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You Are Not Alone

By Troy Jenkinson

I recently listened to Dr Shaun Dellenty presenting with the LGBTed network (a national network of LGBT+ teachers and leaders). He talked passionately about his accidental/unplanned journey throughout his educational career, making changes for the better regarding equality.

I harked back to growing up and starting my career during Section 28 (or Clause 28) - a legislative designation for a series of laws across Britain that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. It was in effect from 1988 to 2003 in England and Wales. In recent training sessions I delivered to a Multi Academy Trust in the north of the country, only a handful of staff had even heard about this debilitating clause to the Local Authority Act, let alone understood its impact on the lives of the LGBTQ community for over two decades and the legacy it’s left.

I reflected upon where my education around LGBTQ relevant topics came from - the television, media, playground gossip… all negative and damaging, initially. My enlightening moment was Russell T. Davies’ “Queer As Folk” with positive queer characters tackling issues facing the LGBTQ community at the time in 1999.

Not once was I formally taught about LGBTQ safe sex, the culture or the positive impact queer pioneers had in sports, science and (social) history. Quite the contrary, I was ridiculed and teachers turned a blind eye (perhaps because they were scared themselves). The lasting impact resulted in me leading a double life; not only as a secondary student where I suppressed my authentic self, but as a fledgling teacher separating my personal and professional lives. Effectively, having to think about how I kept the real me hidden, prevented me from focusing on teaching and being a good role model to students who were potentially questioning, themselves.

My take-away from recent collaborations is “the power of sharing and connection” - sharing stories, making connections with people and learning from one another’s experiences. I resonate with this, as there is a huge power in sharing vulnerabilities and how we effectively deal with them.

I consider myself to be lucky enough to have survived my educational experience and thrived in school leadership, yet I hadn’t considered the true impact that hiding my authenticity had had on my mental health. In October 2022, the toll of these stresses prompted my decision to regain control of my educational journey.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel privileged to have led three very different schools, affording me the ability to grow and develop as a leader. My final headship taught me a lot about myself. Walking across the playground in those very early days, hearing homophobic slurs being used unchallenged, brought back the traumas of childhood. It galvanised me to become the role model I should have been from the outset and in the process saw me writing my first children’s book: “The Best Mummy Snails in the Whole Wide World”. Like Shaun Dellenty’s accidental journey, I fell into the role of author while creating representation for the diverse families at the school.

My stance on antibullying provided my school and I with the opportunity to work alongside a number of supportive individuals, giving rise to sharing my stories with other schools/organisations, leading assemblies/workshops for children and adults alike. Only now do I realise how vital my journey has been to provide positive visibility to empower others to be their authentic selves.

So how is this relevant now? In the current political climate with the rise of hate speech on social media, it is now more than ever that I feel the need to raise my head above the parapet and speak out. I have heard time and again how recent party-political conference speeches echo the historical prejudices towards the queer community that underpinned 1988’s Section 28! The incitement of hatred towards the trans community in potential policy-making is being, and NEEDS to be, challenged by the very UK law passed to make all individuals feel safe and valued.

The Equality Act was introduced by, some might say, a more enlightened government in 2010. The language and rhetoric of prominent voices today is divisive. We should be mindful and stand together. If we allow one minority group to be targeted, we allow inequitable views to take hold and risk the freedoms we have so valiantly fought for, being diminished.

Evidence from Just Like Us (2021), an LGBTQ charity working with children and young people, finds that LGBTQ pupils are far more likely to experience suicidal thoughts than heteronormative counterparts (68% compared to 29%). This increases to 77% in the trans community. This early trauma is long lasting. Indeed, Section 28 continues to influence the lives of many 40–60-year-olds even today with mental health difficulties. It hadn’t occurred to me how I had been subjected to it until I started listening to the powerful stories of others in networks I’ve attended.

Ultimately, I believe providing a voice for all people to feel safe to be who they are, is a safeguarding issue, challenging politicised prejudice and protecting all marginalised groups. It is there in print in “Keeping Children Safe in Education” (2023) and the Equality Act (2010). These documents support leaders when they are challenged about providing support for marginalised groups.

It has taken me a long time to come to terms with my journey. Only through listening to the journeys of others have I made connections - joined the dots. As Catherine Lee (2020) puts it, LGBTQ leaders have five key attributes in abundance that equip them to be exceptional leaders:

  • those of reading others
  • commitment to inclusion
  • approachability
  • courageous risk takers
  • good managers of uncertainty.

If this blog inspires someone to make sense of their own journey, knowing they are not alone and, maybe take a leap into leadership, I will be thrilled.

Troy is a head teacher and an author.

This blog is the first in a series of articles published as part of NAHT's Celebrating Diversity in Leadership series. Please note that all views contained within series are the authors' own, and do not necessarily reflect NAHT’s broader policy positions and work. Read other blogs in the series.

Use #ImASchoolLeader if you wish to join the discussion on social media about the blog series and the topics raised.

If you’re interested in sharing your own experiences as part of the series, please contact policy@naht.org.uk.

First published 13 November 2023