Mr McKay by Peter Tatchell

A free-thinking headteacher put power in the hands of his pupils, aiding the political awakening of one budding activist
29th May 2015, 1:00am


Mr McKay by Peter Tatchell

Mount Waverley High School in Melbourne was the Australian equivalent of a comprehensive. It was a brand new school, and in 1964 I was part of the first intake of 80 pupils.

Although he was in his sixties, the headmaster, Mervyn McKay, had radical ideas about education. He encouraged pupil participation.

When I was 13, a group of us decided we wanted a say in shaping the school's development. We proposed - and got - Mr McKay's approval to establish a students' representative council. It was grass-roots pupil democracy. We decided what food the tuck shop should sell and that pupils, not teachers, should choose the prefects.

I can't think of anything Mr McKay vetoed. We asked for, and got, school plays and an annual dance. It was he who suggested we set up a student magazine and gave us the facilities and resources to produce it.

He also organised a school debate and the making of two school films. One was about a cross-country run and the second was Spartans Versus Athenians. I played a Spartan. Looking back, it was quite risqu, as our main costume was a G-string, soaked overnight in tea to make it flesh coloured. In some of the wrestling scenes, it looked like we were naked.

My school reports said I was a clever, well-behaved kid, and hard-working. I was outdoorsy, too: I ran long distance, surfed and mountain trekked.

Although I was popular, I was the subject of some teasing. Despite my liking girls, some kids called me "Poofter Pete" and "Peter Pansy". I'm not sure why. Maybe it was because I wasn't macho and didn't constantly brag about having sex with girls. But it was more jokey than abusive and not intended to be hurtful. I didn't see it as bullying, partly because I was certain in my mind that I wasn't gay. My homosexuality only dawned on me after I left school.

I was hoping to forge a career in art and design and was already involved in activism. My political awareness began in 1963, aged 11, when I heard about the racist bombing of a black church in Alabama. It prompted my support for the civil rights movement.

Later, this interest in politics was fostered by my brilliant teacher of American history, Mr Pollard, who encouraged us to critique accepted versions of US history.

In 1967, I read that most Aboriginal kids left school at 16 because their parents needed them to go to work. Some other pupils and I decided to create a scholarship scheme to enable them to stay on at school. We joined forces with 20 other schools and it was a huge success. A version of that scheme still exists today.

On 4 July 1968, I organised the burning of an American flag in the school playground in protest against the war in Vietnam. Mr McKay had retired by then and the new headmaster, a traditionalist called Mr Torpey, hauled me into his office and accused me of being manipulated by communists.

I told him that I'd never met any communists, but I was left with the impression that if I didn't tone it down there would be consequences.

I think Mr McKay would have responded differently. He would have been delighted that pupils like me were thinking for themselves.

I never saw him again but I'm incredibly grateful to have had such an extraordinary, imaginative and pioneering headmaster, who helped to make me who I am.

Peter Tatchell was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. He is the director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns against homophobic bullying and supports LGBT-inclusive sex and relationships education. For more information, visit

The campaign trail

Peter Tatchell

Born 25 January 1952, Melbourne, Australia

Education Mount Waverley High School, Melbourne; West London College (where he took A-levels in night classes); Polytechnic of North London

Career Human rights activist and political campaigner

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