The Soft Subject

Chris Woodley tells of his experiences as a gay teenager at school and as an openly gay teacher at work in his new self-penned Edinburgh Fringe Festival play. 

 

I came out at fourteen years old. Having been blessed with forward thinking parents, my greatest battle was at school. I was educated in Bromley during the eighties and nineties when homosexuality was banned from discussion in schools. This was due to Margaret Thatcher introducing Section 28, which prevented teachers promoting homosexuality as something equal to a heterosexual relationship. This left me with a constant battle. The battle was daily. It was school. Five years in an all-boys school. Possibly the worst five years of my life. I was spat at, sworn at, shoved around, belittled, bullied and abused on a regular basis, like so many others. The school did very little.

 

Having studied theatre and then education, in 2005, two years after Section 28 was repealed, I went back to Bromley to work as a Drama Teacher in a secondary school. This time I was to be the teacher in the classroom, not the student. I was the only openly gay teacher at my school. Within a year, I witnessed the impact being out made to my life and also that of the students. More gay students came out in school, I directed plays on sexuality, I challenged homophobic bullying – I felt empowered. The road was not always easy but I knew it was about visibility and promoting dialogue. Theatre prompted discussion; discussion prompted change.

 

The idea of writing Next Lesson came to me in 2009 when working as a teacher in Cambridge, where I was itching to write and act again. I was fascinated by how much had changed for gay students in schools since I was a teenager and I questioned how comfortable teachers in schools today are when discussing sexuality, following Section 28.

 

I felt so strongly that in 2012 I quit my job and moved back to London to write my first full length play Next Lesson. The play explores the all too human consequences that Section 28 had for a South London school community – its staff, its students and their parents. The show has since gone on to have a sold out run in London and a staged reading in New York.

 

This August I will be taking my second show The Soft Subject (A Love Story) to The Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The show is an autobiographical love story about teaching drama, heartbreak and The Little Mermaid. As part of the show I teach a lesson about falling in love, my experiences of working as an out and openly gay teacher. Think chick-flick meets stand-up comedy meets Disney with a Spice Girls soundtrack. As always, I will continue to be an out and proud teacher.

 

The Soft Subject (A Love Story) will be on at Assembly Hall, Baillie Room, Mound Place, Edinburgh, EH1 2LU at 4.25pm 3rd – 28th August. Please find more details at https://www.assemblyfestival.com/whats-on/the-soft-subject-a-love-story/book-now @HyphenTC @AssemblyFest @ImChrisWoodley #TheSoftSubject

 

Please visit our friends at Schools Out

Our friends at Schools Out (founders of LGBT History Month) do amazing work!

This includes providing both a formal and informal support network for all people who want to raise the issue of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and heterosexism in education; campaigning on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans issues as they affect education; researching, debating and stimulating curriculum development on LGBT issues; working towards unison between teacher and lecturer unions and other professional stakeholders in education, and promoting equality, safety and visibility in education for LGBT people and all the protected characteristics.

Once you’ve finished here, please check out their pages:

http://www.schools-out.org.uk

http://the-classroom.org.uk/

The Careful Poet: My experience as a transgender pre-service teacher

Being a pre-service teacher is rewarding but never easy; being a transgender pre-service teacher adds another dimension to the challenge. While the students can stare in confusion and be understood, it’s the cooperating teacher who can show blatant disrespect and discrimination without any repercussions. This video shares the story of my first time teaching as an out transmasculine person, and how that experience has affected my confidence as an education student and my attitude toward how teachers should be protecting their LGBTQ+ students.

When it becomes just ordinary

I’m not the first out teacher at my school, and I’m unlikely to be the last, but on this sweltering

classroom day in June something profound happened that was so small that it bowled me over with

hope and happiness.

 

I’ve been teaching for 7 years now and I always wanted to help students realise

that they aren’t ‘wired’ or ‘freaks’ when it came to their sexual orientation. I made a promise to

myself that I wouldn’t go in all parade floats and glitter cannons, although the latter is always a good

announcer, but I would not lie if a student out right asked me if I was gay, or married to a man.

 

Let’s set the scene. Geography individual projects on the Middle East. Starting the lesson with a

recap on how to structure an investigative report to my Year 9 class. General side track conversation

at the end of the starter refresh on the classes weekend and mine. Was asked about mine and I was

answering when one of the students piped up,

“You’re married sir?”

How he’s noticed only now after 2 years of teaching him I don’t know, but I answered.

“Yes, I am.”

“So, there’s a Mrs’?”

Without missing a beat, I reply “Nope.”

Another student replies, along with many of the students nodding, “Oh can we meet him?”

“Maybe.” I reply, releasing that I’ve just come out to my class and they just deemed it as nothing out

of the ordinary and that being married can be to either gender and it’s nothing ‘strange’ in that.

That moment gave me in that small passing conversation, the hope that this world, that can

sometimes dwell on the negative, has made progress and that we don’t always see that till it

becomes ordinary.

 

Jonny Dobbs-Grove

Why, after nine years, I finally came out to my students.

This article tells the story of Daniel Gray, a teacher from South London in the UK, who came out to all of his students. Follow Daniel on Twitter at @thatgayteacher

I’ve done it. After nine years of teaching, I finally came out to my students. It shouldn’t be a big deal in this day and age but, unfortunately, it still is.

When I was a pupil myself, at a secondary school in Basingstoke in the Nineties, I had a horrible time. I was subjected to the most horrendous bullying on an almost-daily basis, from knuckle-scraping Neanderthal boys. This was before I even knew I was gay – they all seemed to know something I didn’t, and delighted in making my life hell. When it was raised with a teacher, during the time of Clause 28, I was told that, “it’s just something we have to put up with”.

I decided to become a teacher to right a few wrongs, to give young people the opportunities I didn’t have; to make them feel safe, respected and secure.

It took a long time, however, to be fully honest about who I am – partly because I was warned categorically in my training year never to come out.

“Don’t give the pupils any ammunition,” I was told. In hindsight, isn’t this kind of comment doing young people a disservice?

When a new head teacher arrived at my current school, I decided to broach the idea of commemorating LGBT History Month. He was all for it.

I wanted to increase visibility of LGBT+ people and issues in our school and “normalise” it. So now, all subjects being taught to all pupils will include LGBT+ issues for one lesson this month. In geography, students are being taught about LGBT+ safe spaces and why some cities have a higher queer population than others. In languages, students are being taught about Polari, while in maths they are learning about Alan Turing and his struggles and how these led to his suicide.

As part of this range of events, I thought it would be a good idea to come out to pupils in an assembly. It’s something I have wanted to do for some time — the final frontier, perhaps.

I hoped it would build an open and positive relationship with students. If we are going to increase visibility and acceptance of the LGBT+ community, then we must start with ourselves as role models.

I thought about how it would have helped me to have an LGBT+ figure to look up to and decided to go for it. While discussing all the things we are doing, I said: “As a gay man, I know how important it is to have positive role models.” No drama, no jazz hands. Done.

At first, most people didn’t react at all. Some shrugged, others smiled. I had felt nervous, anxious and sweaty beforehand, but so relieved afterwards. A few minutes later, one student, who I have never taught, came up to me and said, “Sir, your assembly just changed my life.” Then they walked away, not wanting to cause a scene.

That’s why I did it, right there. I know now I’ve probably made a difference to at least one life for ever and we can’t put a price on that. No amount of backlash – which so far has been minimal – can take that way.

Having taken nine years to pluck up the courage, I understand why most LGBT teachers don’t come out. But I would encourage all of them to do it for the sake of all those young people who need us. Maybe then it’ll stop being a big deal and will no longer make the news. It’ll finally just be accepted as part of life.

Here’s the link to the original BBC News article by Jennifer Scott: click

 

“Miss, are you gay?”

This blog was originally posted on http://thegutsygay.com/ in two parts – one and two. Follow TheGustyGay on twitter, instagram and Facebook. This article was also posted on TES.

The title of this blog is a question I dreaded being asked as a 22 year old teacher at the beginning of my career.  I was worried that being open about my sexuality would be frowned upon by other staff members or that being honest with students may lead to them not respecting me.  I had thought about what I would say if the question arose; “I would rather not talk about my private life”, “I am not sure how this is relevant to the lesson” or simply “no”.  Surely not “no”; that would be denying who I was, suggesting a sense of shame.  At this stage in my career I gave very little thought to discussing my sexuality with students, it wasn’t on my radar.  I lacked confidence, I needed to establish myself and I wanted nothing to jeopardise my credibility.

One day the dreaded question was asked: “Miss, I’ve heard a rumour you are gay”.  I panicked, I didn’t think, words just came out of my mouth, “I don’t know where you heard that, it isn’t true”.  Instantly I regretted it, it felt wrong.  Why had I denied it?  Who was I trying to protect?  Myself?  What was I so scared of?   My response to this question has regularly played on my mind since.  Seven years on, I still think of how I responded and I regret it wholeheartedly.  Young people deserve honesty and they require role models who are proud of who they are. I do not advocate teachers sharing too much with students about their private lives as there have to be clear boundaries.  However, my lie and denial did not send the correct message; it suggested a lack of pride in who I am.

In the four and a half years that I have been with my wife she has always been open regarding her relationship with me.  Previously, she had only been in relationships with men and, in every circumstance, has tackled questions about her ‘partner’ head on.  This is something I truly admire; her response normalises our relationship rather than hides it.  Not once has her honesty been met with anything other than support and acceptance.  Seeing her approach showed me that honesty was the best way to tackle questions regarding sexuality.  This was something I knew before but was not confident enough to follow through with. Whilst I have never been directly asked the exact question since, there have been opportunities for me to discuss my sexual orientation which I have not shied away from.

I did not deal with this question well in the early stages of my career.  Actually, I dealt with it appallingly.  I denied my sexuality and set a precedent for how I may tackle similar questions in the future.

Fast forward a few years and at no other time has a student asked me explicitly about my sexual orientation.  However, there have been circumstances where I have been able to discuss my partner with students, both past and present.  The most notable time was on last year’s ski trip in Italy.  Another teacher and I were talking one night with two students.  My colleague was talking about her boyfriend and one of the students said to me ‘Miss, are you with anybody?’.  I was able to confidently say, “Yes, well actually I am married”.  The conversation continued and I disclosed that I was married to a woman.  It was as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders; it felt great to talk about my sexuality.  It was exactly how I wanted it to happen: natural and met with complete acceptance, as I should have assumed it would have been.

I wouldn’t say I am openly out with students; it isn’t something I feel the need to declare.  It is not something I feel the need to talk about freely, in the same way I wouldn’t expect any professional teacher to talk openly about their private life.   I have been questioning the need that people in the LGBT community have to come out and tell people about their sexuality, especially since watching the film ‘Jenny’s Wedding’ that I have previously blogged about.  In a truly equal society there should be no greater need for me to announce my sexuality anymore than my heterosexual neighbour.

What do you think about TheGutsyGay’s story? We’d love your comments.

So did you take your wife’s name, or did she take yours?

Picture of Brie Jessen-Vaughanby Brie Jessen-Vaughan (@DanceWellNZ), a middle school teacher from Wellington, New Zealand
It’s the start of lunch and I’m chatting with a group of students. I’m not even sure how we got to this point, but I don’t mind. I’ve been out at school now for 3 years. That’s half my teaching career. (The answer, by the way, is neither; we went for the double-barrelled version).
I got married (well, had a civil union – at the time the only option in New Zealand) the summer before I started teaching. I spent the first couple of years talking about my ‘partner’ and never really confirming or denying any leading questions. I was out to the staff at my school, but I wasn’t openly out to my students. I wasn’t sure how parents might respond, and I justified myself with the fact that it wasn’t really any of the students’ business.
But when my wife became pregnant with our son, I realised that something had to change or I’d be hiding a huge part of my life. To be honest, it’s pretty hard NOT to be out when you’re having a baby, but you are not the one who’s pregnant (also a little confusing for some students). So I told my class, and they were excited, but they didn’t even blink when I mentioned my wife. It was the biggest non-event. And you know what? It IS the biggest non-event, that I’m married to a woman. There are so many different ways to be a family, and we’re just one among many.
You could argue then, well why does it matter to be out at school if it’s a non-event? But it’s kind of like arguing why do we need male teachers when we have plenty of female ones? It’s not a question of necessity, but rather representation. Students need to see diverse role models, of all kinds, different genders, ethnicities, abilities, interests, and sexual orientations. But what they need above all, is to see the person behind a label.
For most of my students, my being out at school doesn’t matter to them personally. But for some students, it might. Maybe not right now, but maybe one day. When I became openly out at school, I showed my students that I trusted them. That I trusted them with a part of who I was and my classroom is richer because of it. Just last week we took a trip to visit parliament, and sitting outside the parliament buildings, we were talking about the different parts of parliament and the roles of the government. We were learning about how laws are passed and I mentioned the marriage equality law. I talked about being able to make a submission to the government, sharing my views on how this would affect me, and explained to my students how that law subsequently did affect me and my family. It was eye-opening for them, but also so much more real to hear a first hand story. They hadn’t realised that less than 4 years ago, I hadn’t been legally allowed to get married to the woman I loved.
Last year we had  a group of students calling things and people ‘gay’ as in dumb. I could have told the students off for using it, but instead I used my own identity to help them understand the effect that it has when you give the word a negative connotation. It was a teachable moment, made all the more real because they suddenly understood what they were saying about someone they actually knew. It’s not all serious though, there have been some hilarious moments, like overhearing a discussion between some students at lunchtime about how they took DNA from me and from my wife to create our son (not yet possible guys!) or when students have realised that I am married to a woman.
brie2
When I mentioned to a colleague that I was writing this article, she pointed out that I don’t look like the typical lesbian and sometimes that challenges students. I hadn’t really thought about it, but she’s right in a lot of ways. Some students do hold a pre-conceived idea of what a lesbian looks like, and I don’t really fit into that mould. And I think that’s a really good thing; too often we hold tightly to stereotypes and try to box people in, and when you meet me, with my long hair, high heels, and love of ballet, you might not pick that I’m married to a woman, and so when you learn that, some people are challenged. But it’s good. We all need a challenge.
Mostly though my students, their parents and staff have been nothing but supportive. I’m a quiet person, but I do believe that I need to set the example. I want my students to feel safe in sharing of themselves and the things that they love, that make them excited about life, so I need to do the same, and my family is such a huge part of who I am. When I talked to my syndicate leader, Louise, about this she said the most important thing about my being out is that “you show care for your partner, and the fact that it’s a wife, not a husband doesn’t even matter. I like how it’s just who you are, not a big deal, and that’s what you share with the kids.” There are so many ways of being in this world, and the more students are exposed to them, the richer their lives will be, and the more open to new experiences they will be.

Schools need to create an environment to help LGBT teachers come out, writes @russellhobby for @tes

School leaders need to support their LGBT staff if they decide to be open, including backing them if parents decide to complain, writes the leader of a heads’ union

Reviewing Stonewall’s latest list of the 100 best employers for lesbian, gay and bisexual staffrecently, I was struck by the fact that although there were a few local authorities and universities, there was no academy chain or federation of schools included.

This led me to think on about the experiences of teachers and school leaders who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), and the challenges that this throws up for our members, as individuals and as employers.

I’m fully aware that many LGBT people don’t feel able to be open about their sexual orientation at work for fear of discrimination, bullying or harassment, and that the issue is even more difficult in schools where concerns about the response of pupils and parents can deter staff from being open.

Read the rest of the article on TES – https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/heads-must-have-courage-their-convictions-resist-external-pressures

Homophobic bullying still a problem for LGBT teachers | @NASUWT

LGBT teachers from across the country gathered in Birmingham for the NASUWT’s LGBT Consultation Conference to discuss the challenges facing them as teachers, the impact of the Government’s policies on children and young people and to engage in professional development workshops.

The Conference heard that:

  • more than 60% of LGBT teachers said they have experienced discrimination on the basis of their sexual identity in the course of their teaching careers;
  • over three quarters of LGBT teachers said they had experienced bullying and harassment during their teaching careers;
  • 60% of LGBT teachers said their school has no policy which explicitly opposes homophobia, biphobia and transphobia;
  • two thirds of LGBT teachers said it was not safe for LGBT teachers to be out at work.

Read more

See more about NASUWT’s work for their LGBTI members.

Mr Cargill, the teacher (who is gay) | @chicargill

This story originally appeared on Jerome Cargill’s blog – find him at @chicargill

Earlier this week a story aired about me on Seven Sharp, a current affairs news programme in New Zealand. It profiled me as a gay teacher working with colleagues that are also open about their sexualities and how we are supporting students with their own identities. This story is a checkpoint – not a journey or a destination. It captures that a lot of work has gone into where we have arrived, but also it is clear that there is much more work to do.

My own journey started a long way away from how I was presented in this piece. I may have come out as a 18 year old to positive responses and plenty of support, but at Teacher’s College I was knocked back. One doesn’t come out once. Every time I meet a new person I’m faced with a choice: do I say something that reveals my sexuality? Sometimes I don’t because of safety or because I don’t feel it’s worth it. But most of the time it comes up naturally enough and it’s hardly a problem. When training to be a teacher, I was faced with this decision on an entirely different level in deciding how to come out in a classroom.

As an training teacher I chose to focus on my practice and not get caught up by this. I chose not to lie, but to avoid (something that I now acknowledge is actually another form of lying). In one particular class I was being observed teaching I made a comment, or maybe a gesture, which lead to my associate teacher pulling me aside and angrily denouncing how I had flaunted my sexuality in front of the class. I was told I was being deliberately provocative and my personal life was none of the students’ business.

While this incident could have inspired me to resist such oppression and vow to never let someone stop me from being who I am, it actually did the opposite. I shrunk as a result; I hid. I entered my first teaching job with no intention of coming out – but kept telling myself I wouldn’t be lying because I just wouldn’t be addressing it.

And then I found my inspirational colleagues. They were out and proud and students knew this. Once they knew about me I began building back that confidence and gaining more strength to let me be me. This was complex given the first few years of teaching for anyone are extremely challenging as to be effective a lot of skills need to be mastered in a very short space of time.

I mr cargilllearnt about ‘othering’. When I applied for leave for the North American Out Games in Vancouver, I wrote my leave request letter to the Board of Trustees and intended to talk to the student representative about what they were going to learn about me. My colleague pointed out that outing myself to that student for that purpose was emphasising a difference that denormalised my sexuality; I was ‘othering’ my identity and making it less valid.

When I became a Dean, a student in my cohort came out to me. I don’t know whether he sensed an ally, or whether I was just in the right place at the right time, but this triggered a tidal wave of action that led to the Seven Sharp story. Some students knew, but while I was talking about diversity issues in class, I wasn’t openly discussing how they affected me. Some students clearly knew, but I hadn’t created environments where they felt like they could talk about it with me. I was still vulnerable and this had to change.

With the support of my colleagues we formally established a diversity group that met once a week with students identified through our supportive Guidance Counselor. We were small at first, but the opportunity for the students to discuss the issues they were facing together without stigmas was invaluable. Many of those students faced complex issues including not being safe at home, bullying from peers, navigating their churches as well as the difficult journey of coming to terms with their identity and being a teenager.

The next critical step was to advertise. I stepped on stage for a school assembly with my colleague, Kirsty, and we presented a message that affirmed every student’s identity. We used pictures of celebrities the students knew and told them that LGBTI+ people are all over the world, in their communities, maybe in their families, that they are in this school and “two of them are bringing this message to you today”.

This was a personally a huge step for me as I finally shook the demons that had forced me to put a foot back into the closet. It felt unbelievably liberating, like I had busted through a wall that intolerance had built, but that I had been partly responsible for.

The next phase happened very quickly. The numbers in our support group grew. The conversations in the student body about these issues became more frequent and more normalised. I joined the PPTA Rainbow Taskforce, and have begun delivering whole staff professional development sessions to schools around New Zealand on creating safe environments for all students. I also became an Executive Advisor for InsideOUT, who are a group of inspiring young people responsible for projects big and small that contribute to making Aotearoa a safer place for young people of all sexual orientations and genders. I started Rainbow Teachers NZto promote discussions and share stories. I also had the opportunity to present all this work at ILGA Oceania Human Rights Conference.

The Seven Sharp story arose when TVNZ reporter Hadyn Jonescontacted me after his story on Robbie Manson, a gay rower, got such a positive response. He emailed me with a pertinent question:

Where are all the gay teachers? Basic maths would suggest there must be hundreds if not thousands out there but I have never heard from one.  I’m guessing they must be a real beacon and example to teenagers grappling with their sexuality (as if the teenage years weren’t baffling enough). I could understand hesitancy in some of the conservative schools around New Zealand but it’s 2016 and it’s time.

The wheels began turning and the story became a reality. But it is only a checkpoint. The story acknowledges there is so much more to do because this is not representative of most New Zealand schools. In fact, there is a lot not said in the story that I feel is important:

  1. Lesbian and gay exclusively is not diversity. Bisexual, trans*, intersex and others face similar, and often worse, struggles in our schools.
  2. Supporting LGBTI+ students is not the responsibility exclusively of LGBTI+ teachers. All teachers should be teachers of diversity, and all teachers need to come out in support of every single LGBTI+ student.
  3. Where I am today would not be possible without the strength and mana of Kirsty Farrant, David Pegram and so many other teachers and campaigners before me. I am so privileged to be working in the position I am today because of these people.

And finally, the way the story was handled by the presenters, Mike Hoskings and Toni Street, just emphasised how important this work is. Hoskings comments that inferred gay teachers have an association with deviant and sexually inappropriate behaviour was wildly off the point. It potentially did harm by undermining the messages of the story.

My hope is that this story is seen by students and staff across New Zealand, and that we can start making genuine change. There are so many positive pockets of best practice. But it’s time that this best practice becomes the norm. The policies that sit in behind what schools do need to ensure that LGBTI+ students are supported for the good of all students. Only then can we turn around the embarrassing statistics that simply show what we are doing at the moment is just not good enough.