I started my teacher training course in 1988. I consider that to be a year of shame for the UK.
It’s when the infamous Clause 28 was passed into law, stating that local authorities "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."
The law achieved its effect. It created a climate of fear. People were afraid to talk about being gay or lesbian in schools.
I’m sitting now, in my shared office, under the poster I bought as a student teacher back in 1988 from the ‘Stop the clause education group’. It shows pictures of a range of different families under the headline ‘Real Families’ – directly combating the toxic ‘pretended family relationship’ phrase from the law.
So what was it like in 1988? I can share a couple of anecdotes. I’m not claiming that they are representative – but maybe they help to give a ‘feel’ for the era.
I went into teaching because, as a student, I had enrolled on a volunteer reading programme. I worked two mornings a week in a small infant school on the edge of Oxford, in a very disadvantaged area. I was in the middle of intensive study for my finals. I’d done almost no academic work in my second year, choosing to dedicate my time to student journalism instead. These mornings in the school because my favourite hours of the week. I loved seeing the children flourish and develop as readers.
One morning, the school secretary took me aside and said, ‘I think you know my son’. She told me his name, and I agreed. Very agitated, she asked me to promise her ‘not to tell anyone that he’s a homosexual.’ Seeing her distress, I agreed to her request. The staffroom was often filled with discussion about teenage children and their boyfriends and girlfriends. So it wasn’t as if personal things weren’t talked about.
But there was kind of unspoken policing. Heterosexual relationships and escapades constituted relaxing chat. But the school secretary, experienced and widely-respected, was afraid to say anything about her own son. He had bravely come out in his early adulthood. I think she wished he hadn’t.
In my teacher training year, I was a volunteer for the Oxford Aids support charity, OXAIDS. I was on the management committee, but I never mentioned this when I was applying for teaching posts. I never told my tutors on my PGCE. It was like I had to keep it separate as I took my first steps into my professional life in education.
When I spoke to other students about AIDS awareness with fellow volunteers from OXAIDS, we got a lot of support. But some students would heckle us. In one college, a vote was passed calling on the authorities to exclude any student found to be HIV positive. No-one ever stood up to the heckling on our behalf, to say that it wasn’t acceptable. We felt like we were undefended in a battlefield of prejudice.
I suspect that much of this ‘climate of fear’ is still relevant to many readers. But it’s been one of the greatest pleasures of my life to see LGBTQIA+ voices speaking more loudly and more confidently. I recently got an email from the director of our local Teaching School Hub with the following paragraph:
February is LGBT History Month in the UK. As a gay school leader, it is important for me to be visible and to continue being that positive role model for others. I too am inspired by the story of Headmaster Nicholas Hewlett, of Dunstan College, coming out to his staff and pupils during an online assembly this week: “If by standing up and ‘coming out’ to my pupils, it helps one young person be more comfortable in their own skin, more empowered to be themselves, and further engenders a culture of respect, inclusion, and the championing of individuality, surely it is an act worth doing?”
We’ve got lot to do. But I am optimistic, all the same! We’ve come a long way baby!