It’s funny how random memories from your childhood can attach themselves so strongly to your psyche, almost as though your brain knows that they will one day become significant.
When I was young, my parents and my aunt and uncle, who lived in the neighbouring village, would sometimes meet in the little chocolate-box, thatched pub on the green and sit in the beer garden on sunny Sunday afternoons. Chloe, my cousin, and I would be allowed to have a glass of Coke as a rare treat and I still remember the sugar rush as we slurped it through stripy straws. We’d then tear around the garden and around the neighbouring duck pond, Chloe as light and graceful as some sort of woodland nymph and me, robust and clumsy, but far more willing to scale up trees, investigate mud and generally emerge looking as though I’d played a game of rugby on a wet day.
On one of these occasions, I overheard two men, who I now realise were at that stage of drunk where you become a bit too loud and a bit too convinced that everything you’re saying is incredibly profound, speaking about (I now understand) the scandals that had begun to emerge in the Catholic Church involving child abuse. “It’s ironic!” said one of them “that that lot are so anti-gay when it turns out they’re all gay themselves!”
“Oh yeah!” said the other one. And then they laughed for ages, that kind of drunken, blasting, slightly false laugh that rings entirely hollow.
That memory resurfaced last November, when I got myself into a spot of bother with the tabloid press. Brief summary: I advocated the use of gender neutral language when addressing groups of pupils at a conference. A journalist present speculated that I was part of the "transgender lobby" (which for a non-existent organisation is attributed an awful lot of imaginary power, I find). Piers "Everything is PC Gone Mad" Morgan got hold of it and by the end of the day I was getting death and rape threats, not only on social media but in one instance actually sent to me in the post via my publisher.
All of that was, if not exactly predictable, unsurprising. What I was taken aback about, however, were the numerous messages I got telling me that, since I was obviously OK with the notion of people being transgender, non-binary and gender fluid, I shouldn’t be allowed near children.
“Sack her!” said one reply to Piers’ Daily Mail column: “If my daughter was at that school, I would move schools ASAP." Another one simply said: “Fat, lesbian paedophile." A meme began doing the rounds, containing a quote from my appearance on This Morning next to a picture of then education secretary Justine Greening finishing with “education secretary Justine Greening is a lesbian". The implication was that we should all be very troubled by that.
It was 2017, around 30 years since that overheard snatch of conversation in a pub garden, but it seems there is still an entirely erroneous and largely unchallenged view that LGBT+ people are somehow inherently predatory. In fact, as Susan Calman points out in her brilliant book Cheer Up Love, WiFi networks onboard trains and in hotels which automatically block "inappropriate or sexual content" often prevent users from accessing LGBT+ campaign group websites. Just think about the implications of that, for a moment…
Toxic and outdated attitudes
I asked some LGBT+ members of the education community to share their experiences. A male gay boarding house master in an all-boys school told me anonymously he was asked during his interview for the job whether he was "sure this was the right position for him". When he asked what they meant, they responded by asking whether he "thought he would be able to handle being around so many boys, given his ‘situation'’’.
"I thought about walking out," he told me, "but then it struck me that this was a school where attitudes needed to be challenged and I might be in a position to do that. So, I simply replied, ‘I am gay, not a paedophile,’ and stared them down until they moved on."
Allison, who is gay, told me on Twitter: "At a previous school [I] was told that I didn’t want to 'offend' parents and that my private life shouldn’t be on display to students. This [was] said by a member of staff who had a photo of her husband prominently on her desk."
Sarah, who is a transgender woman and teacher, spent a long time compiling a carefully worded statement for her school about her diagnosis of gender dysphoria and explaining that she would be returning to work after transitioning. Her colleagues responded with comments such as "you are against my religion", "you are going to make people feel uncomfortable" and, shockingly "I’m surprised you didn’t throw yourself into the river". "I lasted three weeks before I was subject to horrific transphobic comments by the students," she tells me. With such attitudes being role-modelled by the adults around them, it’s little wonder.
These kinds of outdated and toxic ideas not only affect the mental health of LGBT+ teachers currently in the profession, they are also putting off potential new recruits. Ellen Jones, who is Stonewall’s young campaigner of the year, came out as a lesbian at the age of 14. She had always held different volunteering roles, often working with children and was advised "that I should not make my sexuality known to either the children or their parents because they would likely think that I was predatory towards the young girls and had perverse intentions". She goes on to tell me: "At the time, it did not put me off volunteering, but it definitely steered me away from considering jobs which involved working with children, when teaching was something I had previously considered as a career."
This year will be my first attending Pride. I am very excited to have a place atop Mental Health First Aid England’s bus for the march on 7 July. I have, in the past, been reticent to talk publicly about my own sexuality. Interestingly, as a previous glossy magazine columnist, none of the revelations I made about my sexual relationships with men even entered my head as a potential barrier to my being accepted into the world of education. My status as a bisexual person, however, did.
Whenever I have told people socially that I am attracted to women, I’ve invariably been met with one of two reactions. Straight men have suddenly transformed into some kind of ludicrous Carry On character, smacking their lips together and rubbing their thighs and asking me to describe some of my former same-sex partners. Straight women have usually responded by saying: "That’s fine. As long as you don’t fancy me" (to which I have silently responded "you wish, mate").
I’ve been left in no doubt that the problem is them – that any mention of LGBT+ topics makes most straight people immediately think of sex.
So, my message this Pride month, is this: it isn’t about sex. It’s about love, inclusion, visibility and equality. Neither is it about legitimising sexual perversion or deviancy. I have to date worked with more than 100,000 young people in more than 300 schools across the UK and it’s never even occurred to me to look at a single one of them in a sexual way, for obvious reasons.
This column is longer than usual, because I wanted to give sufficient airtime to something not often discussed. It is also, in many respects, a call to arms. The LGBT+ community needs allies. And one of the most helpful things straight school staff can do is call out any time they hear LGBT+ and "predator" and/or "paedophile" being used synonymously. This attitude has survived for way too long – it’s time to stamp it out.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here.