Under the protection of minors

26th April 1996 at 01:00
When Geof Ellingham told his primary class he was gay, he waited for the news to spread... A year ago in this newspaper I explained my reasons for deciding to "come out" at school: to tell the children (and thus their parents) that I was gay (TES, April 9 1995).

What's happened since has convinced me that attitudes in the "real world" have changed more rapidly and more deeply than teachers - and some of their union leaders - realise.

I have taught a class of nine and 10-year-olds in a north London primary for the past four years. For most of that time I have also been an active member of School's Out, the national gay, lesbian and bisexual teachers' organisation.

Before this I'd worked in jobs where my sexual orientation was not hidden, so I was horrified when I started teaching to find myself back in the "closet".

I was shocked too by the attitude of my union, the National Union of Teachers, and many gay colleagues: that teachers should avoid discussing their sexuality with pupils.

There was a change of heart at this Easter's NUT annual conference and a motion of support was passed almost unanimously.

There are many situations - in primary schools anyway - in which sexual orientation becomes an appropriate matter for discussion. My partner for example, like those of my colleagues, comes to most school concerts and events. It would be unnatural - not to say rude - to avoid introducing him to some parents. Children want to know who this adult is and how he is connected to their teacher and the school. I see no reason not to tell them.

At the end of last year, I did. There had been an incident in which one boy in my class called another "gay" in an abusive way. I told the class I was gay myself. And I asked the boys who used anti-gay language to think about what it might feel like if you were gay and you overheard them.

Their reactions were fairly low key. A few jaws hung open and friends turned to look at one another across the classroom in exaggerated surprise. Then the day carried on as if nothing had happened. I told the head and staff of my "revelation" (we had already discussed my intention to come out) and we waited for the news to spread.

It didn't. Apart from a few whispered words to close friends, the whole class apparently treated my news as a secret, even though I hadn't suggested that they should. I'd heard stories from secondary teachers about what happened when you came out - loud classroom and staffroom gossip, verbal abuse, demands from parents for teacher sackings, and worse. Silence was the last thing I was expecting.

And I had to wait a few months for the explanation.

During a discussion with my new class last term on different types of "family", one of the children suggested "lesbians" as a possible family unit. During the following debate, another pupil said the idea was disgusting. A few children agreed; most (encouragingly) dissented. Again I revealed that I was gay. Again there was surprise. Three months after I had come out to their predecessors, only two children in the class already knew.

By chance, a researcher investigating gender roles in the playground and classroom was working with me at the time. As part of her recorded interviews with small groups of children she asked them for their feelings about my sexual orientation. Their responses were simultaneously enlightening, encouraging and disturbing.

Each denied disapproval. "Girls with girls, boys with boys. What's the difference?" asked the same boy who had previously expressed disgust. But when the researcher asked them who they'd told, the children said they had told almost no one.

"He doesn't want, really, everyone at the school to know," one 10-year-old girl explained.

Why was that? "They'd jump around and tell their mum and dad," her friend replied, "and maybe their mum and dad will think he's a bad teacher and think ... I'm to going to take my kid away from the school and tell [the headteacher] and he could be sacked."

Their comments show a surprising level of understanding about discrimination and homophobia and demonstrate the way in which children "learn" homophobic language long before they develop the fear and prejudice we assume must accompany it.

The danger, of course, is that if children grow up without ever meeting a challenge to the attitudes which underpin this language, they will internalise the hatred and become truly homophobic themselves.

The inclusion of lesbian and gay characters in popular soap operas and a growing openness about sexuality in the media means many children do now encounter such challenges to discrimination.

But one of the greatest resources in the battle against homophobia remains hidden. Most children will encounter lesbian andor gay teachers during their school careers; most never know it. Certainly in the primary sector there are few openly gay teachers.

Yet by the time children reach secondary school, it is difficult to change their deeply-held prejudices.

It would be indefensible to put pressure on lesbian and gay teachers to come out - we already suffer enough harassment without exposing ourselves to more. Yet perhaps we hold one of the keys to unlocking the door to equal treatment.

A recent survey for The Guardian found that more than 70 per cent of people now consider it appropriate for lesbians and gay men to hold teaching posts. I believe that when the individual is known and respected, the proportion of people ready to jump up and call for a gay teacher to be sacked is smaller than it has ever been.

After all, in the case of Jane Brown, the combined forces of the tabloid press and Hackney Council were no match for a group of parents who knew a good head when they saw one.

Back to the child who was worried about me getting the sack. When the researcher asked whether that was likely the child replied: "Not really, 'cos most adults would be, um, adult about it." And indeed they are.

So, to anyone thinking of leaving the warm comfort of the classroom closet, I say come on out. It's not as cold out here as you might think.

Geof Ellingham teaches in a north London primary school.

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