Small gestures, big effects

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04 July 2017 by ATL
Ahead of this Saturday's Pride events, ATL member Ian McClary, from Bryanston School, Dorset, shares his experiences as a gay, Christian teacher.

When I was a child the messages I received about being gay were not so much that it was wrong but that it shouldn’t be talked about or expressed, which amounted to pretty much the same thing. There was the church telling me that my only option was to forego the relationships that were most natural to me and embrace lifelong celibacy. My government told me that I was a second-class citizen who had no right to expect equal treatment, and the extremely enlightened, progressive school I attended was prevented from valuing and nurturing my identity because of Section 28. I forgave the Church as I met wonderful gay priests who supported and encouraged me to be myself, I forgave the Labour party when they managed to repeal Section 28 and I forgave the Tories when they gave me the right to get married.

But a childhood spent in hiding, fearful, being told that you’re not good enough makes its mark and as I embarked upon my PGCE in 2001, I resolved to be myself and do my bit. At that time, Section 28 had not yet been repealed and it was still legal to discriminate against me in the workplace for being gay. Nevertheless, I decided that I would challenge homophobia whenever I encountered it (which was practically the same thing as coming out) and live my life according the to principle that any socially and morally acceptable behaviour I observed in my heterosexual colleagues was acceptable for me too.

Living and working in a boarding school one lives in a community where aspects and details of one’s private life are common knowledge and my being gay was a fact to be known to all who got to know me or who enquired, pupils and colleagues alike. I was fortunate enough to be working in a very supportive and accepting school but I still held back, editing myself to a degree, wary of being treated differently or excluded. But as I got older my confidence grew and in my current school, which is just as supportive and accepting, I feel, for the first time in my life, fully part of an inclusive community; able to be myself not because everyone has to put up with it but because being gay is part of who I am and that is accepted and celebrated.

So what has made me feel that? It has been the small acts of recognition and inclusion, rather than any grand gestures on the part of the school. At a basic level, being asked for my perspective as a gay man or being asked to share the benefits of my experience with those around me. It is seeing my life reflected in and valued by the community of which I am so proud to be a part - having my recent marriage announced in a whole-school assembly by the chaplain, for example, and pupils congratulating me in the corridor as they would any member of staff who had just got married.

And that’s what I seek to foster in the work I do as my school’s LGBT+ lead; trying to foster a culture where small acts of recognition and inclusion about the diverse aspects of identity are encouraged and become normal, whether that’s about sexual orientation, gender identity or any other qualities which make us unique individuals. And alongside that, getting more people into the habit of pointing out any homophobic, biphobic or transphobic language and behaviour they encounter, however trivial it might appear to be.

But while I am relieved that the pupils I teach largely take it for granted that one shouldn’t discriminate against LGBT+ people and that people can get married irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity, I also see through my work as a Stonewall school role model that there is still work to be done. Too many young people, including, I suspect, some of the pupils in my own school, still aren’t getting the support that they need, either because they don’t know it exists or because they don’t yet feel comfortable enough to ask, or confident enough that they will be accepted or valued for who they are. And while I am glad I can do my bit as an openly gay teacher, we all have a small (and easy) part to play, teachers and students alike, in not being a bystander to ignorance and caring for those around us. As one of my favourite hymns puts it, 'New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth; they must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth’.

Ian McClary is the Head of Sixth Form at Bryanston School, Dorset

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