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'Why I decided it was time to come out to my pupils at school'

30 years after the introduction of Section 28, teacher Luke Burgess, 26, showed just how much progress has been made - and how much work there still is to do.

2018-11-12

I grew up in a working-class town, a stone’s throw from Brighton. But as a teenager struggling to come to terms with the fact I was gay, I might as well have been on another planet.

The education system didn’t represent, let alone prepare, me for the person I was on my way to becoming. Being gay was not something mentioned in school, and homophobia wasn’t robustly challenged. I had no role models to look up to.

This experience had a profound impact on my life, and it’s the reason I eventually came out as a gay man in support of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Union (LGBTU), an organisation dedicated to LGBT+ students, faculty, allies and alumni.

I’m currently a teacher at a comprehensive on the outskirts of Brighton, and in the past I have felt the pressure or need to be closeted at work. Whenever a colleague mentioned their wife or husband, I would stay silent.

During my training in 2015, I remember a staff member saying that they would question the conduct or competency of a teacher if he or she told a student that they were gay.

However, as my career progressed, I threw myself into becoming an LGBTU ally, receiving training from a charity called Allsorts, which provides support for young queer people.

I wanted to improve teachers’ skills, build a body of supportive governors and parents, and create effective policies and an inclusive curriculum, with an additional focus on pastoral support that would enable and empower the voices of our pupils.

My aim was to help the school work towards a Rainbow Flag award, given by The Proud Trust to institutions that shine a spotlight on LGBT+ inclusion and diversity.

So I set up an LGBTU group for students, which turned into a weekly lunch-time activity. It became a safe space for them to talk about sexuality, bullying and instances of homophobia.

I overheard one student describing his friend’s coming out story as attention-seeking, which he then dismissed with a homophobic slur. Intervening, I told him that this offended me as a gay man.

He immediately apologised and assured me that he wouldn’t have said it if he knew. It puzzled me why he thought that would make a difference.

Spurred on by this incident, I decided to hold an assembly for the entire school, focusing on coming out, hate crime and the long-term damage that homophobic language can have on victims.

My colleague Pam and I decided that this was a discussion that absolutely needed to be had. While planning the end-of-term talk, I started thinking about the irony of us saying that it’s OK to be gay even though we weren’t being open or honest with them about our own sexuality.

It dawned on me that I could be a role model to these kids, the kind I lacked in my youth. And all it took was one simple sentence: “I find it offensive as a gay man and my colleague as a gay woman.”

The whole experience and reaction has been incredible. We’ve been flooded with messages of support from staff and students alike. It even gave some pupils the confidence to come out.

Our objective was to teach them about sexuality and that there is no need to hide, or be ashamed of who they are, and I believe that we succeeded. From the school hall to national television, where Pam and myself appeared on Good Morning Britain, our message of togetherness has spread.

I hope it leads to greater guidance and support for LGBT+ students and LGBTU members.

allsortsyouth.org.uk theproudtrust.org