A piece by Ed Watkins, Teacher at the West London Free School
Nothing makes the rightness of Harvey Milk’s call to normalise ourselves through coming out more accurate than the huge change in attitudes towards our community in the USA and its close correlation with the increase in the number of people who know someone who is gay. Now that this trend is a part of life in the Western world it can be easy to forget how rare it is for this step to be taken in secondary school. The playground can still be a hostile environment for young gay people, particularly at Key Stage 3.
I started at the West London Free School when in opened in 2011 and from the off was encouraged by the supportive attitude of the other staff towards ensuring that the school is a safe, supportive place for young LGBT students. Having worked in a Catholic school where homosexuality didn’t even get a mention in the PSHE lessons on discrimination it was refreshing to experience unambiguous openness from governors, leadership and staff.
In Year 9 the school decided to start approaching sex and relationship education in depth and one de-timetabled day included an hour on sexuality. I was very pleased that the suggestion came from our Deputy Head. This was given over to me and in the run up to the day I gave some thought to what would happen if a pupil asked if I was gay. My worries centred around the possibility that it would impact on my ability to be a role model to boys who enjoy singing and get in the way of our successful attempts to achieve gender balance in our choirs and ensembles. Alongside this I entered the day assuming that the insecurity Year 9s feel about their burgeoning sexuality (straight or otherwise) would make the environment quite homophobic.
In reality I found that many of our Year 9s were remarkably open. Some were indeed uncomfortable about homosexuality and for them the day was a useful opportunity to discuss the topic rather than to simply be told they were wrong. In particular many of the students were receptive to the idea that, in changing room terms, same sex attraction means being attracted to some members of the same sex as opposed to all of them!
At the end of the day, as predicted, I was asked by a child whether I was gay:
‘Yes, but you knew that already didn’t you’
Seemed like the right answer. After a warm reception at the assembly that followed the pupils went off and, judging by the following email from a parent, shared their thoughts back at home:
Just a quick message to say a BIG WELL DONE for the way you handled today’s class. Obviously I asked how it went as we had an email about it. Tom said it went well and he said you were asked a personal question and told us what you said. Tom said he thinks it was very brave of you and in his not so eloquent words you are now WELL RATED !!! for being honest and that’s how all the kids felt.
Other communications from parents have been universally positive, including from those who are worried about their own children being able to grow up in a safe and understanding environment.
Following on from that day I’ve found it much easier to deal with any passing homophobic language as the pupils understand more clearly why it might not be ideal. It’s also easier to do so without making a big deal of it, the usual lecture on why it might be offensive is implicit in the reprimand. No pupil has acted in anyway differently and my worries about it having any effect on my teaching were unfounded, more a reflection of my own projections than anything else.
“The West London Free School is very lucky to have someone like Ed on its staff. His honesty and straightforwardness about his sexuality has had a really positive influence on the pupils.”
Toby Young, co-founder, West London Free School