Interview: David Weston on his coming out assembly
Many of you will know David Weston from the unexpected email he received from a former student after he came out in an assembly four years ago. David tweeted the email, and the story went viral. We chat to David about what motivated him to give the assembly, his struggle with his own sexuality and how he thinks more teachers should come out.
What made you give the assembly back in 2010?
In 2005 I was diagnosed with a rare liver condition, and I became really ill from then. For the next four years I was in and out of work. I was really ill and I was getting worse and worse. So at the end of 2008 I got listed for a liver transplant because the disease was getting so bad and I needed a new liver or else I would have died. So I got that in February 2009, and as I was recovering from that, I had one of those moments where realise you’ve been given a second chance at life, and I felt like I wanted to make a difference in some way.
When I was in hospital, someone lent me the film Milk. Milk is a biopic of an American politician called Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay US politician. He got a massive wave of hatred basically directed at him and national attempts to try and make being gay illegal. And his response to this was to urge everyone in the community and around the entirety of America to come out and let their friends, family and colleagues know that they were gay. As soon as everyone knew a gay person, and they were just someone who they knew as a perfectly normal nice person, then people wouldn’t be afraid and they wouldn’t be angry anymore. It really struck a chord with me. I was sat there thinking this is something I should easily be able to do. All I had to do was just make sure everyone at school knew that I was gay.
So after a few months I did eventually get back to work and I spoke to the head teacher and said “Look, I want to be openly gay. If anyone asks, and I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to do it, but I just want to make sure that everyone knows without making an issue of it.”
What was his reaction?
He said it was absolutely fine and he was really supportive. He was 100 per cent behind me and told me that if I had any problems with it to let him know.
Nothing really happened after that. But as it happens, in a physics lesson I was teaching a few months later, I was fiddling with my engagement ring because I’d just got engaged to my now civil partner, and I nearly dropped it. Then a student asked “Is that an engagement ring? Are you engaged then?” I said “Yes” and he said “Don’t drop it or she’s be really annoyed.” I just said “Oh, he’ll be really annoyed.” “Yes you’re right, he would be very cross.” Suddenly there were loads of questions “So are you gay then sir?” “Yes I am” “what do you mean getting married? I didn’t know men could get married?” So I talked to them about civil partnerships. The conversation didn’t last long and then we just got on with the lesson. The rest of the lesson was perfectly ordinary. And I guess I was waiting for some kind of negative reaction but basically nothing ever happened and no one said anything else.
I then decided a couple of months later that I wanted to do an assembly. Not a coming out assembly as such, but more of a let’s talk about homophobic language and make sure people know the history of gay rights and gay legislation. So I planned that for the beginning of 2010. I was completely terrified obviously. I didn’t know what was going to happen when I did it, but there was basically three assemblies, one for each bit of the school, and I just started off saying “Many of you already know that I’m engaged to get civil partnered with my partner, and I just wanted to do this assembly.”
Basically that was it, and then a few kids came up to me at the end and said “Respect for doing that. That was a great assembly.” But most people didn’t say anything. Students didn’t really say anything. Parents didn’t say anything. A couple of colleagues said “Oh that was great” and then I just sort of got on with life and got on with being a teacher exactly as normal.
So It wasn’t really an issue, and I was really surprised. Basically it just died away, and occasionally a kid might say “Oh how’s your husband sir?” or something like that but that was it really.
And then this guy sends me this email, so I thought I would tweet it thinking some people might like it, and now over 4000 retweets later or something like that here we are.
The reaction has been amazing. Did you have trouble accepting your own sexuality when you were younger?
Yes I did. It took me quite a long time. I think I first tried coming out to my parents at the age of 14. I wasn’t completely sure really. I remember them saying it was probably just a phase. They didn’t make a big fuss about it and I thought well maybe it was. I kept my sexuality completely hidden at school. I was terrified of telling anyone. It wasn’t until I got to university that I came out. First of all I had a girlfriend because I thought that’s what I should do, then I came out to everyone. I had a slightly bad experience with boyfriend and then went back to having a girlfriend, and then I had a boyfriend again. After a while I had a bit of counseling and then finally came out and sorted my life out really and came to terms with who I am. Obviously now I’ve been in a civil partnership for four years, and feel completely comfortable with it, but it took me a long time because I just never felt comfortable with being openly gay and that it would all be ok. I assumed that if I did that it would cause some problems in my life, and again I think if I had openly gay role models at school rather than just slightly extreme gay examples on TV it would have been really different.
How much have schools changed for LGBT people?
It’s definitely changed a lot actually. So where I was teaching, at Watford Grammar School for Boys, I’d actually been a student there myself from 1991 to 1998. Back then there was still Section 28. None of my teachers would have been allowed to say what it means to be gay and it was a really different attitude. Now when I think back on it, I realise one of my teachers was gay, but at the time I didn’t realise. He used to wear an AIDS ribbon, but to be honest I was a naive teenager and I didn’t know. But actually if there had been a teacher willing to stand up and say they were gay, it would have made a huge difference to me. So since they abolished Section 28, and then civil partnerships came about and now gay marriage, the attitude has changed so much. Now in the media people talk about being gay and there are stories about all sorts of LGBT issues. They’re so much more talked about, and so in schools you just find most kids are really open and tolerant. Which is not to say that bullying doesn’t happen, and in fact I’ve had a couple of messages from people saying “Oh wow I wish you’d been at my school because actually I got bullied.” Obviously that does happen, but it’s improving a lot. And obviously it’s going to depend from person to person and school to school, but the UK is certainly a lot better than a lot of other countries. It’s moving in the right direction, but I would still like more teachers to come out because I think if sir has a husband or sir has a boyfriend or miss has a girlfriend or whatever from when a child is young, then that makes a big difference because it’s just completely normal and they know someone who’s perfectly normal to them. You’ve got to talk about LGBT issues and people have to know what the various words that they hear mean, and they have to learn what it means to be in a gay relationship, or what it mean to be transgendered, or any trans issues at all or what gender actually is.
Do you think more teachers should come out?
For whatever reason, it does seem that there are quite a lot of gay people working in education, and I don’t know why that is. You can’t tell anyone that they have to come out because it’s going to be different in every school and their own personal circumstances and how comfortable and confident they feel, but even if there’s a little bit of resistance, stand up for those children who are growing up or will grow up to be LGBT. For them to have some sort of role model is just such a powerful thing. There should be more support for teachers who want to come out, and maybe it shouldn’t be as difficult as it is. But I would encourage people to make that effort, because as Harvey Milk said, the more people who come out, then the less fear there will be. It could help so many children.
You can follow David on Twitter @informed_edu