Visiting UK Schools with Stonewall
Acting and Activism
Against homophobia and bullying
I am currently visiting UK secondary schools at their invitation, accompanied by staff members from Stonewall who advise schools on tackling homophobic bullying. Representatives from local authorities who oversee education in state schools, as well as some school governors and parents are also in attendance.
I am invariably greeted by the head-teacher, senior staff and head girls and boys, before I address the students. In assemblies of all ages, I talk about what it was like growing up gay or “queer” as we were called in the 1950’s. I explain how I came out, aged 49, when Section 28 was introduced, which banned positive discussion of homosexuality in state schools. This law was repealed seven years ago, permitting schools to tackle issues such as homophobic bullying, to the benefit of all students and particularly of gay students (out or not) and gay teachers (out or not).
After speaking, I answer general and personal questions by students about my work as an actor and as an activist and everywhere I have been listened to with respect and graciousness.
It is notable that I have met students who came out as young as 12; transgender teenagers; a gay head-teacher, gay governors and a multitude of teachers concerned to make their schools havens of understanding and tolerance. I have been welcomed into schools run by Catholics and the Church of England and those of no faith affiliation. I have seen models of care, where sixth formers mentor their juniors, where student councils tackle the use of “gay” as a disparaging term, where staff introduce gay-themed drama classes within the national curriculum.
This is impressively forward-looking and very touching.
Section 28 is well and truly over and done with: yet all is not rosy. I have had one invitation withdrawn from a faith school. At another school a governor kept his children away from class in protest, though the rest of the school was united in support of my visit. A pity but some old prejudice remains. Otherwise, it has been inspiring to see how much work is being done to correct society’s past errors.
These are private visits and I have resisted requests from the media to attend them, so that open discussion is not inhibited. Hence, perhaps, the few suspicious criticisms of my motives that have been reported in the press.
By the year’s end I shall have been privileged to see about 50 of the most progressive schools at work. They are preparing students to become adult citizens who respect minorities and accept equality as a laudable aim in a democracy.
Beyond, there are wrongs to be righted. The Albert Kennedy Trust last year helped 600 young gay people who are at odds with their parents, some of whom made them homeless. In that context, senior politicians who have joined the “It will get better campaign” are to be congratulated. Like them, I intend to continue the fight against discrimination, as best I can. — Ian McKellen, London, 1 December 2010
12 April 2011: McKellen Takes Gay Tour to Schools