Why I decided to come out of the closet

28th April 1995 at 01:00
Last month I came out of the closet, something I have wanted to do for three years since I joined a north London primary. I came out as gay to the staff soon after I arrived. However, from my first day I have known that I wanted to be open about my identity to the parents and the children; I wanted to offer pupils an image of a gay man that was real rather than a stereotype. I wanted them to think of me when they heard gay jokes and comments in the playground - and maybe to question the homophobia around them.

When I asked my head and chair of governors to let the governing body know about my work for "School's Out"- an organisation for lesbian and gay equality in education - they backed me in full. But, even then, my head told me it wasn't a good idea to tell parents because many of them "would find it very difficult". For a time, I accepted that.

Then, as time went by, I found myself in more and more situations where being open and honest with the children I teach would have been appropriate - and positive. In discussions about the family, the children in my class all told me that they didn't know any lesbians or gay men. I'm sure many did - apart from me - but they didn't find it a safe place to say so. I told them, keeping the irony to myself, that many of them certainly would know lesbians and gay men, but wouldn't realise it. "Can you tell?" I asked them.

"Yes, of course," came the reply. "The men wear dresses and lipstick." They weren't sure what a lesbian would look like.

I explained that most gay men were not transvestites and pointed out examples of well-known lesbian and gay characters (thanks, Brookside). But I knew that "Gay men look just like me" lacked the impact it could have hadIThen, last week, one of our more precocious Year 6 boys called me over to his table at lunch time. "Sir," he said, "Danny says you're gay."

"Well," I replied, as I always do in these circumstances, "it's very silly of Danny to say things he knows nothing about. But it's hardly an insult, is it?"

"Don't you think it's horrible, Sir?" "No, of course not," I responded. Some of the children on the table who I had taught last year joined in, saying that being gay was fine - and that made me feel greatIbut I still wished I could have just said "Yes".

The next day, the staff were discussing our sex education policy and I suggested a new clause: "The school recognises that it is sometimes appropriate, in the course of discussions about the range and variety of families and relationships, or elsewhere, for teachers to talk about their own circumstances.

"We believe that children should have the opportunity to see that range of relationships reflected among known adults. We therefore offer our full support to those teachers who are lesbian or gay, single parents, or living with unmarried partners, and who choose to be open at school about the nature of their relationships."

The staff agreed with me and the head suggested that a statement should go before the governors' meeting later that week. I said I would like to speak at it.

So that is how I found myself facing 20 people, explaining why I wanted to tell the children in our school that I was gay. I explained my pain at watching the children in my care being brought up in a heterosexist world without any opportunity to show them another image, of someone standing outside that world. When I'd finished, I knew I'd done the right thing.

One mother jumped straight in. "This is what schools are supposed to be doing - educating. They get all these anti-gay images outside school and I think we should support this completely." An Asian father talked about how good it would be for the children to be able to see a gay man who challenged stereotypes.

No one said a negative word. The governors recognised that support would mean standing firm if there was abuse or if parents complained. They also agreed that a clause similar to mine should go into our sex education policy when it is finally drafted.

And now I have to decide what to do. I don't want to have to rebuild my relationships with children and parents half way through a year, so I shall probably wait until the end of the summer term before coming out. But I know that, in the future, when children hear an anti-gay joke they will at least have the choice of saying, "But Mr Ellingham's gay." And I have enough faith in our children to believe that many of them will.

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