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'I came out to my pupils to be the role model I never had - and I've never had a homophobic comment in the classroom'

Thomas Wiltshire, a 29-year-old English teacher at a secondary school in South London, shares his story in the Attitude April Style issue, out now.

2021-03-01

As told to: Thomas Stichbury

I had a multitude of inspiring teachers when I was growing up: Mr Jenkins, Miss Cotgrove, Miss Reynolds… there were loads. All my favourites showed their humanity and let you in a bit. They let you understand who they are as people.

I’ve been teaching for seven years and I made the decision about four/five years into my teaching career that I wanted to be openly gay. When I was at school, I wish I had a teacher who was [out], because I didn’t come out until I was 22/23, and I could have come out when I was 15 or 16. Maybe I needed that role model I didn’t have.

Thomas Wiltshire, 29, teaches English at a secondary school in South London

I will just put it into conversation. If we are reading a poem, they’ll say it is about the poet’s girlfriend – “or his boyfriend,” I’ll add. I challenge the students in that way.

Then I will say things like “my partner” and use the pronoun 'he', and the kids are great. I’ve never had a homophobic comment. Their questions are always out of curiosity: “Sir, what does your boyfriend do?” They are fantastically inclusive, more so than my generation ever was.

It has allowed me to teach from a different perspective, too: with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, we touch on queer theory and Victorian men and how they’d hide their homosexuality.

We also do unseen poetry and look at Frank Ocean’s letter that he put on Tumblr as though it were literature, or examine lyrics: why are they using these pronouns? What is this suggesting about the love they have for someone?

Mr Wiltshire says the pupils in his classroom have been "great" since he began being open about his sexuality.

I was a media teacher at my previous school, as well as an English teacher, and Attitude magazine was actually on our syllabus. As a gay teacher who was ‘out’ to my students, I always found it an empowering thing to teach kids.

Yes, there are still people going around who use homophobic slurs, so nonchalantly as if they’re not offensive.

You and I both know, when you’re the kid in the class – I know I certainly was – you sit there, you hear it, you giggle, “Yeah, he called me gay,” but you know on the inside that that’s taken a little chunk out of you.

As teachers, we don’t want that for any student. We don’t want the kid giggling along, or sitting in silence, knowing that it’s really hurting them inside.

We want to empower teachers to challenge it, but we also want to empower students to challenge it. I love it when I hear kids say, “Nah, mate, you can’t say that.” It’s so cool.

Read the full interview in the Attitude April issue, out now to download and to order globally.

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