An Out Gay Primary School Leader? Ain’t That a Private Thing?!!

I qualified as a primary phase class-teacher in 1996, by 2009 I was working as a London based Deputy Headteacher. Prior to 2009, I hid my LGBT+ identity at work on a ‘need to know’ basis. Experiencing sustained homophobia/bullying as a teenager myself and having been educated in the eighties under the toxic shadow of Section 28 resulted in my near suicide, throwing me out of the education system at a time when my focus should have been studying for my finals. After a decade of playing catch up and on entering the teaching profession in 1996, I’d naively hoped to find compassionate and inclusive attitudes prevailing.

Yet, when working in many rural, inner city and faith schools I encountered between young people covert and overt prejudice in the form of homophobic slurs, forced isolation from peer groups and even physical violence. I experienced prejudicial ‘banter’ in staff rooms; stakeholders suspected of being LGBT+ triggered open derision from some staff. In staff-room discussions I I witnessed some education professionals openly labelling students as ‘poofs’ ‘dykes’ or ‘trannies’ the very same words that punctuated my eighties experience of schooling. Sometimes during these discussions I’d observe a colleague bow their head and hurriedly exit the staffroom, either covertly LGBT+ themselves or blessed with LGBT+ friends or family, but feeling disempowered in terms of responding to an ongoing barrage of micro aggressions.

Such moments caused me to (mostly) conceal my authentic identity; I would avoid conversations about ‘what I did at the weekend’ for fear of outing my twelve-year relationship with a man, often referring to my male partner as ‘she’. I would subsequently cry shameful tears, feeling that I’d betrayed my long term partner. Lying took a significant toll on my emotional well-being, sapping away energies that would have enabled better provision for my pupils and better school leadership.

In November 2009 my London primary school undertook bullying questionnaires; the subsequent data revealed 75% of our pupils experienced daily homophobia and use of homophobic language, whether or not they identified as LGBT+. One eight year old said to me ‘I don’t like it when people say ‘that’s so gay’ because my uncle is gay and I really love him’.

I contacted the local authority to ask if training on LGBT+ inclusion was available at primary level, I was told no, due to the potential for negative parental/press reaction. I was also informed by a number of Headteacher colleagues in the borough that packs on LGBT rights/inclusion had been sent through to some schools previously, but the materials (they felt) were ‘too flag wavy’ ‘too political’ or ‘too heavily rooted in LGBT rights’ rather than focusing on the naturally diverse identities, needs and experiences of the young people in their care. The general feeling from colleagues was one of fear or reprisal from individuals and groups within and without the school community.

Finally I called a number of leading LGBT+ training organisations, including Stonewall and enquired if teacher training for primary staff was available. Despite Stonewall taking some early steps into primary schools, once again I was informed that LGBT work at primary was potentially highly controversial and in 2009, must be approached very carefully. Stonewall were however, interested in attending any training my school offered, which indeed they subsequently would.

To me the facts were clear; our school had data proving our children were suffering and to ignore such data would have rendered my duty of care null and void. If was also clear that any training I produced would need to precede work on cultural and organisational change with initial mindful and non-judgemental work around personal beliefs. Every child has a right to an education, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Schools should be inclusive places for all children, learning communities within which they should be to be safe to discover who they really are; prejudice works in direct opposition to this process. Something had to change, within our school, within the education system, but first within myself, for like everyone else, I had my own biases and prejudice to work through, in my case via meditation. We can’t change the hearts and mind of the world until we fix our own.

In the absence of any suitable training I then devised my own, drawing on experiences as a bullied gay kid, class teacher, school leader and a borough wide trainer and school improvement consultant. I also surveyed staff for their initial and long term training needs; interestingly many staff simply wanted guidance on terminology and permission to even speak about the simple fact that LGBT+ people exist, a stark reminder of the scars left by Section 28.

Over Christmas 2009/10 I devised an education training programme Inclusion For All (IFA) to help educators faciliate compassionate LGBT+ inclusion. Terrified (and then without the safety net of a sympathetic OFSTED framework) I first delivered IFA in my own school in January 2010. I am happy to report that the training was well received, revealing the covert prejudice within our school community; it ultimately made it a safer and more inclusive place to learn for all stakeholders. Stonewall, The Department for Education, OFSTED and many other national organsiations came visiting for support in developing their own LGBT+ offers. Southwark Council honoured my training model with an award as I cascaded the approach, firstly through schools in the borough and then across the United Kingdom.

Also in January 2010 assembly I came out to our pupils. Why did I do this you might ask? Why was it relevant? Had our data flagged up issues with racism, a key educational strategy would be to invite in assembly speakers from BAME backgrounds, similarly with faith or disability based bullying. Our specific issue was homophobia; we had a senior school leader who was gay, albeit professionally closeted-me. We therefore already had a potential LGBT+ role model on staff and like my non LGBT+ colleagues I had a right to be authentic at work.

I presented the school bullying data to pupils in assembly, exploring the use of the insult ‘that’s so gay’-how and why this causes hurt. Pupils responded thoughtfully, brainstorming famous LGBT+ public figures they knew from the media, which by the way, was a lot. I put up a slide of famous gay public figures and added a photo of myself. ‘What have all these people got in common?‘ I asked. ‘They are all gay’ came the response, with that the cat was out of the bag. From that day I was authentic at work for the first time, aged forty. Times Educational Supplement immediately came to me for a cover story, telling me I was the only out gay primary school leader they could find who was willing to go public.

How life changing I wonder, might it have been for a generation of young people to have known a proudly LGBT+ teacher, school leader or class-room assistant back in the dark days of the 1980s, when it felt like the only future we faced was a slow death from AIDS? Openly LGBT+ school staff not only have the power to inspire and affirm, but also to enable those harbouring fears to see that, despite all the social, political and theological hype, we are simply human beings who want to love and be loved and make positive contributions to the world. But no LGBT+ educator should be forced out of the closer, for this may leave some staff very vulnerable.

After my assembly children wanted to share. ‘We’re glad you told us you are gay’ said one, ‘some of us who have gay people in our families get laughed when we talk about it- that might change now’. That night I lay awake worrying, what if the Daily Mail came asking; ‘Why would you want to tell primary school children about what goes on in your bedroom’ ‘Why would you tell primary school children about something so private’. Familiar questions for teachers coming out, posed apparently with little sense of the privileges that come with being heterosexual or cisgender. Heterosexual teachers share their authentic selves (it happens in every school I have worked in) and it goes unquestioned it, yet when LGBT+ teachers come out this is deemed a ‘private matter’ or ‘something that belongs in the bedroom,’

LGBT+ humans are no more defined by a sexual act than are heterosexuals; we work, eat, sleep, love, fart and snore just like anyone else. A gay teacher is no more likely to enter into discussion about their own sex life with students, than is a heterosexual teacher accompanied by their spouse to the school Christmas Concert, likely to start blabbing to students about their wedding night- in both cases this would be highly inappropriate! LGBT+ teachers fundamental core sense of self is too often dismissed as something worthy of shame and concealment and ultimately this impacts upon provision.

I still hear from young people who were in that school hall back in 2010, some tell me they already knew they were LGBT+ (yes at primary school) some actually tell me that my story made them feel that they were worth something. I am privileged to hear from LGBT+ teachers around the world who came out as a result of my own journey- something I could never have anticipated. Parents too have taken the time to thank me for opening up dialogue within family homes when parents suspect their child to be LGBT+. Respect and gratitude to you all; be kind, be safe, be proud, be you.

Stonewall report that almost half of all LGBT pupils still face bullying at school, this is just one reason why I continue to speak about the need for compassionate LGBT+ inclusion in schools, businesses, governments and at teacher training faculties around the world. I do it for the kids, because all naturally diverse children and young people deserve an education and to feel validated and included in our schools and communities, not just some. LGBT+ staff, parents/carers have a right to feel safe too.

Since 2009 my LGBT+ advocacy has won multiple awards, featured on television, been recommended by the DFE, OFSTED, Amnesty and the Church of England and reached over 65,000 education professionals in the UK alone; yet the societal, governmental and social media context in which I currently deliver talks/training has shifted over the last three years to a noticeably more hostile and toxic one. An increasing number of well strategized/funded attacks on LGBT+ inclusion in education (in particular on Transgender and Non-Binary people) threatens to drag us back to the dark days of Section 28. Attacks on those advocating for inclusive education are becoming more common. If I had a quid for everytime someone calls me a paedophile online, purely for being an out gay man working in edcuation, I would have my own helicopter. I have exprienced online hate and threats for ten years now, I’ve heard it all before and it’s excruciatingly dull and boring. I can’t even be arsed to be offended anymore quite honestly.

LGBT+ inclusive education has come a long way since 2009; for the sake of our naturally diverse children we must ensure it does not get dragged backwards by those with fear, hate and prejudice in their hearts; we all must stand up, be counted and visible and take action; now more than ever, we need allies.

LGBT+ inclusion in education is merely that, education and information about what and who LGBT+ human beings are, it is not, as some of the detractors outside Parkfield and other schools in Birmingham last year claimed, an attempt to ‘recruit’ or ‘turn’ children into LGBT+ people. Nature and our parents make LGBT+ people, we don’t need to go out on a recruitment drive with loudhailers, knocking on doors with copies of the gay press thank you very much. We emerge naturally, just like other natural variations of flora, fauna, animals and humanity.

Praise be for that.

However much we are discriminated against, or attempts are made to silence us or wipe us out, we are still here and always will be.

Authentic identity should never be a privilege for the heterosexual or cisgender masses; we carry on with hope in our hearts, the battle for rights, freedoms and equality is very real and only by standing cohesively with one another and with our allies can we enable a safer and more accepting future.

First published Huffington Post 2017 reviewed 2020

Shaun Dellenty is the author of ‘Celebrating Difference- A Whole School Approach to LGBT+ Inclusion’ available on I Tunes and Amazon World-wide. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Celebrating-Difference-Shaun-Dellenty/dp/1472961501

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