How I role model

At LGBTed we think it’s vitally important that children and staff have role models from the LGBT community. The old adage, you can’t be or understand what you can’t see rings so true and for someone who didn’t have any role models at school, I know how damaging that can be.

We know self-harm is disproportionately high amongst members of the LGBT community and we know that the average life expectancy of someone from the Transgender community is 35. This makes me unbelievably sad that someone should feel so isolated and ashamed to the extent they would harm themselves, often with devastating consequences. If people have role models who are proud to be members of the LGBT community that can send such a powerful message to our aspiring leaders of the future (staff and children). It says: I’m me, and you can be you too.

I wasn’t always out at work, but after one particularly difficult experience I vowed never to hide who I was again. I would be me and I would make sure that I chose places that allowed me to do so.

I consider myself a role model at work, to my team and my peers and I am committed to living by these rules every single day.

Lead with pride: Talk about what you did at the weekend, be open about who you are, talk about the things that you are passionate about and champion initiatives you feel can make a change. It’s important to be a leader who knows who they are and isn’t afraid to show it.

Enable others to be themselves: By leading with pride you’ll give others the confidence to be themselves. Remember diversity isn’t just about LGBT, it’s about diversity of thought, of working style and communication. We need to encourage people not to fit in with the dominant leadership style and to bring their true selves to work.

Speak up against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia: For that matter, speak up if hetero and cisnormativity dominate your organisation. People probably don’t know they are doing it – but it can be stifling.

Be honest: Always.

Integrity matters: Even if it feels uncomfortable, it’s important to persist in championing diversity even if it isn’t always easy to do so.

Allies are important: As an LGBT role model it’s important to understand who your allies are; they can be a powerful driver of change in your organisation.

Never give up: Never. Give. Up.

Last week I was speaking at the Festival of Education and was asked: Why do we need diversity in schools and organisations? My answer: That’s like asking why do we need the heating on in the building in winter? It’s critically important to our well-being that we see the richness that exists in society and to know that we can be a part of it.

A whole school approach

I work at Longhill High School, a large secondary comprehensive school in Brighton, where I’m head of Modern Foreign Languages.

We have had a monthly LGBT+ student meet up for about the past six months, which we started in order to support and provide students who were coming out with a safe space. Recently at a student’s request we changed this to a weekly club and named it proudlonghill. The club has 25 weekly attendees and I felt that as a school we were making great progress to create a more inclusive environment.

However, a few weeks ago, my colleague Luke came to see me and told me a sad story. He had been talking to a student in Year 10 about some other students in the same year who had recently come out as bisexual. The student said he felt that the students that had come out were attention seeking. Luke used the opportunity to educate the student and used his own coming out experience to explain that people do not do it for attention.

When Luke told me this, I in turn shared some stories about the homophobic language I’d heard around school recently. He suggested doing an assembly for the Year 10 students, to explain that people don’t come out for attention and that it’s a big step for the individual. I also wanted to make it clear that homophobic language is unacceptable at school.

We asked our SLT for permission and they requested that rather than just focusing on Year 10, we deliver assemblies for the whole school. The idea was to ensure that all students received a consistent blanket of information as well as staff. We started on Tuesday and finished on Friday.

In the assembly we told the students once and for all that homophobic language would no longer be accepted, that students who come out as LGBT+ are not attention seeking and that they are simply seeking to live authentically.

Luke and I both came out, as a gay man and gay woman. I explained a bit about my own coming out process, and talked about the endless coming out process that LGBT+ people go through during their lives, how it’s not just a one-off event, it’s a daily one!

We also gave information about the services we provide as a school, and the outside agencies we work with. For example, we partner with a charity called Allsorts, who come into school and meet 1-1 with students who need support on any LGBT+ issues.

You can see the video of our final assembly here.

The feedback and response has been overwhelming. Students have been more comfortable coming out, telling us their stories and generally expressing huge positivity towards the LGBT+ community as a whole.

It’s not just LGBT+ students who have been talking, it’s heterosexual ones too. It’s brought the whole school together. I have been approached personally by several students whose identification as LGBT+ was previously unknown to us, and it was heartening that they felt able to trust me with their story and ask for support. I also had a young student ask me to support her with a friend who continued to use gay as a pejorative and we discussed his behavior with him and why it was unacceptable.

We are keen to encourage other schools to do a similar act, to be the role models that their students need. It’s all well and good talking about Drag Race stars, and Ellen, Tom Daley and Laverne Cox, but what our students need are role models they see everyday and know. They need someone that they can talk to and ask questions of – they need real people .

Pam Stallard can be contacted by email at pstallar@longhill.org.uk or by twitter @stallardlhs

The importance of school diversity week

It has been delightful this week that there has been so much activity in schools in support of School Diversity Week, an important initiative celebrating LGBT equality. Thanks to campaigns such as this, young people are becoming more confident in embracing who they are, and many schools are leading the way in building inclusive and welcoming environments.

This government fully supports LGBT equality, which is why the Prime Minister helped to launch School Diversity Week and why on Tuesday, the Government launched its LGBT Action Plan, in response to the national LGBT survey.

The results of the survey showed us that more needs to be done to improve the experiences of LGBT people in the UK. Many teachers still do not feel comfortable being open about their sexuality at work. In the survey’s education section, respondents said that they felt that disclosing the fact that they were LGBT would be a huge professional risk. Mostly this was down to a fear of what others would think but some teachers said that they had been ‘forced’ to leave a job because of their sexual orientation. This is unacceptable and we must do more to ensure that teachers feel comfortable and supported if they want to be open about their identity.

I would like to see teaching become one of the most inclusive of professions; more needs to be done to remove the barriers that can prevent teachers from progressing in their career because of their identity. Crucial to this is having strong, visible LGBT role models who promote greater understanding of what it is to be LGBT and challenge social norms and stereotypes.

The creation of the LGBTed network is a significant step in supporting the whole of this community including lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, and it was a great pleasure to support its official launch in June this year. I welcome the initiative that LGBTed have taken to establish and promote a network of LGBT role models and allies to support LGBT teachers to be able to be the best version of themselves at work.

When people are confident being their true selves in the workplace, they feel motivated, empowered, and perform better in their jobs. This cannot happen without a safe, supportive school environment. I therefore encourage all school leaders to get involved with this movement, learn from best practice and create an inclusive school culture where diversity is celebrated.

Making the choice to role model

Writing this is scary. Coming out as bisexual is rarely one big announcement, but rather lots of tiny ones as you correct misconceptions, challenge assumptions and decide when and how to tell the whole truth about your life.

This blog post is another one of those steps; I write this as a bisexual woman who is not fully out to family and colleagues. I’m aware that some of them may be reading this and just finding out.

I’m not going to claim that coming out is easy for anyone. Everyone under the LGBT+ umbrella will face both common and unique issues. In my case though, the decision about whether to be an out and visible role model in school comes with additional challenges. Bisexual people in opposite-sex relationships don’t have the option of casually mentioning a same sex partner in conversation; it needs to be a deliberate decision to be out at work.

I’ve always had the option to not challenge assumptions and quietly carry on. I’m married to a man. I have a son. In most colleagues’ and pupils’ eyes I’m heterosexual and for most of my career I was happy to leave it at that.

However, the guilt about not being a better role model and frustration around not being able to be my authentic self at work has become too much to bear and it’s time to be honest, for myself and my pupils.

There are a few reasons for this shift. Firstly, having my son. There’s nothing like having a baby to increase the sexist and heteronormative assumptions placed on a woman. As I’ve struggled to adapt to my new identity as a mother, the sense that I don’t quite fit the mould has intensified.

Secondly, I now also have a long-term female partner. Denying my bisexuality feels like erasing her, so no matter how awkward the conversations around consensual non-monogamy may be, I don’t think it’s right to hide this part of my life.

Thirdly, in my thirties I’ve finally discovered my identity, after a whole school life under Section 28 took its toll. I know how a lack of visible role models and friendly advice can impact self-esteem, so I’m determined to provide these for my pupils. That doesn’t have to mean sharing all the details (although I’d never lie to a pupil who asked) but it means living authentically, being myself and supporting my pupils.

A collaborative approach to role modelling

Conversations I have with LGBTQ+ people of my generation about their time at school tend to expose depressingly similar experiences; negative language, intimidation by students, and unsupportive staff.

Section 28 was repealed during the month I started secondary school, however it cast a shadow over my time there and continues to do so today. Young queer people continue to be denied representation and respect, and incidents of homophobic and transphobic bullying can go unchecked where staff are unsure on how to help.

This is why the positive work being done by a host of campaigns and organisations – #LGBTed, LGBT History Month, Stonewall, Diversity Role Models and indeed School Diversity Week to name but a few – is so vital. The existence of these structures themselves seems to highlight the importance of collaboration when role-modelling for young people.

The term “role model” brings to mind the image of an individual who carries a huge weight of responsibility on their shoulders.

I believe coming out as gay at work has enabled me to support students more meaningfully, and to feel more confident, happy and authentic. But the most productive work has always been done not by me as an individual, but in collaboration with my fantastic colleagues.

Working with pastoral and teaching staff, we have established an LGBTQ+ group for students which is about to celebrate its first birthday. Collaborating with teacher allies, we have led assemblies where staff and students have spoken out on the importance of equality. I have worked with supportive colleagues to deliver training to staff who have gone on to promote solidarity, representation and diversity across the curriculum and beyond.

All told, I do believe that staff being open about their identities as queer teachers and allies can be hugely powerful, and I am aware that not all teachers work alongside colleagues who are as proactive as mine.

Yet I think that, where possible, the most powerful thing we can do is to think beyond what we can do as individuals, and establish teams of role models. In this way, we can do more for our students, and demonstrate, by the sheer force of numbers, the level of solidarity there can be for LGBTQ+ youth. This spirit of solidarity would have helped me so much when I was in a student in secondary school. I think it can – and will – help our young people in schools today.

The importance of role modelling

It had taken me almost an hour to drive to the school. During that time I had thought about everything that could go wrong. “What are the children going to say when they see me? Are they going to laugh? Am I going to be ridiculed? What about the staff? What are their reactions going to be? Perhaps I will be escorted off site?”

I was spiralling. I considered ringing the school, stating I was ‘unwell’ and then heading home to cocoon myself away from the imagined baying mob. That was the easier option.

I was angry with myself for agreeing to do this in the first place. I was scared. Petrified to be more precise. I questioned myself on whether I could still ‘teach’ –  after all it had been a good few years since I had taught so many lessons in one day. I suspect most modern headteachers spend very little time in the classroom because of the enormity of the role. Well that was my experience (and excuse).

The cause of my anxiety was not that of being a former head back in the classroom but by the fact I am trans. And being trans in Britain can be awful. And as a trans teacher the situation is made even worse knowing that a fifth of the British public don’t even think I should be employed as a primary teacher. Good job I was heading to a secondary school then.

Somehow, I managed not to turn the car around, arriving at the school in good time. Despite the staff room poster telling people to get over me I still wanted to follow my instincts and flee. Instead, I took a deep breath and went into ‘fight mode’ – not literally but more of a focused determination. I’m not quite sure how (probably the fact I like a challenge) but I stepped into a classroom to teach as Claire for the first time ever. I turned the dial to teacher setting and went for it. The absent years were forgotten. It was as though I had never been away and the pupils certainly played their part. We interacted and discussed. We reflected and analysed. More importantly we treated each other with dignity and respect. The labels were there, recognised and considered but the one that ultimately mattered was the label that said ‘human being’ –  the one label that connects us all.

At the end of each lesson I was thanked. Some pupils shook my hand and others high-fived me on the way out. It was not what I was expecting. The feedback from the pupils was very revealing too. One pupil said: “You inspired me to be who I want to be and that people different from me are the ‘same’…they are still human.” Another pupil added, “The use of a personal story was really powerful, emotional and inspiring and helped me understand how to be a more compassionate person towards others.” There were many positive messages but the one that will always stay with me was a pupil who said they will ‘remember me forever’. It revealed just how important teachers are as role model and the lasting effect we can have.

For many pupils I was probably the first openly trans person they had met. I wasn’t abstract. I was real. Through my visibility, openness and honesty they realised I was just like them. I certainly wasn’t someone to fear or exclude.

As I headed home it felt good to be back in the classroom again. I was back where I belong, doing what I think is right – being a positive trans teacher role model who makes that all important positive difference for young people. Especially if they just happen to be trans.

LGBTed launches

There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.

Reflecting on the launch of LGBTed that took place this weekend in Harris Academy, South Norwood I’m thinking of the Wizard of Oz, naturally. The LGBT+ community’s well-established connection with Dorothy Gale is not lost on me but there’s something about her wish at the end of the film that since Saturday I can’t seem to shift.

Dorothy dreamt of rainbows, of getting out of Kansas and about being appreciated. We know she wanted something more than the farm and Auntie Em, but when she got that handed to her on a yellow-bricked platter she realised it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.

In order to cope in this strange new world of lions and tigers and bears (oh my) she needed good friends to act as her support network who allowed her to overcome a great many obstacles. Together Dorothy and friends realised that with grit and determination they could succeed at anything and that they had it in them in the first place to do so.

Tenuous? I don’t think so. Glitz, glam and Garland aside, the launch of LGBTed has reaffirmed to me that across the country there are so many wonderful, brave, inspirational people in our schools who also happen to be part of the LGBT+ community. They might not fully realise it yet, but they are all brilliant already and the support of the LGBTed network will simply allow them to shine brighter, to be themselves and to do their best work as the role models we needed when we were at school.

The diversity of thought coming from the workshops was so impressive: Bennie Kara told us to ‘love our labels’; Hadley Stewart told us how as a linguist he used Madonna’s lyrics to navigate coming out; David Lowbridge-Ellis talked us through how he’s crafted the queer curriculum he needed when he was at school; and Robyn Ellis told us how we could use the principles of user-centred design to figure out the points of friction around EDI and iron them out – ever important for efficiency in a climate of shrinking budgets.

The informal conversations over lunch were equally stimulating and throughout the day new partnerships were forged with a bid to learn from other sectors. The collective resoluteness to stand taller was palpable and it’s been a joy to see people heading into school after half term with renewed enthusiasm for being the change they want to see. The amount of love and care for one another in that main school hall on Saturday was like no other conference I’ve attended. Rare were the cries of ‘if I only had a brain/the nerve/a heart’ in South Norwood that day.

The event ended with David Weston asking each of us to consider how we work to make those who are not part of the LGBT+ community feel welcome and include them in the conversation, because that’s how real change happens. It was a reminder that there is still work to do – but as Dorothy learns at the end of the film – I know we have it in us especially if we work together.

The launch was extremely special, it felt like an incredibly exciting moment in time of which we were all privileged to be a part. It was a huge accomplishment both personally and professionally and I felt deeply humbled by the great work that is already happening in schools and energised by the dedication shown by so many to share best practice and support one another to embark or continue on our own journeys.

We are a family, the LGBT+ community, with vastly different lived experiences but a family nonetheless and as people left the conference buzzing with ideas to take back to school and make a difference for the LGBT+ community, our allies and those identifying as neither yet, I couldn’t help feeling that through LGBTed we had found our home, and there’s no place like it.

Please follow us at @LGBTedUK to be part of the conversation.

 

Don’t be LGBTQ+ before Christmas.

For the past ten years, Georgina Tomsett-Rowe has been teaching languages in a variety of schools in Spain and the UK. Currently based in Hertfordshire, Georgie has been inspired by the acceptance and openness she has seen emerging in the classroom over the past decade, and is delighted to be playing even the smallest of roles in shaking up the outdated attitudes towards sexuality still rife in the education system. 

‘Never discuss your private life’. Along with ‘don’t smile before Christmas’, this is one of the first commandments drilled into you in teacher training, but what happens when your private life is visibly tied up with your identity?

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The summer has been simultaneously shocking and celebratory, with a number of very public tributes to the individuals who campaigned tirelessly for this abolition and those who suffered under the consequences of the law.

Having sobbed our way through Peter Gale’s ‘Man in an Orange Shirt’, conversation turned to how invigorating it was to see these programmes so openly publicised. The current generation of school and university students are growing up in a world which, for the most part, celebrates diversity and acceptance. A world where openly gay characters are portrayed living mundane daily lives and ‘out’ members of the public appear, unclothed, on reality shows discussing naked suitors, with no one batting an eyelid. This couldn’t be further from our experiences growing up pre-internet, when the exposure to LGBTQ+ representation was through the scandalous 5 second lesbian kisses on Neighbours and Brookside, or sneaking down late at night to watch Queer as Folk and Bad Girls.

But whilst we are making enormous strides in our public attitudes, there remains one sector of society which is finding it hard to move on. Whilst individually, the majority of pupils approach life with an open mindset, as a collective group, our current student body are producing worrying statistics. According to a 2014 Stonewall report, of teachers surveyed, 86% acknowledged homophobic bullying, 89% say that they regularly hear homophobic comments and language and yet only 43% of these teachers say that they would intervene. Only a quarter of all schools provided clear policies on homophobic behaviour and in 65% of cases, even this is not properly enforced. How are we getting it so right in one area of society and yet so wrong in another?

To answer this, we must look to our own attitudes. I remember one of my peers asking our PGCE tutor about coming out in the classroom and the response stuck in my mind for years. ‘Don’t give the children anymore ammunition. They will never respect you again’. I was truly saddened by this response, not because of the negativity towards the LGBT issue, but because of the inherent suspicion and distrust she afforded the pupils. Now, at this stage I was not a misty-eyed dreamer, expecting to be adored for bestowing my pearls of wisdom upon eager young minds. I had had my eyes opened after teaching in an underprivileged and unenthusiastic school in northern Spain for a year and subsequently, working as a language assistant in two local state schools. I had seen horrendous examples of neglect, bullying, and gang related violence but never at any stage did I consider education to be a battle pitting teachers against students. I was shocked by her answer but I wasn’t surprised.

See, my PGCE tutor began her career in 1964 and when she entered the profession, homosexuality was illegal. Over the course of her career she saw the decriminalisation in 1967, worked under Section 28 (prohibiting open discourse about homosexual relationships) in 1988, witnessed the repeal of this law in 2003 and the establishment of Civil Partnerships in 2005. It is no wonder the response to the question seemed antiquated. To some extent we are all guilty of making assumptions based on our own experiences but if these attitudes are presented as lore, we are in danger of not allowing new teachers the momentum to move the profession forward. They say it takes three generations to change public sentiment, one to rewrite the rules, one to bluster through the change and one to have never known anything different. Yet schools and teaching can be inherently institutionalised and may be in danger of not moving on.

I started my teaching in a well-known public boarding school and soon began a relationship with another female member of staff. I heeded my tutor’s advice and, whilst one would always aim to be discrete in such an intimate environment, vowed never to allow this relationship become public knowledge amongst the pupils. My decision was confirmed by comments from a long-serving member of the Common Room that ‘people like you shouldn’t be trusted to work in the boarding houses’ and a close acquaintance asserting that I would ‘single handedly destroy the reputation of the school’. This led to 9 months of looking over my shoulder and cringing whenever a student mentioned anything LGBTQ+ related. I was never 100% comfortable hiding away, but believed it was the only option.

My attitude, however, changed over the course of one evening. One of the 6th form girls came to me in floods of tears between platitudes and armfuls of tissues, she managed to choke out ‘Miss, I think I’m gay and I don’t know who else to tell. I thought you might understand because… you know…’. My heart stopped. She knew. I felt the floor fall away beneath me but my instincts kicked in, I had to put her pieces back together before I could concentrate on mine. By the time we finished, she was bouncing out of the room talking excitedly about her Oxbridge offer. I however, had never felt so sick and immediately went to explain the situation to the housemistress, an insane but wonderful French woman. Far from the conversation I expected, she wittered on about how ‘delighted she was that this girl could come and talk to me’ and ‘how wonderful it was for the pupils to have a visible, gay role model’. Both tears and the scales fell from my eyes.

Far from protecting myself, I was perpetuating the myth that sexuality is something to feel ashamed and afraid of and was helping drive it back underground. I was standing in front of these pupils every day, encouraging them to be proud of their individuality, but refusing to heed my own advice. If we want our pupils to celebrate their diversity, should we not be leading by example? I promised myself that, from then on, I would be honest and open if and when the matter arose. When we married in 2013, one of the mothers made the cake, colleagues attended and pupils conveyed their happiness and congratulations. Why had I been afraid?

Since then I have experienced, almost exclusively, acceptance. The only negative moment was during a maternity cover at an all-boys Catholic school when the headmaster called me to his office to say they weren’t going to extend my contract as ‘my lifestyle didn’t suit their ethos’. I was, naturally, upset and furious and I wanted to spend months seething and plotting revenge. But I didn’t. That would be letting him win. He had the power over my contract but I refused to give him the power to poison my mood. Ultimately, I now didn’t want to work for this institution and the only person who would be hurt by my blistering temper would have been my wife. So I had a large gin, held my head high and ensured that I was particularly subversive in my final months to help create support networks for those who didn’t fit the mould.

Subsequently, any school I have worked for has encouraged me to be open about my sexuality, embracing the importance of visibility. When I was younger Section 28 was in force and, aside from the locker room speculations about the PE teacher, there were no visible role models in real life. Every year I have a couple of students come out to me and this reinforces my belief that we need to support teachers in being open, with no fear of recrimination. We cannot live in the past, allowing antiquated attitudes and our own prejudices to be handed down from generation to generation. We must help move society towards a place where someone’s sexuality is as mundane as their hair colour.

We are incredibly fortunate to be living in the modern world where many of the barriers have been broken down by those who went before us but, in all good conscience, I cannot say that every member of the LGBTQ+ community lives without fear. Yes, we can now celebrate same-sex marriages, proudly go into adoption and fertility treatment, and live our humdrum lives arguing about whose turn it is to make the tea; but to say that we all live without fear of retribution is to silence thousands of voices. We still read of too many cases of violence being perpetrated against members of the LGBTQ+ community, too many stories of young people taking their own lives through fear of social discrimination, too many examples of individuals being turned away from their families. How do we help close the gap between general public sentiment, and the experiences of thousands in their own homes? Acceptance of homosexuality needs to step out of the television screen and into reality but, to make a stand, we need use the resources available to us. Teachers are one our most powerful weapons in the fight against homophobia and we need to give them our full support to ensure that our arsenals are well stocked.

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One more thing we’ve got in common

Having recently completed the Ambition School Leadership: Future Leaders programme, Chris Richards was appointed Deputy Headteacher at Villiers High School in Ealing at Easter, 2017. Chris oversees the quality of teaching and learning and is also raising standards leader for the school line managing all core subjects. Chris trained as a Modern Languages teacher in 2007 at the Swansea Institute for Higher Education and has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership and Management. This is his story: 

Having completed my first five years of teaching in South Essex, I was ready for some diversity and moved to a South London school in 2012. In my previous school, I was “out” to my colleagues, but it wasn’t really something the LGBT+ staff ever discussed with students other than in PSHEE lessons and they certainly didn’t refer to themselves. This was quite different to the experience of many heterosexual colleagues who had photos of their significant other or children on their desks and openly discussed them in class.

I was really happy to find an ethnically diverse student and staff body on arriving in London and really enjoyed getting to know them better. I was initially a little apprehensive about coming out to colleagues, but it soon became apparent I was in good company and there was an active LGBT working party which arranged opportunities for students to march in London gay pride, did outreach work with local primary schools and, most excitingly, celebrated LGBT History Month (www.schools-out.org.uk) A year or so before I’d arrived, they arranged an assembly where a number of colleagues talked about their experiences of being gay. I thought this was incredibly important and, the year I arrived, they decided to repeat the concept and many of us recorded a short interview about our experiences of coming out. Standing in assembly when this was played, I can remember my heart being in my mouth just before my section of the recording and couldn’t look at the students in the audience while I heard my words echoing around the hall. There seemed to be no negative reactions during the whole of the assembly however, and one of the most touching moments in my teaching career was when some of my year 11 boys came to find me afterwards telling me how great it was that I’d done that; that they hadn’t known but, as far as they were concerned, nothing had changed. This was indicative of a really harmonious community despite its ethnic, religious and social diversity. Over the five years at the school, we did several similar assemblies and even recorded a music video on the theme of “I am what I am” for the outgoing Principal as she’d been so accepting of all students and teachers. This didn’t mean that we had eradicated homophobia, however, but regular staff training and working with students who had expressed homophobic attitudes helped ensure the school community was well educated on the issues.

It was with a degree of sadness that I left this job to move on to a school in West London where I’d been appointed deputy head teacher.  Would the staff and students be as accepting? Would the parents be accepting? How would the community react? I made sure to drop “husband” into conversation with staff at regular intervals and remember a conversation early on about “Orange is the new black” with one of the students who expressed how similar I was to one of the male characters and she said “but he’s gay, so…” and I replied “oh, that’s one more thing we’ve got in common then!”. What seemed like hours later (though it was probably milliseconds) she said “Oh, that’s cool!” and we’ve continued to talk about the latest Netflix arrivals since! This certainly gave me a bit of confidence that the students would be accepting.

What the new school lacks currently though is visibility; my old school was plastered in the Stonewall “Some people are gay” posters and teachers had stickers on their desks etc. I decided to take a chance and, at the end of term, charged with the task of talking about the spirit of adventure in an assembly, I mentioned, among other things, getting married to my best friend last year and put up a picture of us on our wedding day. Once again, as I came to the slide, I could feel my heart beating ninety to the dozen, but knew there was no going back. I got to the end of the assembly and received rapturous applause. Students have continued to behave as normal towards me, but the positive comments received from a huge number of staff members have been incredibly encouraging. One staff member, also a parent of a student in the assembly, has said how much it meant to her son to hear that and I guess that’s why I decided to “take the risk”. Whilst inwardly, it may feel like a massive challenge to “bear your soul” to a room full of people, it’s incredibly important to do it. Young people need to see that LGBT+ people exist; they live, love, study and work with them; LGBT+ people contribute; we share a lot in common. I wish I’d had teachers who were “out” when I was growing up; to have seen that it was “okay to be gay” would have meant an awful lot to me as a confused teenager. I’m looking forward to making LGBT+ lives more visible in my current school and feel heartened by the reactions I’ve received so far.

 

Coming out twice

As LGBT+ people, we are permanently coming out – It’s rarely a one-off. Whenever we meet someone new, there is that potentially awkward moment when you don’t know how they will react if you slip it into conversation. Here’s Jacqueline Collins’ positive story of coming out twice at school. 

Teachers don’t have to share their personal life but I am the type of teacher who doesn’t mind sharing parts of my life – therefore hiding an important part of who I am felt like I was somehow cheating the young people I work with. The first time I came out happened through chance more than planning, however.

On a school trip to London, I had bought a watch for my partner and on showing the other teachers, the beady eyes of my S3 girls clocked this and said ‘Aaaw is that for your girlf…..I mean fiancé? In that split second I made the decision to roll with what she was going to say and said ‘yeah, it’s for my girlfriend’ before quickly moving the conversation on. I noticed a few glances between the girls but no issues. I did however begin to worry about what would happen when we got back to school! Back at school there were no issues and two weeks later the girls very sweetly and discreetly asked ‘did she like her watch?’ I said ‘yes she loved it!’ For a straight teacher this would be no big deal I imagine but it was this acceptance from the girls that a year later gave me the courage to embark on a journey that has been both humbling for me and empowering for our LGBT+ pupils.

I decided to start an LGBT+  allies group and the first lunch-time we did this was my second coming out! In conversation I explained what the group was about and told the pupils who had turned up that my reason for starting this is because I want every young person to feel part of our school community… a feeling that I didn’t have as a gay teacher when I first started my career. This subtle coming out meant that I was no longer looking over my shoulder and worried that a pupil would find out and somehow use my sexuality against me. I owned it and I was proud! From this, I could not be prouder of the pupils and staff at my school! Our LGBT+ pupils feel more accepted and we have empowered our allies to know that they have a significant role to play in this journey. Our LGBT+ allies group run campaigns, fundraise and play a vital role in promoting and celebrating equality and diversity within our school.

Jumping the final hurdle in my own gay journey was scary and not without its challenges. I can honestly say however that my experience has been a positive one. Being able to fully be myself has made me a better teacher and losing that final little bit of ‘gay shame’ has given me the confidence to lead change within my school.

We can never underestimate the power of acceptance but we must never lose sight of the difficulties LGBT+ teachers face. Fear and shame are powerful and at times debilitating emotions that are hard to lose. Without the the support of both the staff and pupils at my school I would not have had the courage to come out. I feel lucky to work where I do because many teachers do not feel able to take this step due to a lack of support. It has taken me a long time but I am proud to be a gay teacher and I am proud to be a role model for young people.

As they navigate the many difficulties in life and through the minefield that is adolescence, it is my hope that they can believe that being LGBT+ is an important part of who they are. But sexuality and gender need not define them and it certainly does not need to hold them back in any way. I teach all young people to be respectful, be proud, be ambitious and be the very best version of themselves that they possibly can be. Doing this with rainbows, I believe, just makes everybody’s world a little more colourful!