Bring your school's values into the 21st century

Daniel Tomlinson-Gray

Daniel is an English teacher and co-founder of LGBTed.

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Image credit: Flickr // jglsongs. Image credit: Flickr // jglsongs.

When training to be a teacher 10 years ago, I was told emphatically that I should not tell students that I’m gay because it would give them “more ammunition”. Comments like this grossly underestimate our young people who, in my experience, are more open-minded and accepting than their parents and many of my former colleagues. Comments like this force teachers and school leaders to let down some of our most vulnerable students by not being a visible role model they can identify with. I believe teachers should lead by example and that’s why, as part of LGBT History Month in February 2017, I finally came out to over 1,000 students in assembly.

No jazz hands, no drama, no hysteria. I simply talked all about how, as a school, we were going to commemorate LGBT History Month and said, “As a gay man, I know how important it is to have positive role models that can support you and tell you it gets better.”

It’s very telling that this was a much bigger deal than I ever imagined. It gained worldwide news coverage, particularly on the BBC, and the response to it has been phenomenal. I have received over 800 emails and messages of support from all over the world, “One man actually sent me a postcard from Texas.”including from former pupils. One man actually went to the trouble to hand-write a postcard, track down my work address and post it all the way from Texas, purely to thank me and say how moved he was. I have since decided to use my profile to make a difference for all the young people who are like I was.

I had a horrific upbringing, and a terrible time at school due to being bullied for being gay before I even knew I was. I had wet toilet roll thrown at me in the changing rooms; I had sandwiches thrown at me from the window of the school bus that I was too terrified to board, and I was pushed around, kicked and punched in corridors. I was called names I didn’t even understand, but I was never without a sassy comeback. My coping mechanism was to fight, to be the best and strongest person I could be, to prove them all wrong. I disrupted the status quo, I was unapologetic and I owned it. I was told by my teachers that “it’s just something I have to deal with”, and my school simply did not know how to deal with it.

These days, with hindsight, I say I was never a victim of homophobic bullying. I was subjected to it on a daily basis, but I was never a victim. I have had the strength of character to overcome it and use it my advantage, but without positive role models, so many other vulnerable children are less fortunate. All young people should feel safe at school and be encouraged to be themselves.

If there is any doubt as to why LGBT+ teachers and leaders need to be authentic in school, the statistics in Stonewall’s 2017 School Report are horrifying:

    • Nearly half of LGBT+ students are bullied at school, and 64% of trans students.
    • Half of LGBT+ students hear homophobic language regularly in school.
    • More than half of LGBT+ students feel that bullying has a negative effect on their education.
    • 61% of LGBT+ young people have self-harmed.
    • 45% of young trans people have attempted to take their own life.
    • Half of them have succeeded.
    • 53% of LGBT+ students say there isn’t an adult at their school they feel they can talk to.

For the sake of the young people that need us, this cannot continue. By having LGBT+ teachers and leaders who are authentic in the classroom, our young people will see it is possible to be successful and happy as an LGBT+ person. They will be reassured that there are other people out there who are different and are OK with it.

Aside from being visible role models, there is lots more that teachers and leaders can do to support our LGBT+ students. You could ask yourself these questions:

How often do you teach about LGBT+ related issues in your school?

In our school, we incorporated LGBT+ plus issues into a range of subjects for LGBT History Month, and the students found it incredibly enlightening. In Maths, they learned the heartbreaking story of Alan Turing. In MFL, they learned all about the ‘secret’ gay language of Polari. In Music, they learned “MFL students learned about the ‘secret’ gay language of Polari.”about some of the most iconic music by LGBT+ artists before learning what they all had in common and discussing it. In Media Studies, they learned about the positive and negative representations of both sexuality and gender in music videos and were surprised by what they saw. In Geography they learned about the huge number of countries that it is simply not safe to visit as an LGBT+ person, where LGBT+ people are tortured and killed simply for who they love. This was contrasted with liberal, welcoming British cities like Brighton, my beautiful home.

What is your school’s punishment for homophobic bullying?

You’d be surprised how many teachers don’t know this when I have asked them. Obviously, all individual cases are different, but if this is not treated equally to racism, we are once again failing young LGBT+ people.

When have you intervened to stop or prevent homophobic bullying or homophobic language?

Homophobic language is often used casually (phrases such as “that’s so gay” are still commonplace) and may be used more out of ignorance than out of malice, but is this being challenged and brought to young people’s attention enough? There are thousands of other words that can be used, but they chose “gay”. What is this saying to all those who are struggling to come to terms with their own sexuality?

When have you missed an opportunity to support an LGBT+ student and what could you have done differently?

This might be the student who hangs around in your doorway and doesn’t quite know how to broach what they want to say to you; it might be the student whose friends dismiss their name-calling as “banter”. When teachers and leaders reflect honestly, I am told about so many examples where they feel they could have done more.

My story is not unique. There are thousands of children who still experience what I did but suffer in silence. Some have since entered the teaching profession, like me, to right these wrongs. A small number are also openly LGBT+. I recently spoke to a teacher who is beginning his first placement as an ‘out’ teacher because of what I have done. This is exactly my message to my LGBT+ colleagues in the profession: Come and join me on a big gay adventure in education, and let’s be the visible role models we needed when we were at school.

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