The LGBT+ teachers working to undo Section 28's homophobic legacy


Thirty years have passed since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government introduced Section 28, a piece of legislation that prohibited local government and schools from publicising or mentioning homosexuality.

The legislation served to suppress LGBT+ people through restricting the education of young people at a time when this couldn’t have been more vital. Although the legislation was eventually repealed in England and Wales in 2003, a generation of LGBT+ teachers and students still live with internalised shame from Section 28’s invalidation of their existence.

Section 28 made LGBT+ topics taboo in British schools. Despite its repeal, teachers remain unsure of how openly they can discuss issues surrounding sexuality and gender identity.

Research from LGBT+ charity Stonewall reveals that just 13 per cent of pupils have learnt about how to have healthy same-sex relationships. Only one in five have learnt about consent in relation to same-sex relationships and 20 per cent have learnt about being safe in same-sex experiences.

With more than half of LGBT+ pupils experiencing bullying at school, it is clear that more needs to be done to completely eradicate Section 28’s legacy. But education charity Teach First has released new figures showing a near-doubling of LGBT+ teachers within its intake. The proportion of new teachers training with the charity who identified as LGBT+ has increased from 5 per cent to 9 per cent from 2014 to 2018.

Teach First is one of the largest graduate recruiters in the UK, recruiting around 1,400 teachers each year, equivalent to one in 20 of all new teachers in England and Wales.

32 year-old teacher Laura was initially nervous about coming out in school, but support from existing staff members enabled her to be open about her sexuality. This was far removed from her experience in school, where she remembers a teacher who was known to be a lesbian being bullied by parents and pupils. She explains:

Nothing appeared to be done about it. I do not know how she coped. For me, this made coming to terms with my sexuality a very scary prospect

Laura remembers that, when she was at school, the media made fun of “camp” men and created false and damaging links to paedophilia. Lesbians were seen as ugly women who couldn’t find a husband. School, whether consciously or subconsciously, reinforced this mockery and stereotyping. But LGBT+ teachers have and continue to be fundamental to changing this culture.

Just by being out, LGBT+ teachers can change the landscape of a school in order to make it a more diverse and welcoming environment, but schools must feel safe and supportive for those LGBT+ staff.

Each time I come out, it does feel like activism because it is not considered the norm. For students to see that they can be whoever they want and this is neither fixed nor shameful, is really important for their well-being. 

During her first six years of teaching, Laura ran LGBT+ assemblies, clubs and even took sixth formers to London Pride to march with Stonewall. For someone who felt so uncomfortable with her identity at school, partly as a result of cruel government legislation, this moment felt like a milestone. After the overwhelming success of their first Pride with Stonewall, Laura has continued to take students to London Pride over the past few years.

This has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Students returned to school after Pride as more confident individuals, with the knowledge that there are other young people similar to themselves and that there are so many people that support and celebrate them. 

If these students can be more successful because they may have fewer worries about acceptance than I did, then these experiences are incredibly worthwhile. They are the future and will, I am sure, continue to strive for a more accepting and equal society.

23 year-old English teacher James started teaching last year. During a year teaching abroad in Russia at university, James saw first-hand how the Russian “propaganda law”, which bears remarkable similarities to Section 28, suppressed LGBT+ Russians. This made him reflect on the role of education and how vital it is to educate to avoid prejudice. It also caused him to reflect on his own schooling in the UK, where LGBT+ people were absent from the curriculum and “that’s so gay” was never far from earshot.

The absence of LGBT+ teachers during my own education had a profound impact on me. Whether it is in books, resources, lessons or the staff body, when you don’t see an aspect of your identity being represented, school can feel like a lonely and isolating place.

I can’t help but feel that if I had had more LGBT+ role models growing up, I may have felt more confident coming out at an earlier age.

Like Laura, James views openly LGBT+ teachers as activists. His highlight while on the Teach First programme has been the experience of leading assemblies, staff training and a variety of other initiatives around school. He also ran training for staff to allow teachers to embed LGBT+ topics into the curriculum and feel confident in answering difficult questions or dealing with homophobic, biphobic and transphobic language.

It has meant that both staff and students feel more supported and know they have someone to go to for support and guidance.

22 year-old history teacher Matthew also felt nervous about the prospect of being “out” in the classroom. But he was persuaded to be open about his sexuality after seeing how LGBT+ teachers can influence the development of young people in the post-Section 28 era.

On a day-to-day basis, it may not feel as if you are having a large impact. In reality, you are not only teaching them about your subject, you are also teaching them about being a good and kind human, an upstanding citizen and ultimately a part of the future generations.

Matthew is heartened that, while challenges persist for LGBT+ pupils, things are changing. He is reassured that pupils are learning to self-correct homophobic language. Last year he heard a pupil use the term “gay” in a derogatory way, then half the class turned around and said “that’s homophobic”.

He is proud to be the LGBT+ role model that he never had, but he acknowledges that LGBT+ teachers who don’t organise large LGBT+ events, but are still open and out, are still normalising the experiences of LGBT+ people in school.

Teachers definitely play a role in perpetuating tolerance, acceptance and inclusivity. We simply must stick to these values, not just for LGBT+ people but for everyone.

Learn more about Teach First.

More: These 6 stories of homophobic abuse should be a wake up call for everyone

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