LGBT role models in the teaching profession | @Innervoices2011

A piece by Ed Watkins, Teacher at the West London Free School

ed watkinsNothing makes the rightness of Harvey Milk’s call to normalise ourselves through coming out more accurate than the huge change in attitudes towards our community in the USA and its close correlation with the increase in the number of people who know someone who is gay. Now that this trend is a part of life in the Western world it can be easy to forget how rare it is for this step to be taken in secondary school. The playground can still be a hostile environment for young gay people, particularly at Key Stage 3.

I started at the West London Free School when in opened in 2011 and from the off was encouraged by the supportive attitude of the other staff towards ensuring that the school is a safe, supportive place for young LGBT students. Having worked in a Catholic school where homosexuality didn’t even get a mention in the PSHE lessons on discrimination it was refreshing to experience unambiguous openness from governors, leadership and staff.

In Year 9 the school decided to start approaching sex and relationship education in depth and one de-timetabled day included an hour on sexuality. I was very pleased that the suggestion came from our Deputy Head. This was given over to me and in the run up to the day I gave some thought to what would happen if a pupil asked if I was gay. My worries centred around the possibility that it would impact on my ability to be a role model to boys who enjoy singing and get in the way of our successful attempts to achieve gender balance in our choirs and ensembles. Alongside this I entered the day assuming that the insecurity Year 9s feel about their burgeoning sexuality (straight or otherwise) would make the environment quite homophobic.

In reality I found that many of our Year 9s were remarkably open. Some were indeed uncomfortable about homosexuality and for them the day was a useful opportunity to discuss the topic rather than to simply be told they were wrong. In particular many of the students were receptive to the idea that, in changing room terms, same sex attraction means being attracted to some members of the same sex as opposed to all of them!

At the end of the day, as predicted, I was asked by a child whether I was gay:

‘Yes, but you knew that already didn’t you’

Seemed like the right answer. After a warm reception at the assembly that followed the pupils went off and, judging by the following email from a parent, shared their thoughts back at home:

Just a quick message to say a BIG WELL DONE for the way you handled today’s class. Obviously I asked how it went as we had an email about it. Tom said it went well and he said you were asked a personal question and told us what you said. Tom said he thinks it was very brave of you and in his not so eloquent words you are now WELL RATED !!! for being honest and that’s how all the kids felt.

Other communications from parents have been universally positive, including from those who are worried about their own children being able to grow up in a safe and understanding environment.

Following on from that day I’ve found it much easier to deal with any passing homophobic language as the pupils understand more clearly why it might not be ideal. It’s also easier to do so without making a big deal of it, the usual lecture on why it might be offensive is implicit in the reprimand. No pupil has acted in anyway differently and my worries about it having any effect on my teaching were unfounded, more a reflection of my own projections than anything else.


“The West London Free School is very lucky to have someone like Ed on its staff. His honesty and straightforwardness about his sexuality has had a really positive influence on the pupils.”

Toby Young, co-founder, West London Free School

10 Replies to “LGBT role models in the teaching profession | @Innervoices2011”

  1. Be interesting to know how welcome you make Catholics and Muslims in your class. How do deal with people’s beliefs towards gay marriage. West London free school has pupils from many different backgrounds and some of these pupils will believe quite strongly that things like gay marriage are fundamentally wrong regardless of whether they are legal.

    1. I have to disagree with your view that it would be interesting to know how welcome Ed makes Catholics and Muslims in his class. I don’t think it would be interesting at all, as I couldn’t imagine this decent, thoughtful man treating a child in a discriminatory manner because of the religious beliefs of that child’s parents that the child has been encouraged to adopt, or the religious culture that child has been born into. Just as there is a range of opinion about homosexuality and same-sex marriage among believing and cultural Muslims and Catholics (and by the way, in the USA, Catholics are more supportive of LGBT equality than the general population), there is likely to be a range of opinion about homosexuality and same-sex marriage in any classroom. So long as views are expressed in a respectful and sensitive way, they will provide a healthy dialectic for discussion, and this is an important element of what education should be about.

      1. If he hadn’t made the comment:

        “Having worked in a Catholic school where homosexuality didn’t even get a mention in the PSHE lessons on discrimination it was refreshing to experience unambiguous openness from governors, leadership and staff.”

        You may have had a point. But in light of the above, one does have to wonder.

        1. I think it’s reasonable to expect any school’s PSHE lessons on discrimination to include homosexuality particularly in the context of preventing homophonic bullying. To be fair to the school in question my problem was with the member of staff writing the PSHE lessons, the leadership team and HoYs were excellent when pupils were experiencing homophobic bullying.

        2. I’m struggling to understand how Ed’s implied criticism of a Catholic school for not mentioning homophobia in PHSE lessons on discrimination might encourage a suspicion that he himself would discriminate against his students because of the religio-cultural background they come from. That seems to me to be a non sequitur.

          It would similar to suggesting a Catholic teacher would make his Muslim students feel uncomfortable simply because he previously taught in a particular Muslim school that made no mention of Catholicism or Christianity in its Religious Studies programme. That would smack of a particularly puerile and facile form of revenge psychology: hardly consistent with the reflective tone and content of the above article.

    2. I have only one instance where a Muslim pupil has asked how my own ideas about sexuality square with the more conservative teaching of his religion. Our discussion didn’t resolve our differences but, as it was in the context of a day when we were encouraging open discussion of issues around sexuality, we were able to exchange points of view with respect for each other’s starting point. I hope that being aware of my sexuality will encourage him to think about what liberal and conservative Islamic teaching have to say on the issue and make his mind up having thought about it further.

      1. Interesting to read that West Londoner suspects Mr Watkins would not welcome Catholics in his class. I am a practicing Catholic with a son at WLFS and I support Mr Watkins 100% in his openness. I was also interested to discover from Aylesbury chap that American Catholics are more supportive of LGBT equality than the general population. But I think the most important words for West Londoner to recall before stereotyping all Catholics as homophobic bigots are from Pope Francis who said last year “If a person is gay, who am I to judge him?”

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