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The day my life changed: Homophobia

Anti-gay slurs set me on a mission to fight prejudice in schools

Anti-gay slurs set me on a mission to fight prejudice in schools

I had worked for 12 years as a special-needs teacher and school sports co-ordinator in north London and had been struck by the insidious way pupils used the word "gay" in schools. I always made sure kids knew not to use the word as an insult around me. I would say, "You're saying that that thing is rubbish, therefore that I am rubbish and that upsets me." It's easy for children to hate a concept, but when they are presented with a real person and you say, "Well, that's a part of me", they start to get it.

Some friends who worked in other schools were having problems with homophobic classes and asked for my help. I offered to come in and talk to the pupils. When I said I was gay, one pupil moved away from me because he thought it was contagious and that all gay people had Aids. He thought Aids was a gay disease and that you could catch it just from sitting next to someone. The pupils were learning about sex from the internet. If you are young and think you might be gay and you look it up on the internet, you will be led to inappropriate sites, and that's where they get their education on these issues, instead of talking to people about it.

The pupils were honest with me about their opinions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. I sometimes got quite violent reactions, especially from the boys, who would say things like, "I want to kill them". I said, "I'm confused. I don't get why you would be so angry about love."

One primary pupil I worked with had an uncle who had committed a homophobic assault, and some of the children said being gay was disgusting and nasty. But when I told them I was gay they would say, "Oh, but you're really normal." The children were horrified at the thought that someone might have been mean to me because I was gay. I challenged them when they heard homophobic language to stand up and not be bystanders to bullying. I had such a positive reaction in the end.

But the straw that broke the camel's back for me was when I learnt of the death of Dominic Crouch, a 15-year-old who committed suicide last year after rumours apparently circulated at his school that he was gay. I spoke to his parents a lot and it was heartbreaking to think that the use of the word "gay" against him might have driven him to take his own life.

I was inspired to set up a charity, Diversity Role Models. Taking role models - male and female - into the classroom helps to challenge stereotypes. Our aim is to support young people who might be LGBT and to help all the children in our workshops to understand difference. Many of the children I meet in schools don't know any gay people, so meeting real people with real stories gives them empathy.

It is not uncommon for gay people today to encounter shame when it comes to things like taking their partner home to meet their family. We can change the next generation. When we go into primary schools, pupils are so accepting and they will take that into their secondary schools and beyond.

At the moment I'm fundraising, getting all of the processes put in place and approaching schools. We want to branch out across the country, so we need more facilitators to run the workshops.

I enjoyed teaching, but I feel good about what I'm doing now and it's something I'm really passionate about. I know if it changes one child's life it will be worth it.

Suran Dickson is founder and chief executive of Diversity Role Models and co-chair of the London 2018 Gay Games bid. She was talking to Sarah

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