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.

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.