Coming Out Day-Coming Out as a Gay Primary School Leader? Ain’t That a Private Thing?!

I qualified as a primary phase class-teacher in 1996 and 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. A double whammy of sustained homophobic bullying and being educated in the 1980s under the toxic shadow of Section 28 resulted in my near suicide, throwing me out of the education system just when my focus should have been studying for my all important finals. After a decade of dealing with PTSD, I sought support and finally was able to play exam catch up. On finally entering the teaching profession in 1996, I’d naively hoped to find greater awareness about natural human diversity and more compassionate and inclusive attitudes prevailing in schools as a professional.

Yet, in my initial supply work across a range of 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 prejudice related physical violence. I also experienced prejudicial ‘banter’ in staff rooms; young people, parents/carers and staff suspected of being often LGBT+ triggered open derision from some staff and elicited crude stereotyping. In staff-room discussions 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, perhaps 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.

Just as in my own class-rooms back in the 1980s, I saw vulnerable young and emergent LGBT+ people attempt to report LGBT+ bullying and name-calling, either to be ignored or made to feel that they somehow shouldered the blame for not being ‘manly’ or ‘girly’ enough.

Such moments caused me to (mostly) conceal my authentic identity at work, 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 often cry shameful tears in staff toilets, feeling that I’d betrayed my long term partner. Lying and inauthenticity on a daily basis took a significant toll on my emotional and physical well-being, sapping away precious energies that would have been better used enabling high quality provision for my pupils.

In November 2009 (now a deputy head) my London primary school undertook bullying questionnaires; the subsequent data revealed 75% of our primary pupils experienced covert daily homophobia and the 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.’ Yet there were no open conversations in our school about LGBT+ lives, histories, experiences or scocietal contributions.

LGBT+ was never mentioned during my initial teacher training, special needs barely warranted mention- I am certainly not alone in this experience, although I do now train many initial teacher training providers on the subject.

Faced with hard evidence that our pupils were suffering, I contacted our London local authority to ascertain whether training on LGBT+ inclusion was available at primary level, I was told not, due to the potential for negative parental/press reaction. They informed me that a previous attempt to offer LGBT training in the borough had been unpopular with some Heads and had created further distance, rather than building confidence and bridges. I was also informed by a number of Headteachers 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 an LGBT agenda’ 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.

It seemed our much needed teacher training was not coming from the local authority.

Finally I called a number of national LGBT+ training organisations, including Stonewall and enquired if teacher training for primary staff was available. Despite Stonewall taking some early steps into primary schools, again I was informed that LGBT work at primary was potentially highly controversial and in 2009, must be approached 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 it would have rendered my duty of care null and void. But as a leadership team we were nervous about working on anything LGBT+ at primary phase, especially as many staff seemed to be under the impression it was still illegal, despite the repeal of Section 28 in 2003.

Yet a specific problem with homophobia, like racism (or any other kind of problem) requires specific action to prevent it.

It seeemed it was up to me to write some training as school training lead.

I felt strongly that any training offer I produced would need to precede work on cultural and organisational change with initial mindful and non-judgemental work around personal reflection, change, identity, heritage, bias, prejudice and beliefs. Every child has a right to an education, regardless of sexual orientation, intersex 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 authentically 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, mine needed some adjustment, particularly in light of my (then) limited explosure to transgender, non-binary and intersex identities.

To devise my training offer, I drew on my experiences as a bullied gay kid, class teacher, school leader and a borough wide trainer and school improvement consultant. I surveyed stakeholders 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.

We undertook further attitudinal surveys and auditing to gauge current positions more clearly.

Over Christmas 2009/10 I devised an education training programme Inclusion For All (IFA) to help schools and initial teacher training faculties faciliate compassionate LGBT+ inclusion. Fearful (and without the safety net of a sympathetic OFSTED framework) I first delivered IFA in my own school in January 2010. The training was very well received, gently and safely revealing the covert prejudice within our school community; running over a year initially, it ultimately made school a safer, more authentic and inclusive place to learn for all stakeholders. Stonewall, The Department for Education, OFSTED, Show Racism The Red Card, NSPCC, Church of England and many other national organsiations came calling for support in developing their own LGBT+ offers, which I was very happy to do, the local authority honoured my training model with an award in 2012 as I cascaded the approach, firstly through schools in the borough and then right out across the United Kingdom and ultimately in countries ranging from Isle Of Man to India and from Hungary to Canada.

Also in January 2010 assembly I came out to our pupils in assembly. Why did I do this you might ask? Why was it relevant? Had our data flagged up issues with ableism or racism, a key strategy would be to invite speakers in from POC/disabled backgrounds and increase visible representation. Our specific issue was homophobia, yet we already had a senior school leader who was gay, albeit professionally closeted. We had a potential LGBT+ role model on staff and like my non LGBT+ colleagues I had a right to be authentic at work, just like everyone else.

I presented the school bullying data back to pupils in assembly, exploring the use of the insult ‘that’s so gay’-how and why this causes hurt. Pupils responded very thoughtfully, brainstorming famous LGBT+ public figures they knew from the media, which by the way, was a lot.

Primary children are usually far more aware of LGBT+ identities than adults give them credit for.

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 and with that my cat was out of the bag. From that day I was fully authentic at work for the first time, aged forty. I soon found myself in a dizzying whirl of national and international media interviews, all because I was simply honest about who I actually am and that bullying is wrong.

It wasn’t a ‘private’ thing, I wasn’t talking about what my husband and we might or might not do in bed, but merely the simple fact that I have a husband, not a wife. Just like some of the relatives of our children, staff and parents/carers.

The Times Educational Supplement contacted me for a lead story, telling me I was the only out gay primary school leader (at that time) they could find who was willing to go public. I was soon labelled ‘That Gay Teacher’ which one day might be the title of my memoir!

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. However no LGBT+ educator should be forced out of the closet before they are ready, for this may leave them vulnerable.

Coming out in the media as a male gay primary school leader resullted in very many kind and supportive messages, but it also resulted (and still results) in online far right attention, hate, threats and endlessley and endlessly being called a ‘groomer’ or ‘paedophile’ simply for wanting all, not some school stakeholders to succeed.

After my ‘coming out’ assembly some of our pupils 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 (heteronormativity exist 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.’ Coming out as LGBT+ does not involve talking about sex, yet bafflingly it is so often the first port or call for questions directed to us by non LGBT+ people.

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 perfomance and 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) and some 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 or family member to be LGBT+. A few years ago I was informed of an HIV project in Africa inspired by my work and very recently one of the younger founders of Extinction Rebellion wrote to me to thank me for inspiring them to take direct action to better our world for everyone. These moments are hugely humbling.

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.

It is worth stating that I have never sought to do what I do because of human rights or equality legislation, for me the moral rationale transcends governments, legislation and education secretaries; it is about respect, dignity, kindess, compassion and edcuational equality and equity.

The Government green paper ‘Transforming Children and Young Peoples Mental Health Provision’ published in December 2017 stated that ‘LGBT young of all ages are more likely to experience poor mental health than heterosexuals which indicates that LGBT children and young people have particular support needs. LGBT young people were found to be at higher risk of mental disorder, suidical thoughts, sustance misuse and self-harm than heterosexuals.’

This is not as a result of being born LGBT+ this is as a result of being born LGBT+ and being rejected by society, familes, schools, govenments, faiths and societies. It is cruel and it is wrong and it is why, eleven years later, I am still out delivering training and speaking out, increasingly overseas.

My approach has now been personally delivered to over 70,000 educational professionals in the UK alone and it has been a joy to invite so many colleagues, young people, parents/carers and learning communities on what is often a very emotional but vital and potentially lifesaving journey.

Since 2009 my LGBT+ advocacy has won multiple awards, been recommended by the DFE, OFSTED, Amnesty the Church of England and in 2016 the Prime Minister. Last year my first book ‘Celebrating Difference- A Whole School Approach to LGBT+ Inclusion’ (Bloomsbury) was published, capturing my training strategy for the first time and telling in the first chapter the story of a gay kid that was made to feel worthless. The book is on Amazon and I Tunes worldwide.

The U.K. context in which I deliver talks/training has shifted over the last three years to a strikingly 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 pound 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 experienced online hate and threats for years now, in my 52 years on Earth I’ve heard it all before and it’s excruciatingly dull and boring. To be honest I can’t even be bothered to be offended anymore.

LGBT+ inclusive education has come a long way since 2009, now thankfully many more training providers exist, yes even in primary schools. Many hard working and committed individuals and organisations work hard to make learning communities safer, kinder and more inclusive. Many more LGBT+ edcuation professionals rightly expect to be authentic in the workplace and thankfully trade unions and many school leaders support them to do so. Recently sex and relationships education has become statutory.

Despite this, I do fear for the future of LGBT+ education in this country and further ahead for our human rights and equality legislation. Wherever we are now, we must never take it for granted and we must be prepared to speak up and take democratic action as was the case under Section 28.

For the sake of our naturally diverse children we must ensure that LGBT+ inclusion in schools does not get dragged backwards by those in and out of government 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.

I have had some humbling things said about my work over the past eleven years, I’ve even been splattered across buses and the London Transport network and called a ‘hero.’ But this is not work for heroes, it is surely and simply a collective responsibility for all of us who make the choice to enter edcuation as a professional. The choice is this: do you care about some children and young people/staff/parents/cares or all children and young people/staff/parents/carers?

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. I don’t even know how that could happen anyway! 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.

Joy and gratitude for that.

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

Authentic identity and safe an inclusive education 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 present and real. Only by standing cohesively with one another and with our allies can we enable a safer and more accepting future.

Am I glad I told a roomful of primary school children I am gay back in 2009?

Yes I am and so it would seem, were they. It is a privilege and honour to serve.

Happy National Coming Out Day- be safe, be kind, be proud, be authetically YOU.

First published Huffington Post 2017 reviewed 2020

To book online/live school or initial teacher training bookings@shaundellenty.com

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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