When new government policies on LGBT issues came in I felt compelled to make sure our school was celebrating properly. What better way to ensure change than by being heard and seen to be “normal” by the young people of Hackney, east London?
My role as head of year and a music teacher at Stoke Newington School gave me the freedom to celebrate LGBT with my year group and in my subject last year. At that point the rest of the school was not on board.
The headteacher called me to his office and outlined his concerns – mainly regarding complaints from parents. I asked, “Do the white parents complain about Black History Month? Do men complain when we celebrate International Women’s Day?”
This year attitudes were different as staff had seen the success of the previous year. They understood that it was a life changing celebration for some students.
I offered to coordinate the whole LGBT month. I met with Geoff Huckle from “Staying Out”. He works with young gay people in Hackney.
We wrote an assembly with music and a PowerPoint presentation that discussed the Stoke Newington School code, Stonewall, gay symbols, gay history and famous gay people.
I delivered the assembly to every year group in the school and challenged the students’ thinking with humour, visuals and music.
The students happily sang along to a Scissor Sisters’ song as they walked in. They immediately saw the big screen with the words, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Month”.
A discussion quickly ensued – to much hilarity – about what these words meant. Our students have fallen into the habit of calling somebody “gay” if they are being stupid or annoying.
But our message was clear – acknowledge, respect, remember, use the word “gay” in the correct context and understand gay rights in today’s society.
Not only were the students being enlightened, but the staff were too. In 2006 I was subjected to a protest from one member of staff who believed I was promoting “homosexuality” in the school. This year the staff felt involved and were much more supportive.
The only incident that occurred was when six girls tried to walk out of the year nine assembly before it had even started, because they were Christians.
Their parents had said that they were not to take part in any of the LGBT celebrations. However, our school code supports LGBT month and says, “students must not be racist, sexist or homophobic”.
The students sat quietly through the assembly. But they went on to blank me in the corridor for several days afterwards and scream at my office door.
The month was celebrated in each subject. This included songs by Elton John and George Michael in music, and artwork by Keith Haring.
In science classes, students discussed the “gay gene”, in humanities, the treatment of gay people in concentration camps, in technology, the rainbow flag and its meanings. Classes also made posters to hang on the school gates.
The final whole school assembly began by me asking what does “L” stand for? A resounding “lesbian” was shouted by 1,300 students. Year seven students sang Ghetto Gospel by the US rapper Tupac Shakur and Elton John with the year 11 students accompanying.
Year eight students did a maths talk on statistics and year seven students did a PE talk about the treatment of black gay footballer Justin Fashanu. Students read out their poetry.
The highlight and finale was a gay but not “out” student who had the confidence and determination to sing An Easier Affair – a George Michael song about coming out.
This was met with huge cheers from the students. This brave young man has been on a high ever since. LGBT month has changed his life. He has received nothing but support and respect.
The best comment came from a year ten boy who stopped me and said he had listened to my assembly.
He said he wasn’t going to call his friends “gay” any more when they got on his nerves. Instead he would just call them “idiots”. I smiled for the rest of the week.
In my eight years of teaching, I have never seen such an attentive, respectful and happy bunch of students as in the final assembly.
I was incredibly proud and amazed by the students’ commitment and respectfulness. The attitudes of staff and students have changed by epic amounts.
My year group celebrated LGBT History Month last year too. This made the discussions in their assembly more advanced. It showed the importance of talking about this issue from a young age.
We have students who have gay siblings, parents, cousins and those who are themselves gay. It is important to create a “safe zone” so these students can talk freely.
Local newspapers the Hackney Gazette and Hackney Today ran stories about the celebration that helped spread the positive message.
Our students will benefit from the “safe zone” approach and the open and honest attitude of most of the staff here. I believe that the positive message will be passed on to families and friends in this community.