Harvey Milk, the iconic gay politician and LGBT rights activist, famously exhorted: “Every gay person must come out…Once they realize that we are indeed their children and that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.”
As I write this, it’s National Coming Out Day. So, to echo the words I spoke on my 21st birthday: I’m gay. That was relatively easy. Though, for many, it is not.
We still live in a world where people can be murdered, stoned, experience vitriolic abuse in person and online, all because of who they were born to love. At one end of the spectrum, we hear of teenagers being banned from taking a date to the school dance; at the other, we hear of teens committing suicide. All because they are gay.
Since becoming a teacher, I’ve been toying with whether to come out in the classroom. I’ve been advised that it’s not relevant to my job, that I wouldn’t come out as straight and that it would cause more pain than reward. But that's a coward’s way out.
When I was at school, I was bullied for being gay. I didn’t know I was gay but the bullies did. I spent years plagued by my tormentors, living in fear of going to school and hiding my "secret" from my friends and family. When I was 14, I attempted to take my own life because of the emotional terror that I was experiencing at school.
When I was going through that pain, I lacked a role model. I didn’t know anybody who was gay, especially not within education. I do believe that if I’d known a teacher who was gay, I would have felt more empowered to embrace my sexuality.
It’s critically important that teachers are out in their schools. This statement is going to be criticised en masse, but why? Students who feel they must hide their real selves need somebody to talk to. The teacher-student relationship will not be harmed by openness about one’s true self.
The age of social media has allowed for an exponential rise in attacks on out members of the LGBT community, either directly attacking their sexuality or simply using "gay" as an insult. This is the reality for our nation’s teens. And because these attacks are harder for us to see, they are an even stronger argument for gay teachers to be out in their schools – so that young people have somewhere to go if they are hurt.
Once teachers have come out, a little of the responsibility then passes to straight teachers to promote diversity and individuality in the staffroom. Only then will schools truly become communities of equality, kindness and positivity.
We must create a world where being gay is championed, not persecuted. We must accept difference and not merely tolerate it. Our schools must be centres of diversity, of inclusion – places that promote individuality and equality.
Oliver Beach is a former inner-city teacher and Teach First ambassador. He tweets @olivermbeach.
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