Yesterday I was at the London headquarters of the NSPCC delivering a presentation on preventing homophobia in schools. It has been my privilege to deliver many such talks over the past three years at a wide variety of schools, anti-bullying conferences, teacher training agencies , teacher trade union events and more recently Amnesty International and a wonderful gathering of faith school Chaplains from across London. As I left the NSPCC building, my phone began hooting and Tweeting as various people sought my opinion on Tom Daley's You Tube video confirmation; more of which in a moment.
My talks (which I claim are about homophobia) are in truth about shifting the culture and ethos of schools in order to remove labels and to celebrate unique individuals from the outset, thereby nurturing environments in which difference is seen as something enlightening, exciting and something to be celebrated and explored with great dignity and respect.
Our own school ethos statement firmly establishes from the very first point of contact for potential stakeholders that we 'celebrate difference'. This is who we are, this is what we stand for, like us or find another school.
Does this mean we are a 'progressive' school?
Of course not, it just means we strive to include ALL children, staff and parents, whatever their identity. The point being of course (should it need to be stated) that we are ALL different-which is what makes it all so damn exciting.
Tragically though, as we know only too well, some individuals suffer from a lack of cognitive empathy allowing their own internal fears and insecurity with regards to difference to manifest itself externally as prejudice and discrimination. This in turn may manifest itself as hate speech or acts of bullying, violence or even murder. Such insecurities also result in a need to label, in the fundamentally flawed propensity to place unique human souls into 'best fit' boxes in order to assuage the unease within the belly of the beholder. To this end we also have labels around sexuality, homosexual, heterosexual etc
As we emerge as individuals, many of us understandably seek to define ourselves by matching like for like, by seeking out our tribe if you will. As a child who knew he (predominantly) fancied men from the age of four, I spent many a formative year trying to discover my label just because everyone seemed to need one to be defined as a human being. By the age of 14 it was abundantly clear to me that the label that society used most to describe people such as myself was at worst 'queer' and at best 'homosexual'. Interestingly the mere inclusion of the word 'predominantly' in sentences such as the one above, can result in some of my friends who identify as gay asking me with worried brows, 'so are you secretly bisexual?'
Homosexual, bisexual heterosexual; blunt instruments attempting to define complex unique beings, based upon one aspect of our existence and in the wrong hands, sharp instruments used to hurt or even kill.
These days I would rather just say 'I am Shaun'- for me at least, that is enough. I have no issue with being labelled gay but right now I would rather just be Shaun Dellenty.
As a school leader, faced with a hall full of young individuals in assembly, I strive not to define the children by their faith, or skin tone, disability of ability or indeed by who they may fancy; I define them by their individual personality and their skills and strengths. The only label they need is their name, so we can address them individually and keep them safe when the fire alarm goes off.
The irony of course is that through my anti-homophobia work I am now often referred to as 'that gay teacher' and it may well be the title of my book. In fact some people, when they hear I am open about my partner at school to children and parents say 'well I would not want to be defined by my sexuality' thereby making an incorrect assumption that I do. I never understood why being open means for many, that we are, ergo defined by a sexual act or preference. For 'openly gay' think 'being able to be your true self', something which luckily enough for many people never even comes into question.
I certainly do not ever think about my 'straight' colleagues' bedroom habits when they quite rightly openly talk about their family lives, holidays and weekends. I'm Shaun, I'm 45, I eat, drink, watch the telly, go to the gym, walk the dog, do winter sports and maybe once in a blue moon I might have some time to get jiggy with it. In other words sex is just one part of my holistic 3D existence. It does not define me and neither does my 'sexuality'.
There seems to be a view from some people that when a teacher or indeed a public figure 'comes out' that they are the one making 'an issue' of something that is 'their business' or 'private.'I see this view as misconceived as best, prejudicial at worst.
When a teacher 'comes out' it is because they crave the same freedoms and rights as their colleagues to be an authentic, holistic, 3D human being. Everyone should be free to talk about their network of affections, their partners, their weekends, holidays and yes to invite their partner along to the Christmas Carol concert, that is equality and we indeed have an Equality Act which covers public services such as schools.
Additionally, if school leaders cannot provide an authentic, safe environment for their own staff, then how on earth do they ever expect to be able to support and represent the 10% of children who emerge through our schools as LGBT? How on earth then do they expect to include children with same sex families or staff with LGBT friends and family? Authentic teachers are more effective teachers, that is a fact. More effective teachers provide more effective provision for our children- that too is a fact. A school leader that empowers a gay or transgender teacher to be authentic is sending a very inclusive message to all stakeholders that it is ok to be YOU, whoever you may emerge to be.
So back to my vibrating phone and Tom Daley...
My initial response on seeing the news of Tom's announcement was, if I am honest, sadness. Sadness that still in 2013, the fact that Tom has fallen in love with a man should ever be a newsworthy issue in the first place. To see the resulting media frenzy smacks of sensationalism, passive homophobia and is disappointing to experience; yet here I am adding fuel to the fire- so what do I know?
It is the seemingly perennial conundrum, stay in the closet because your family/colleagues/church/society/media might reject you -or because you might face prejudice/bullying -or come out before the press does it for you- or come out because you just want to be authentic and happy, which in turn can trigger the bullying and prejudice and accusations of wanting to be defined by your 'sexuality'.
Then there is the pressure to be a 'role model', just because an individual declares themselves as being in a same sex relationship we need to be careful about that label too. Being a 'role model' comes with additional pressure, scrutiny and responsibility, often upon young people who have already suffered a lot. In no way do I doubt Tom's abilities to be an inspiring role model, but I hope in time we can move forward from the need to label everyone who comes out in this way; I believe being authentic is a human right for all.
Tom has the same right to be safe, happy, successful and authentic as everyone else and who he chooses to love (and for goodness sake can we please ditch the LGBT is a 'lifestyle choice' rubbish) really is his business and I wish him every success and happiness in life, in love and in his profession. I hope to live to see a day where the Toms of this world can just be, well Toms.
It was heartening to see so many messages of support for Tom and sadly not surprising to read the various comments of hate that the faceless Twitter cowards immediately started shooting into the ether.I am thrilled for Tom that he has found love, long may it continue; he should be proud of who he is as an individual and for his achievements. I hope that in the coming days weeks and months we can all make his choice of partner the least interesting element of his life,
As a 3D holistic unique individual who has served our country well, I think we owe him that at least.