The day my life changed - After 'Gay Dave' jibe I knew I had to take court action over homophobia

17th September 2010 at 01:00

Experiencing homophobia is like dying of 1,000 paper cuts. Every cut is small and doesn't cause a lot of pain. But they build up and build up, and then you can't ignore them.

As a newly qualified teacher, I moved to London and got a job in Westminster. I was out from the start, and it was never a problem with staff or pupils.

But the head was difficult. She thought she was a liberal-minded, anything-goes hippy. Actually, it was anything goes as long as you didn't talk about it. I had been asked to participate in an anti-homophobia project but she vetoed it. I thought: 'Forget about it. She probably just wants me to concentrate on teaching.'

But when I wanted to do something for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans history month, I was called into her office. She said I was on a crusade, that there had been no homophobia in school until I got there.

The conversation quickly snowballed. "Why are you out with your students?" she said. "What's that about? It's nothing to do with your job."

But it was just about me being myself. My sexuality defined my life growing up. It's my culture, my identity, and I should be able to celebrate it.

Then the head told me I put people's backs up because of the way I walked. She said I hadn't walked that way when I came for interview. "Do you want people in the staffroom to call you Gay Dave?" she said. "That's all people think about, because you bang on about your sexuality all the time."

I started to be very aware of what was going on in that office and began to take notes. I had bad experiences of homophobia when I was at school, so I was determined that wasn't going to happen to me as an adult.

But it was horrendous, going into work every day knowing the head thought I would corrupt the children. In the end, I didn't want to stay there any longer. I left at the end of the spring term and found a supply job.

I sued for injury to feelings and loss of earnings. But it wasn't about the money; it was about being able to teach. Really, it was just about getting her to say sorry.

Initially, Westminster council offered me a couple of hundred pounds. But, as the tribunal neared, they started offering me more. First it was #163;1,000. This went up to #163;3,000 the week before the tribunal. Every day, there was some new offer on my answer phone: by Friday, it was #163;9,000.

The day of the tribunal was nerve-wracking. But it had been going on so long I just wanted it to be over. I just wanted an apology.

In the end, the head didn't turn up, but I got an apology from her lawyers. Westminster also apologised, and made a commitment to review their equal-opportunities policy and deliver training. They gave me #163;9,500. And there was no gagging clause: it was the first sexual-orientation case in a school that people could talk about afterwards.

Now, I get calls a couple of times a year from people in similar situations. And I have started a campaign (A Day in Hand) encouraging gay people to hold hands in public. The more people see it, the more the cultural zeitgeist will shift.

I don't really give a lot of thought to what happened to the head. It became about more than her and me: it was about standing up to bullies. Homophobic bullying is still endemic in schools, so I would almost say I'm glad it happened. I certainly have no regrets.

David Watkins was talking to Adi Bloom. A Day In Hand campaign website is at: www.adayinhand.com.

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