The Issue - Being out and proud is easier said than done

8th November 2013 at 00:00
It can be professionally liberating to be open about your sexuality, but inequality and homophobic bullying are still rife in schools

It is 1992. I'm in a pub with a colleague, toasting my acceptance on to a teacher training course.

"What do you think about my teaching?" I ask.

"Are you sure it's the right thing?" she responds.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I don't have a problem with it, but what happens if you're asked to do physical education with boys?"

At the time, I sighed and remembered when a relative had asked if I would look at "little boys" when I took students swimming. The distinction between gay man and paedophile was clear in my own mind, but if people equated the two, would it not be best to be "discreet" about my sexuality at school?

Other people told me that "being gay is private, for the bedroom". I didn't define my straight friends by what went on in their bedrooms, yet some people wanted to define me by this one aspect of my life.

When I was a child, I loved hearing about my teachers' weekends and holidays; it made them seem more human. I didn't think, "I wonder what they are doing in the bedroom." Instead, I remember thinking, "That's nice, she has a happy life with a nice man outside school. Maybe one day I will have that, too."

So what did I do? Well, it's 2013. I'm a primary school deputy headteacher. And everyone knows I am gay.

In supporting me, my headteacher sends a clear message to all the school's stakeholders that they are valued as individuals. He also sends a message to the 10 per cent of students who may turn out to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender that gay people can be happy and successful.

I was not always "out" at school, though. It was when I was discussing endemic levels of homophobic bullying with students that I felt compelled to share my own story. The result was a huge drop in all kinds of bullying at our school.

It was a big decision, and it proved the right one for me. Parents were supportive, sharing stories of their own experiences of being bullied and genuinely wishing to tackle their children's use of "gay" as an offensive term. Now I train other school leaders in how to prevent homophobia.

Coming out was a positive experience, and so it should be. But is it right for everyone? I am often contacted by gay teachers and asked, "Should I come out?" My heart says yes: be an authentic role model for children, some of whom may desperately need one who is openly gay.

My head, however, reminds me of teachers who experience homophobia in schools; who express a desire to come out but are told by their leaders, "We can't support you"; who are informed that their "lifestyle choice" is at odds with the school ethos.

Since coming out, my relationships with students, staff and parents have been stronger. The emotional energy I invested in hiding aspects of my identity is now used to fulfil my potential as an educator, which can only be of benefit to students. So my answer to the question "Should I come out?" is a qualified yes - but follow these tips.

Know your statutory rights

In the UK, under the Equality Act 2010, your employer has a duty of care. Pay heed to the "protected characteristics" and to the section stating that schools have a duty to "foster good relationships".

Read "Exploring the School's Actions to Prevent Homophobic Bullying" (bit.lyOfstedPreventBullying). This briefing from England's schools inspectorate Ofsted helps inspectors to focus on homophobia in schools. And if you encounter problems, seek help from your union, from gay rights charity Stonewall ( or indeed from me.

Ask how supportive your school will be

A strong leader with a grasp of their statutory duties shouldn't have a problem with your coming out, but others may fear negative responses from parents, governors or people of faith. Don't let leaders make a drama of it, nor "seek permissions" from parents or governors - would they do this for any of the other protected characteristics? Stress that you are not promoting anything and that you can't magically "turn children gay".

Have pride in yourself

Many gay people have grown up being told that they are the work of the Devil, or that they abuse children. Many of us have been rejected, spat at or hit. This negative energy can either destroy us or we can transform it into something great - but that can take time. When you are truly proud of the natural, unique individual you are, then the time is right to come out.

Shaun Dellenty is deputy headteacher of Alfred Salter Primary School in London and has been a judge of Amnesty's Youth Awards ( He founded Inclusion for All (, which provides training to schools. Find him on Twitter at @ShaunDellenty.


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