Just over a year ago, I met a soon-to-be ex teacher to discuss a play I was writing. The play is still in development, the teacher went on to set up Diversity Role Models. One year on the charity is proving a vital resource to schools, teachers and young people, and last night won Community Group of the Year award at the Attitude Awards.
I was asked to be a Patron when the charity was still being formed and immediately said yes. I would do anything I could to help young people, young gay people from being bullied in schools. I was bullied at school, the back of my seat kicked by a girl who would later turn out to be a good friend – and then not. I was bullied because I was born in India, even though I am not Indian. I was called names and was a bit of a loner at school and always the outsider. I have some knowledge of what it feels like to be bullied, other, not like everyone else, but my experience did not damage me.
Being a patron of DRM, having my smiley picture up on their website, wasn’t enough for me, I wanted to be more actively involved. Yesterday was my first day workshopping as a role model in a school with year tens – that’s 14-15 year olds. I hadn’t been in a school since I left my secondary modern aged 17 with three O-levels and an unsure future ahead of me. I was, of course, nervous. I hadn’t prepared my five-minute talk about myself. I’m quite adept at talking about myself, being spontaneous and winging it usually works for me, I was confident it would again. My facilitator and my co role model couldn’t have been warmer, couldn’t have taken care of me any more than they did. When I drove up and parked, a uniform of school kids (what is the collective noun for school kids?) swarmed around me and I was transported back to my school in the 70s, and I was suddenly nervous, because I know how hurtful kids can be.
Here’s how it works. Our facilitator talks about the charity, why it was set up, and what our aims are for the workshop. Students are given a series of exercises, asked what their idea of a gay man and a lesbian are – the responses mostly were, tight trousers, high pitched voices and acting effeminate for the gay men, having short hair, looking boyish and eyebrow piercings for the lesbians. When my fellow role model and I ticked none of the boxes, jaws dropped, you’re gay, you’re a lesbian, no way. And so the workshop continued. I enjoy being stared at, I like it when people compliment my choice in handbags – even more so when it is a class of teenagers who earlier on, would have thought they had nothing in common with me, a gay woman, who they thought was in no way possible, gay. It makes me smile. My fellow role model had an American accent and immediately won over the kids – American is best! But not only that, he is gay and black – and most of the black kids in the class had never met a black man who was gay. And that is world-changing. I think he became a hero for lots of kids yesterday.
During the workshops we had the chance to talk to some of the kids, and answer questions, how did we know we were gay, did we want kids (when I said I miscarried there was a palpable sigh), and part of the workshop consisted of group discussions, which we joined. I met a young boy whose uncle was gay. I asked if his uncle had been civilly partnered, he said, no he’s married. Touché. He was cool about it all. Another girl told my fellow role model that she had a gay brother, I asked if she wanted to fix him up with the role model – she smiled. Alarmingly, a girl from a very religious family, told me she could never tell her parents she was gay, that if she was gay she’d either have to kill herself or be exorcised. She was adamant. I was sad.
And each class was as different as it was similar. Teachers sat in, watched, listened. My talk changed a little with each new outing. I felt responsible and privileged and very proud because not all teenagers are the same, they taught me a lot about myself, they taught me that mostly they are not given credit for the good, for the positive, just for the negative. Just like all gay people are not the same, all teenagers are not the same. I’ve met some astonishing teenagers, not least of all those I am related to and their friends. Now that circle has widened.
Five classes later, each lasting 50 mins, with a generous lunch in between, I drove home confirming what I already knew, that dialogue is always best, that talking and discussing and meeting people makes the difference, that change is possible, because the day we think it isn’t, we might as well all hold hands and jump into a hole.
I can’t wait for my next workshops, I’m sure they will be different, perhaps not so enlightened or so easy. But I would rather try and make change happen than complain and do nothing. We all need role models, whether we’re fourteen, forty-four or sixty-four. We all need people we can look up to, identify with, trust, whether they’re just like doesn’t really matter, but often it can help. I didn’t have many gay women role models growing up, so it’s vital that I be that person for the younger generation. Imagine if all the parents of all the school children attended such workshops – imagine. If I’ve made one person think differently about what it’s like to be gay, or what gay people are like, or perhaps make them think about gay kids in their school and how they may have behaved towards them, then I’ve done my job and I’ve got Diversity Role Models to thank for that.
6 thoughts on “School’s Out”
Good on you, Shelley. I follow DRM on twitter and am always impressed by their work. It really is life changing. You should be proud.
What a fantastic thing to do! For sure you managed to enlighten hearts and minds in a single day. It’s something that I would value doing next time I’m in London xxx
Turning learned hate into Love is always a positive thing. Children are very reseptive to learn, it’s when they become adults that it’s hard to change their minds. DRM is doing a marvelous job.
You’re so cool ! xx
Oh Shelley. You touched my heart. if only you were at My daughters school 4 years ago when she was going thru hell. Loves x x x