Posts Tagged role models

A Question of Sport

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Prime Minister’s reception for the LGBT sports community at Downing Street. The event was held to promote the Government’s charter against homophobia and transphobia in sport and was attended by ‘famous and gay’ athletes such as Billie Jean King and Gareth Thomas, along with a few ‘famous and gay’ non-athletes such as David Furnish and a sprinkling of Hollyoaks actors. In between the champagne and frantic networking, there was a enough time for a quiet moment of reflection; regardless of one’s personal politics, here was an official event crammed full of athletes, charity representatives, artists and politicians who were taking seriously (or at least pretending to) the Prime Minister’s speech emphasising his belief in eradicating homophobia. Had these words been uttered at Downing St twenty years ago they would’ve been greeted with nothing but sneering disdain. We operate in a different political world in 2011 and as a charity, our focus is not on which party holds the reins but on promoting positive dialogue with any group who will engage with us on eliminating discrimination and bullying.

There have been questions raised regarding the current administrations’s focus on sport. Is homophobia on the playing field really as bad as it’s made out to be? Surely people can just get on and play sport together without the need for gay-only teams or international events such as the Gay Games – doesn’t this labelling simply marginalise the LGBT community further? Certainly if there were NO homophobia, and sexual orientation was considered as relevant as hair colour when welcoming somebody onto a team, I would concur. However, for heterosexual men at least, sport involves more bodily contact and post-match nakedness than any other arena provides. Therefore there is an opportunity to enjoy what is quite natural sporting comradery, but without a good deal of self-awareness many men still dutifully prove their heterosexuality by making homophobic jokes, aka ‘boys banter’. This is hardly an environment in which an openly gay man is going to willingly place himself in his spare time; for some, avoidance of personal discussions at work is difficult enough and ‘hey lads, dont drop the soap!’ wears thin a nano-second after its first utterance.

And there are totally different rules at play for women. While there is still homophobia in women’s sport (I recall a male coach jeering at two young players who greeted each other with a hug: ‘that’s illegal in 48 states’), sexism is a far greater problem. Women don’t have the same recognition as men which means they don’t have access to the same financial support, training opportunities, coaching or facilities. A closeted women’s coach once told me that her battle was simply being a woman in a man’s world, fighting for her players’ recognition and enabling them to play their international matches on a quality pitch. She didn’t feel she could possibly be out as she would instantly lose the respect she’d fought so hard to earn. And I understand that. Women’s sport is perceived to be full of lesbians and for cultural and historical reasons, it is indeed a place that many lesbians are drawn to. But it just doesn’t matter. Having a social game of squash, doing your best to remain at the top of the premier division in your chosen sport or doing a fun run with a group of friends – none of these activities should be even remotely relevant to the sex of a team mate’s partner. And if that boring stigma remains about showering with gay people; firstly, I was always too exhausted and frankly disinterested to study the bruised anatomy of others after a match. Secondly, even if you do find a team mate attractive, you make damned sure your eyes are glued to your feet at shower time to avoid looking like a big gay perv!

Our business at DRM lies with eliminating gender and sexuality based bullying from schools. Having a physical education background leads me to believe that sport is an ideal vehicle to transmit a message of acceptance and to discourage bullying. The ‘kick it out‘ campaign is a perfect example of how sport changes attitudes. Students with the most challenging behaviour and highest incidents of bullying were often the boisterous, energetic boys who loved escaping the classroom and having a football dropped at their feet. The same young men respond to the actions and words of their sporting role models, whether they be a Physical Education teacher or a high profile footballer. All it takes is an influx of PE teachers who have been taught how to challenge homophobia and gender based slurs, along with some high profile straight allies such as Ben Cohen, and the road to acceptance will be far shorter. We welcome the opportunity to deliver our workshops though the medium of Physical Education, although our message would be more impactive if national governing bodies of sport followed the lead of rugby league in terms of diversity awareness. Islington Football Development have recently approached us to conduct training with their young coaches around the new government charter and how to respond to casual homophobia when they work in schools. This is exactly how we can use a multi-agency approach to eliminating homophobia from the playgrounds and sports fields our young people frequent. The reception at Number 10 ended with some inspiring words which were a great endorsement for DRM: ‘Role models in sport are also needed to tackle bullying in schools, young people look to the stars they admire and if we don’t have enough positive role models then behaviour won’t change’.


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Where lies your Pride?

This Saturday is Pride in London and there are similar events coinciding across the world. What is Pride all about? It started out as Gay Liberation or Gay Freedom and was focussed on the struggle for human rights. Historically it was celebratory AND serious; participants remembered the Stonewall Riots, friends they’d lost to AIDS and the victims of homophobic assaults, all whilst kitted out in the cocktail of colours that have come to symbolise Pride. These marches and the vocal opposition to inequality were a huge catalyst towards legislative change and increased visibility for LGBT people.

To many young people in 2011, it’s an opportunity to be cushioned in a bubble of acceptance for a day, to drink a few too many over-priced lagers and head home with tired feet and a touch of sunburn. For some, it will be the first time they have been in the majority instead of feeling like the odd one out, and especially for visitors from smaller towns, this is a much needed confidence boost. However, some older LGBT people feel that without the protests and campaigning focus, Pride has become a rather empty display of apparent ‘LGBT culture’ – a culture which resonates little with many people’s day-to-day lives. In this country at least, we’re in a somewhat transitional period between having to force legislative and cultural change into a homophobic world, and having 100%, unblinking acceptance in society. Life for LGBT people is so much better, but we’re not there yet. So how do we now make Pride more than just a day of checking each other out from behind our Ray Bans?

The dictionary definition of ‘pride’ is a feeling of satisfaction derived from one’s own or another’s achievements. A young person asked me recently if I was proud of being gay. I said no. I’m not ashamed of it, but I’m not proud if it, any more than I’m proud of having a double-jointed thumb. I’m proud of the way I have dealt with other people’s reactions to my sexuality, or that I have been through some challenging situations with students, colleagues, family and friends who have struggled with it, but I’m not proud of my sexual orientation as a characteristic. It would just seem weird. I didn’t achieve anything just by being gay. However, I am proud that I am trying to make a difference for LGBT young people by founding Diversity Role Models. I’m proud of some of my sporting achievements. I’m proud of the longevity of many of my friendships and unrelated to me, the achievements and wonderful characters of my friends and family.

My mother was my role model. She certainly wasn’t a ‘diversity role model’ but she was an incredible example as a mother. She died when I was still a teenager and I had only just announced my sapphic ways to her. She struggled as any mother would – she had no gay friends, never had any education around different relationships and ultimately wanted the happiest and most successful life possible for her only daughter – a concept incompatible with ‘the gay lifestyle’. In the few months we had between me telling her, and her death, we went through the usual stages of defensiveness and lack of comprehension. Both of us. Me being ‘one of those’ made little sense to me either. However, regardless of how confused my mother felt, as she lay dying, she held my hand, looked into my eyes and told me how proud she was of me for being who I am. Her sense of pride gave me the freedom to imagine that had she lived, we would’ve made our peace, gossiped on the phone about our irritating partners and perhaps she would even have joined me in a DRM t shirt at Pride this weekend.

Being a lesbian is not who I am, but having a sense of dignity about my place in the world, irrespective of my sexual orientation, is a big part of who I am. Making sure that everybody is allowed the same opportunity to feel dignity is also part of who I am. Some people are driven to save the environment, some to be incredible parents, some to express their artistic or sporting talents and some are good souls who make our lives a little lighter simply by smiling at us on the street on a dark winter’s day. It’s impossible to be a role model for everything, for everybody and at all times. And we can’t feel pride in ourselves for every decision we’ve ever made. However, this Saturday, as a sign of respect towards the people that have fought for our civil and human rights, give a thought to what you are doing to make the world a slightly better place. And be proud!


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Charity number: 1142548

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Survival of the Fittest

Sometimes when we push for equality, we get criticised for drawing attention to ourselves, banging on about the same old thing (aren’t-things-better-for-you-lot-now-anyway), flying flags, being trouble makers or worst of all, pushing the gay agenda.

Recently I was accused by a teacher of having an ‘ulterior motive’ for talking to primary school children about different families. Seeing as I had clearly stated my obvious motive; ensuring that children who had LGBT family members felt safe to talk about them at school, I had to consider what this hidden agenda might be. There is only one answer to this question: I was evidently going to use some secret coded language or subliminal messaging in my choice of clothing to convert wide-eyed six year olds to ‘gayness’. While I was initially offended by this, I realised that such an irrational statement could only be driven by fear and miseducation. What good would it do me to recruit extra children to our (non-existent) club? They aren’t old enough to go ‘gay clubbing’ (clubbing being a noun in that context…), nor do they have enough pocket money to drink soy frappuccinos in Soho Square. Even if it were possible to convert children just by providing education about an aspect of society (I don’t recall a sudden upsurge of religious fervour when I taught Buddhism or Christianity in R.E), what purpose would it serve? Maybe we could take over the world! Convert absolutely everybody until we…well, die out, as the case would inevitably be.

I don’t want more LGBT people, I quite frankly don’t care how many there are. I just want those who are LGBT, to feel as safe as any other adult on the street, regardless of whose hand they’re holding. I want the same rights for black people, disabled people, Muslim people and one-eyed, purple-mohawked people. At some point we’ll reach that utopia where Western society looks back at our homophobic history, shake their heads in shame and wonder what all the fuss was about. At which point DRM will either set up in Uganda or retire to an island. Tough choice.

And as we continue to be a bit more open about sexuality and gender, other slightly disturbing trends emerge. There are muttered questions as to why a lesbian can’t just ‘present herself a little better and at least put on some make up’ and why gay men have to lisp or walk effeminately. Sometimes these questions come from lesbians and gay men who wish to distance themselves from those who might, god forbid, actually LOOK gay or lesbian. Of course these questions occasionally come from well-wishers who are concerned about the health or safety of the people their query is aimed at. Occasionally, as in 1% of the time. There is often a certain amount of fear of being associated with ‘proper lesbians’ or camp gay men, by those who can pass as straight. This is understandable and somewhat natural; one only needs to look at the behaviour of animals to know that the pack will usually leave a weak and injured member behind to die, rather than risk their lives staying to protect. It’s survival of the fittest and for some LGB (the ‘T’ is left out as I suspect they don’t have comfortable perches from which to deride others) people who lived through hellish Section 28 school days in the UK, survival means not only ‘fitting in’, but distancing themselves even further by ridiculing people who express themselves in a different way.

Sometimes on nature shows, we see animals who break the mould, the ones who make our eyes well up with tears as they stand guard over a dying playmate or deliver food to the runt of the litter. We all have it in us to play that role, often dependent on how much love we received in our own upbringing; our job at DRM is to coax that nurturing side of less sympathetic young people to life. The side that will stop them from making cruel comments about gay classmates to hide their own fear of being gay, dissuade them from laughing at disabled people on the streets and most importantly, prevent them from being bystanders to bullying. And all this might help the next generation of LGBT people to be less defensive and more accepting of difference within their own community. Of course, it’s not as simplistic as that, but as one of my teachers once proclaimed ‘you can’t change the world, but you can give it a damn good shot!’.


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Sideways Hair and Handbags

After speaking at a staff meeting on the importance of including LGBT topics in primary schools, I was invited to spend a day in one discussing different families. It was a timely reminder, in amongst all the charity red tape & future fundraising, as to how worthwhile all this is.

I visited four classes ranging in age from 6 to 11. The youngest students read ‘Spacegirl Pukes’ and looked at photos of different families, including same sex couples with children – they concluded that your family are ‘the ones that clean up your sick and buy your clothes’. They didn’t think the gender of the parents mattered. With the older classes I talked about being adopted and having two mums and two dads and six siblings; they were fascinated by this and asked both challenging and cute questions (which parents do I like more? Was I ever naughty because they weren’t my real parents?). One class of ten year olds tried to guess whether I was lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or straight. After questioning me about my hobbies and what sports I like, the vote was inconclusive (we used First Past the Post to keep it simple…). I told them I am a lesbian and that it is neither an insult, nor something to feel proud of, no more so than having blue eyes or blonde hair. None of the kids were shocked, they didn’t even giggle when anybody said the words ‘gay, lesbian or transgender’; they just accepted it and wanted to know more about my life.

It’s such an easy way to help children understand that being LGBT is just different and not worth getting worked up about; if primary school kids have honest discussions with real people at that age, our work in secondary schools would be so much easier. Even the tough boys agreed that two men who love each other should be allowed to walk down the street holding hands, just the same as anyone else. Such a heart warming experience and it moved me to tears.

Before I came into class as the ‘adopted lesbian’, the children not only learned what LGB and T stand for and how to pronounce them, but they wrote down and spoke of some of their perceptions of LGBT people. I want to share some of these gems with you:

– “gays put their hair sideways and hold hands”

– “a gay person acts like a lady and their voice changes like, ooooh”

– ‘a trans boy likes to wear girls dresses and have make up’

– ‘bisexual is a woman who likes men and women’

– ‘a gay person dresses like a man and has long hair, short hair or no hair’

– ‘gay men do pole dancing’

– “they look like ordinary people”

– ‘wear skinny jeans and act like girls’

– “lesbians have small hair”

– “if you saw a lesbian couple, one would look more male and one would look more female”

– ‘gay men might wear high hills, scurts and make up (sic)’

– “lesbians have two rings in their nose and pierce their tongues. Gay men just have earrings”

– ‘gay man has a handbag’

– “transgender is a man changing from male to female then being pregnant”

– ‘they would look like you or me. Normal’

And my personal favourite:

– ‘lesbians could have any job they wanted (if they worked hard in school and embraced all possibilities). Maybe a hairdresser’

If you are imagining a middle class, houmous-and-carrots-for-lunch, Montessori school, think again. This is a typical inner city, low socio-economic, multi ethnic school. One 7 year old spoke openly about his uncle beating up a man just for being gay. And a teacher was resistant to my presence as none of her students have LGBT families and she thought we were just ‘encouraging it’. So it’s not all plain sailing. However, with perseverance, we at least present a different point of view and allow children to make an educated decision as to whether to be accepting. My challenge to those moving onto high school was to stand up against homophobic, or in fact any, bullying, when they see it. Being adopted, being LGBT, having a particular talent or a disability are just differences and for that, the world is a richer place.


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Voice of a Role Model

Enough from me lately. Today’s post is from one of our young role models, Lucy Hill. Here’s her perspective on school, bullying and how effective role modelling can give young people hope:


School is tough for most kids; the pressures of fitting in, getting good grades (but not so good that you are considered a geek), wearing the right clothes, liking the right music…the list is endless. The turmoil is even greater for LGBT kids who are struggling with their own feelings about sexual or gender identity; they don’t need everybody else’s views piled upon them too. It is very hard to be ‘different’ in an environment that often stamps out individuality for the sake of an easy life and for LGBT kids this can prove catastrophic.

We all know of the much publicised tragic and enraging stories of gay school children ending their lives due to torment from homophobic bullies; Asher Brown, a 13-year-old Texan who shot himself in the head after being ‘bullied to death’, another 13-year-old, Seth Walsh, who hung himself after yet another attack from his tormenters and 15-year-old Billy Lucas whose school did nothing to prevent his bullies driving him to suicide, despite pleas for help. These heartbreaking stories are all too common and send a clear message that far too little is being done.

Diversity Role Models are taking a brilliant step in tackling this pandemic problem. Really, it is only by changing the minds of the young that homophobia, and homophobic bullying, can be erased once and for all. By sending successful, and above all happy, LGBT role models into schools to discuss the topic and their experiences, Diversity Role Models are not only helping to remove the fear around homosexuality, but they are showing that anybody can go on to achieve their dreams. Above all, what this organization is giving young LGBT school kids, is hope. An escape from the bullying and relief that there are other people out there just like them who lead happy, successful and untroubled lives. If I were a teenager struggling with my sexuality and experiencing ridicule and even beatings, I know seeing an adult who had come through this, and achieved everything they wanted and more, would be incredibly freeing.

Lucy Hill

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‘Gay’ is not an insult!

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What do the kids say?

‘Please come to my school because I am the only gay one and everybody hates me. I am just the same as them’

‘Could you bring a role model to our school, people are too scared to come out…all the kids say horrible things about gay people’

‘My son’s school needs a visit from you; he is too scared to walk home because other boys will ‘jump’ him’

These are just a few of the cries for help we’ve had via twitter and email since we went live. It simply reinforces how important it is to do this for our young people. If you are LGBT, just imagine that somebody had visited your class when you were young and spoken of their sexual orientation in a factual, honest and at times, humorous manner. Maybe you would’ve followed the example of many of the young people I have spoken to; eyes downcast, not drawing attention to themselves by asking questions and even feigning disinterest. These are the kids I believe with all of my heart, are being affected by my words. It’s not that I’m saying anything particularly special, or that I stand out for any particular reason, I’m simply saying that I am the same as everyone else, even though I’m gay. Many of these young people have never heard anything positive said about LGBT people. At best, they’ve heard nothing, but many of the students I’ve worked with come from backgrounds where parents are battling unsuccessfully with their own prejudice on this topic. A group of straight 15 year old boys fell about laughing when one reported that his mum said she would ‘cut his dick off’ if he ever ‘turned gay’. I waited until they’d recovered before asking them how funny that would be if they really were gay, or how I might have felt if one of my parents had responded to me in such a violent and un-parent like way. Their grins disappeared rapidly. They’d never met a ‘real gay’ before I came out to them in that lesson and they didn’t want me, someone they liked as a teacher and person, to suffer.

So what do the kids say to me? This is the question I get asked most in the course of my work. Bearing in mind I used to do this on a casual basis, my approach varied. Mostly, however, I didn’t tell a class I am a lesbian until half way through a workshop; the mere introduction of the ‘gay’ topic produced delightful and almost compulsory utterances: ‘they all belong in hell…put them on an island and blow them up…I’d knock one out if I saw him’. Most of this venom came from boys.*  I’m so used to this response that I consider it the equivalent of putting on a t shirt reading ‘I’m 100% straight’ – it’s just compulsory ‘proof of heterosexuality’ from young men who consider being gay ultimately the worst thing on earth. So once they’ve detoxed a bit, and I tell them that I am indeed one of those people they want to blow up/shank/pop/insert street violence of choice here, what do they say then? Admittedly, I used to sweat a bit at this point. One 15 year old who was sitting within a few feet of me got up and moved to the back of the room muttering something about ‘catching it’. A move that prompted cries of ‘dickhead’ and motivated one of the most initially homophobic boys to move to his seat: ‘I’ll sit you with you Miss, there’s nothing wrong with you’. Sometimes I don’t need to say anything – they teach each other. That boy later apologised and told me his religion taught him it was contagious.

* I will cover the gender response difference in another blog. Along with lesbians versus gay men in the minds of the young!

For the most part, they laugh a bit, they whisper ‘I TOLD you’ to each other and then they settle down (one pair had actually bet money on whether I was gay or not. Managed to tick the cross curricular links box by discussing the mathematics of betting on something so unpredictable these days). I am very honest and I tell them that it isn’t easy for me to face all of them as strangers and tell them personal information about myself. I tell them it is upsetting when they say they want to hurt people like me (almost always to responses like ‘we wouldn’t hurt you…we don’t mean you’) and when they tell me it isn’t natural or right to be gay, I ask directly for their help: ‘what should I do then; should I marry someone I am not attracted to and pretend? Would you try to hide your skin colour if people around you didn’t like it?’. The debate is endless but it really gets them thinking. Most kids have empathy. A lot of it. And if you appeal to them as a ‘real person’ (a term I hear often as somehow they can’t imagine us as being such) they want to help. By the end of the class, 95% agree that I shouldn’t change and that I should have the same rights as everyone else. Obviously, the responses depend greatly on class, religion and gender. Underneath it all however, the belief is the same: being LGBT must be the worst thing. Ever. Until they meet somebody who is happy, successful and not at all ashamed of their sexual orientation. At this point, the seeds of tolerance are implanted…maybe, just maybe it isn’t worth getting so worked up about. And for the couple of kids squirming in their seats, desperate for this to end as it’s just too close to home, these young people spend the rest of the day, and perhaps their time at school, knowing that it really does get better.

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‘Gay’ is not an insult!

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What is Diversity Role Models?

Number 252 on a To Do list of over 1000 (well it feels like it anyway…) completed. Establish blog.

Thank you for all your emails and messages of support. I have been endeavouring to reply individually to people’s questions but hopefully the blog will provide some answers until the website is up (Number 253 on the list!).

So what are we doing, why and how?

Diversity Role Models is a charity (application in process now) set up for two purposes: firstly, to help LGBT young people realise that being gay, or changing gender identity, is not synonymous with unhappiness, depression, lack of success, broken relationships and lack of family – some of the things that the media and statistics tend to focus on. Secondly, to help non-LGBT young people to see us as ‘real people’, with jobs, families, morals, humour, talent and drive.*  This enables them to develop empathy and understanding, and therefore reduce the amount of bullying around this topic.

* Quick disclaimer: our role models do/will not have to have ALL these qualities! They are simply an example of the positive attributes we may display to young people when we visit.

The ‘why’ is easy. The founder of the charity has been a teacher for 11 years and is sick of seeing the amount of abuse that is still levelled at either LGBT kids, ‘different’ kids or those who are simply suspected of being LGBT. Additionally, although we live in enlightened times in terms of legislation, there are still many sad stories of families not accepting partners, people’s work output suffering due to insidious homophobia, adults who deny their sexuality in order to live a ‘normal’ life and end up destroying their families by coming out after marrying and having kids. The list goes on. It doesn’t need to be this way. By developing understanding and acceptance of difference in young people, the next generation will be less likely to kick their own gay children out of home or to raise their fists/knives to somebody who doesn’t fit their gender stereotype or isn’t heterosexual. Being LGBT is simply a characteristic, as is being left-handed. And they are equally as boring!

And the ‘how’: by taking positive role models into schools to talk about their lives. These role models may be gay, straight, unsure, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Japanese, African, English, Mums, Dads, or children of LGBT people – anyone and everyone who can pass on the message: being gay is not a big deal, it’s just another facet of being human. We are taking very successful business/sports people to show that being gay is not a barrier to excellence. We will also be working with the Albert Kennedy Trust to take some of their homeless LGBT young people, into schools to tell their stories. I’ve had wonderful Mums get in touch who want to talk to young people about their own gay children, other teachers who don’t yet feel comfortable coming out at their own school but would love to take the first step by coming out in a different school, young people who suffered at school and want to tell their stories. Empowering stuff!

The details of how each school will work with us will be established as we go. Some schools will have homophobic classes they want us to target, some will want assemblies, some may have parents groups they wish us to speak to. We will be starting in London but taking this nationwide; it is particularly important to visit small towns where LGBT people often feel very isolated. It is also essential to help schools become gay-friendly for the influx of gay families that are coming their way – I don’t know about you but I hardly have any friends who aren’t either having children or trying – these children are going to be attending local schools and these schools need to be ready to accept and help their student body to accept. They have a public duty to make sure that ALL students have equal access to learning and we all know that bullying prevents effective learning.

So from here, we carry on with the boring red tape stuff that is necessary to set up a charity, we are working with some potential corporate sponsors and will be doing the usual money-chasing events that charities do, and will be looking for role models from across the country….soooo….

If you have any interest in being a role model, we have a database set up to which we can add you. We’ve had choirs, bands, athletic groups get in touch too – we can accommodate anybody! And if you express an interest and change your mind in future, no problem! We are looking to start going into schools in September so we’d love to have a long and varied list of people who are happy to come and talk to young people about acceptance. Give it some thought!

Some background to how the charity started up here:

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‘Gay’ is not an insult!

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