being a Christian didn't seem like such a bad thing, even if I could never really hear God's voice as my parents said I would, a fact that would in itself make me suspicious.
I was aware from as early as I can remember that I was more attracted to men than women, especially men with beards; fortunately my little book of bible stories was packed to the rafters with drawings of handsome and hirsute Sampson and Peter the fishermen. I have no doubt that it was through these books that I first gained a sense of what was 'my type'. Of course this powerful sense of my own identity also led me to seek role models and representations in books, at school, in church, on the television and amongst adults and children I met. Yet no obvious role models were forthcoming.
It was at Well Street Church in Buckingham that I first overheard an important looking Church leader referring to homosexuals as 'wrong in the eyes of the Lord.' I had previously heard the 'H' word on news with reference to a man in a mac called Jeremy Thorpe and I instinctively knew that 'homosexual' meant people born such as me. I was already accompanied by ever present shame (due a sense of otherness and lack of role models and representation) and this indirect confirmation, that in the eyes of the baby Jesus and his Father I was possibly closer to the Devil than the Lord would contribute significantly to a troubled passage in my teenage years that would very nearly end with a hot bath, a razor blade and a bottle of Martini.
This point of forced emotional disconnection from the church inevitably challenged my belief system, it also awoke a fierce new emotion in me- anger. It seemed almost intolerably unfair that God had chosen me to be born 'homosexual' when Jesus and other babies were born to be accepted and loved. My anger grew and I began to question God's motive as I watched the Vietnam War play out on the news, my best friend's Mum wrap her mini round a tree and parents' marriage dissolve. I came to the conclusion that God was actually not a very truthful or kind person. Anger grew to rage and I disconnected completely from faith around the age of 10.
In my teenage years I returned only once to a religion, accompanying my Mother to see a Christian musical. Whilst I enjoyed the music, the performance resulted in some of the audience going into some kind of trance or 'high' and it scared me. Afterwards people were asked onto the stage to be 'cleansed of their sins' an experience which also frightened me. I was left with the impression that it was not God I felt in that room, but humans manipulating vulnerable humans. At secondary school religious education became an excuse to smoke on the school field and it wasn't until I became a teacher in 1996 that the teaching of religion returned to my life. My first teaching post came with the expectation that I taught Year 6/7 religious studies. Over time I realised that teaching the six world religions was no different to teaching history, it was about information and education, not promotion. I also thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of bearing witness to honest and open discussions about faith (or lack) in a safe, structured environment. What struck me was the ability of some young people to adhere to the core values of a faith, whilst still retaining a questioning mind and a sense that religious texts and values were perhaps best interpreted within the context of contemporary values. Upon moving to London in 2000 the range of identities and faiths made the teaching of religion, identify and heritage an absolute must, to ensure children are afforded regular opportunities to understand 'the other' and to explore their own emergent faith, spirituality or their identities.
In 2009, faced with LGBT+ related bullying in my own school, I wrote an award winning teacher training programme called Inclusion For All which I have now delivered to over 8,200 school staff across the UK and abroad. When I began this work, it is fair to say that my own prejudices led me to believe that faith school communities would not be open to a homophobia survivor speaking to their students in assembly and advising their staff on preventing homophobia,. During the first three years nearly all the schools who invited me in were secular schools. Then in November 2013 I was invited to speak at Harrow School to a group of Church of England delegates from the Diocese of London, the Diocese of Southwark and Lambeth Palace. I was touched to be invited to speak and I spent the night beforehand wondering whether I should temper my approach. Ultimately I held firm in the fact that the Equality Act states all schools, including faith schools have a due regard to prevent LGBT related bullying and to prevent discrimination. I began by exploring the damage prejudice related bullying does to young people and I explained how I had come close to taking my own life. I could feel many of the delegates understood that I was not advocating or promoting anything other than keeping children safe. Some of the content proved challenging and I had to avoid being drawn into theological debate; whilst I celebrate the right to faith, if we go round and round in circles debating theology more young unique human souls will be lost. Following Harrow I found myself speaking in an increasing number of CE Schools, in many there was a sense of relief to be finally talking about these issues. Telling my own story allowed us to find a common meeting point, in which we pledged not to let anyone in the school community be damaged by prejudice of any kind.
In May 2014 I was invited to help launch the Church of England anti homophobia resource 'All God's Children' alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury; as TV cameras captured the moment, I led students affected by homophobia in an honest discussion whilst Justin Welby listened and took notes. My LGBT+ inclusion work in schools is now recommended within' Valuing All God's Children.' I had always hoped that I could reach out to supposedly 'harder to reach' communities and individuals without judgement; at the end of the day I have been homophobic towards not only myself but also other people, when I was struggling with my own identity- so I get it.
I continue to lead teacher training and assemblies for CE and Catholic Schools across the UK. I tell my story to Muslim students and teachers. This is a far cry from January 2009 when my own doubts and some of my friends and colleagues were sending me clear messages that faith schools would never invite me in. I now see wonderful LGBT+ inclusion work in faith schools across the UK and I would urge the Department for Education and OFSTED to research and celebrate not only this emerging provision but also its impact. In this way we can inspire confidence in others that this work is absolutely making young people's lives netter.
Following my visits to faith schools, without exception I ask young people whether they feel their faith is a barrier to learning about LGBT+ people and the damage prejudicial attitudes can cause.Without exception they assure me that their faith tells them to love, to respect and to take care of people.
Now that really gives me faith in the future.