Rolling up our sleeves and tackling homophobia, bi-phobia and trans-phobia at an inner London all boys school with Diversity Role Models

Diversity Role Models (DRM) is a ground-breaking charity, originally set up to tackle what Stonewall termed the ‘endemic’ culture of homophobia in Britain’s schools. Today, it has branched out further to talk about prejudice and difference more broadly, placing authentic role models into classrooms to talk of their own life experiences, in turn giving young people valuable information about the dangers of stereotyping and what can too often be the tragic consequences of bullying someone for being different.  All senior Emerald Life team members have trained as diversity role models as part of our ongoing commitment to the charity. Steve Wardlaw attended his first role model session last week, and these are his thoughts on the day.

Last week, I and another member of Team Emerald spoke at the Harris Academy Boys’ School in East Dulwich. We spent a full school day talking to 5 groups of 15 boys each, all whom were in year 9. As this was my first school visit for Diversity Role Models, I was certainly a little nervous before the first session. The aim is to educate pupils about a sensitive subject and in each workshop throughout the day there was always at least a few of the pupils that we could tell we’d really reached even if some we didn’t. Of course, an hour couldn’t possibly change everything, but it’s the start of a conversation, and if it made some of the young adults think again about bullying, stereotyping and the language they used, then we certainly achieved what we set out to do.

DRM post-it note

The stories we were encouraged to tell were mostly about our own school days and/or coming out. The aim is to give the youngsters something they can relate to, rather than stories about work or later life. Mine was about being outed to my parents by a ‘friend’ when I was not at home at the age of 18. Also, we discussed not just being gay but being different – no-one wants to be different from their friends at school, and that is what being gay can feel like.

When I spoke about these experiences, there was an attentive silence, which if you have ever spoken to a group of teenagers is a success in itself. I noticed two things – first that no-one seemed to realise that I was gay (we used this to reinforce the negative power of stereotypes) and secondly – surprisingly – they were emotional and pleased about the good reaction of my mother when I told her. The children in each class come from very different backgrounds from my own but we connected over a disucssion of relationships with parents.

In terms of the questions asked, many were about sex – we ALWAYS defer those questions as this is a relationship and anti-bullying session, not sex education. Others that popped up included things like,

‘How do you feel about not having children?’ We can now tell the pupils that there are lots of way LGBT people can become parents and how they get support. And then a few others like, ‘Have you been bullied or beaten up? Who plays which role?  Who does the ironing or who does the cooking?’

I was struck by one boy who talked a lot about his LGBT ‘friend’ who always acted differently when with other boys because he felt scared around them. This was very powerful and it made the others understand how careless language can really have a negative effect on a person. He drew us a picture during the session of a boy with sad eyes in a mask and under he had written, ‘Be Yourself. Don’t Be Scared of Who You Are.” DRM always keeps drawings or messages given to us as powerful reminder of each day of training.

Ahead of my next visit, I learned that it’s easy to stray off course if you repeat the same message several times during the day, so something I’ll remember is to stay on point. There is so much that you want to say if the response is positive; we don’t have long for each session and the simplest messages are the most effective.

My advice for anybody thinking of volunteering for DRM would be to do it, enjoy it, and listen to the pupils. In large part they are trying to understand and learn too – much more than I would have given them credit for. I can’t wait to do the next one!

To find out more about Diversity Role Models including info on how you can volunteer as a role model, visit their site here.