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Hearts and souls

How times have changed. I used to teach a boy in the East End of London, whom I shall refer to as Nelson. He was a heavy lad, nothing to do with big bones; just lots and lots of crisps and yum yums, which I confiscated endlessly as he traded or scoffed them in the playground. He was also gay. Gay with abandon; wonderfully gay. He spoke in a broad, booming high camp that fooled no one because it wasn't trying to. His factory setting was to act in the very way that homophobic teenage boys do when dealing in stereotypes: he flounced and huffed and dramatised and hyperbolised at everything. He also possessed the thing that some gay men and boys have evolved as armour and sword against a straight world: a wit that could immolate.

When I was at school, only a few decades ago, a boy like Nelson would have been drowned in the showers and the school would have blamed him for it. It being Scotland, dancing was a compulsory part of PE. It was as heteronormative an experience as you could imagine, with boys and girls lined up against opposite walls to select their partners for the next Canadian barn dance. I remember the PE teacher who candidly told us: "Anyone who doesn't come to the school dance is obviously a bit of a poof."

I wish we'd had a few boys like Nelson back then. "I will fucking dash you to the floor," Nelson would imperiously warn anyone who even came close to crossing him. Girls flocked to him and none of the boys could best him verbally - or physically, as he proved when he put his knuckles where his mouth was a few times, laying out a number of potential bullies.

But boys like Nelson are outliers, even now, blazing trails that they probably can't even see. And they're ploughing a furrow already made into the hard soil of the past, by other stalwarts before them. I'm not especially a fan of teachers discussing their sexuality with children except in very careful circumstances and contexts, but I am a very big fan of teachers who, by their mere existence and tacit exhibition of their identities, generate safe spaces for the silent, tortured children who might not have the perspicacity of Nelson.

I've known many teachers who wore their sexuality as lightly as skin, who were clearly out but carried it with the assumed nonchalance of someone for whom the term "out" meant very little because there was simply no "in". You would as well have been out about having a nose.

Now that gay marriage is legal, it's easier for teachers to avoid thoughtlessly excluding their gay students. Before that, it was too easy to ask children "Do you think you'll get married?" and forget that for some of them that wasn't an option, or if it was it was the agonising compromise of the closet beard.

At my school, we have a display board dedicated to Stonewall's "Some people are gay. Get over it!" campaign. Boys like Nelson, and thousands of others, are walking adverts for that bravery. I salute him, and all the teachers who make a difference to every child afraid to love.

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