Growing up Gay (or Gay Maths)

There a lot of anger surrounding an article by Melanie Phillips swirling around on twitter.

I’m approaching this issue as

1) An ex-secondary school teacher.

2) A full time homosexual. (C’mon Ben, you were doing so well at being serious)

Every year as part of LGBT history month teachers are encouraged to take up the option of including LGBT examples in their teaching. It’s not a full one hour lesson in “Being Gay” or “promoting homosexuality”. (During teacher training a number of other teachers who happened to be gay used to joke we should set up our own Theatre In Education Company that would go around finding clever and funny ways to “promote homosexuality”.)

In the same way that maths books, pieces of theatre chosen by drama teachers and books taught in English are regularly reviewed I feel it’s important that LGBT History Month and Black History Month are allowed to inspire teachers to think about the ways in which they teach.

It’s finding little ways to be inclusive, diverse and welcoming. When teaching my theatre studies groups I would make a conscious decision to say “the person who looks after you” rather than “parents” because not everyone in my class was looked after by their parents. Our notion of family has changed since the 1950’s.  There’s a beautiful rainbow of expressions of the family unit happening in a multitude of places.

In the same spirit in my drama lessons I’d use Brecht, Shakespeare, Auden, Annie Lennox, nightmares, gossip and Harry Potter as jumping off points for curriculum. In the year 7 curriculum of work that used Harry Potter as it’s stimulus the Teacher In Role would be a single, dusty but delightful Muggle Studies teacher- Gervirus Synge. Cloak, wand and a fruity Radio 4 voice and the year 7 students would be at Hogwarts in seconds.

I wanted to be the drama teacher that I’d seen growing up in Wiltshire. I wanted to be as good as Mr Collins, Miss Surgey and Miss Coates. They nurtured me through my “dissatisfied young man” phase (as Sally Coates put it in a note after watching me rehearse Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. No change from there to now really). They’d always encouraged us to seek out the subtle shades, the grey areas and to question.

Having spoken to Mr Collins many years after graduating the not-so-secret subject of me being gay came up. Apparently a small group of teachers at school were concerned about me and wanted to approach me about bullying I’d had for being gay. Thinking back to 16 year old me, I would have freaked out if they’d tried to start a conversation about my sexuality. I wasn’t ready to talk about it, wouldn’t be ready to talk about it till I was 18. I would, however, have taken comfort if at some point a teacher, a voice of authority, had said “… and there’s loving relationships where two men or two women are together”. I wouldn’t have felt as alone in the universe as I did at that point.

A couple of years ago I did a talk at my old school around the issue of homophobic bullying as there’d been an incident of criminal damage to the property of a lesbian couple in the town I’d grown up in. (Calne, Wiltshire in case you’re wondering) I contacted the school full of righteous anger saying someone should do a talk about the impact of homophobic bullying and the school had a duty of care to the students to point out that using hurtful homophobic language is an expensive habit to have.

The school said I could do it. So they allowed me to present current legal cases around people who’d had pay outs for homophobic bullying in the workplace. I then had 40 minutes for question and answer. I said that it wasn’t often you had a gay person in the room willing to be questioned but that I wouldn’t answer any questions that were just to make people laugh. I wasn’t speaking on behalf of the gay community, I could talk from my experience, might not have an answer and reserved the right to not answer any questions.

The sensitivity of their questioning was astonishing. The students were curious, funny and apologised for any bullying I may have had when I was at school. It was a lovely restorative moment. I knew they weren’t responsible for the bullying but it was wonderful for a student at the school to apologise. They asked about what I do now, who I admire, had I met the bullies since, is gay genetic or nurture? (Local government, Desmond Tutu, no, a mix of both)

One question really struck me:

1) How would you have felt if a teacher had come out when you were at school?

This was a good question. The head of year 9 had primed me by saying that there were gay teachers at school but they weren’t out. Again, 16 year old me would have freaked out if a teacher had approached me.  It would have been nice to know.

I said that I’d taught theatre studies in a secondary school and hadn’t come out during that time. I asked the students how they would feel if I were coming to be a teacher in their school in September. They all said they would love to have a gay teacher. I said I wasn’t so sure that they would and perhaps their parents might have something to say about it too. I apologised for my cynicism and hoped they’d forgive me.

I was also aware of a silent responsibility. All day I was trying to be a good example to the 16 year old me who was unseen in the room. I was aware of the responsibility of possibly being the first real live gay person some students would be seeing. (Away from stuff on TV)

I’ve spoken to the head of year 9 since then and he’s said that there’s been a noticable drop in students using the word “gay” in a bullying context. He said that the students in year 9 had been telling others students about a great talk they’d had and how it wasn’t right to use the word gay when bullying someone.

It’s not a radical agenda to promote homosexuality, it’s about letting students who are in similar positions to me when I was growing up know that it’s ok, it gets better.

This entry was posted in Ben Whitehouse, Education, homophobia, lgbt, schools, storytelling and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Growing up Gay (or Gay Maths)

  1. Tony Fenwick says:

    You couldn’t be more right and it couldn’t be simpler (in a good way)

    • Ben W says:

      Tony, thanks for taking time to comment. I remember a couple of years ago people were encouraged to return to their schools & talk about their experiences. Simple storytelling is a wonderful thing and can do far more because you’re part of the regular school community.

  2. SUE SANDERS says:

    just great to see such clarity
    we would love you to come to the schools out conference at the Drill Hall on the 5th Feb which is all about being out and proud in education ring the dril hall to register 02073075060
    all the best

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