Education is the key to compassionate Intersectional LGBTQ+ inclusion

Shaun Dellenty's approach to cultural and organisational change for inclusion inspires educators, young people and businesses

Shaun Dellenty is part of The Diversity & Inclusion Speakers Agency. Here he explains why education is so important when it comes to LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Shaun, you were widely reported in the national press as one of the first ‘out’ gay primary school leaders in the UK – why was it important for you to be open about your sexuality in that environment? 

I actually came out in the workplace at the age of 40.

The reason I stayed in the closet for so long was down to hearing homophobic comments, prejudicial language and bullying in staff rooms and offices. So, I stayed in the closet.

By 2009, I was working as a school leader of a lovely primary school in London. We did a student questionnaire around bullying and equality issues, and I was really shocked to discover that 75% of our wonderful pupils were experiencing homophobic bullying on a daily basis. Whether they identified as LGBTQ+ or not, many were being targeted with homophobic language for being “different”.

Well, guess what, we’re all different – aren’t we?

Faced with that data, I learned that our children were suffering, and faced with young people suffering as an educator and as a human being, you have to do something about it -you can’t ignore that data.

I came out as gay in assembly and fed back the bullying data to our school community to make it concrete to them. Because when I was in school myself back in the 1980s, the days of Section 28, I was very badly homophobically bullied.

To cut a long story short, it nearly resulted in me taking my own life.

So, the thought of that happening to those wonderful young people that I have a duty of care over? Not on my watch! So, I came out in assembly.

In addition to that, I devised and wrote a training programme initially for primary schools around compassionate intersectional LGBTQ+ inclusion to ensure every young person, whoever they are and however they identify in schools, can feel they belong.

To ensure they feel represented, validated and can have the best chance of an education, and therefore a life that they deserve.

How important is education around LGBTQ+ issues?

I’m 53 years old now, and I never had any LGBTQ+ inclusive education when I was in school. Not a book, a lesson, a poster, nor an assembly.

And bearing in mind, I went to school in the 1980s, in the days of Section 28, which essentially shut down conversations around LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Section 28 was repealed in 2003, and we’re in a very different place now. But despite this, LGBTQ+ education is still very new. And it’s fair to say over the last few years, there have been some barriers and challenges to prevent inclusive education.

Whilst that can be quite stressful to deal with when you work in this field, it shows that there are generations of people, generations of our parents and grandparents, who never had open conversations about what being LGBTQ+ means – and more importantly, what it absolutely doesn’t mean.

The only way we’re going to push through prejudice and discrimination, fear and anxiety, is through education because there is a lot of misinformation about LGBTQ+ people.

And they are just people. They are just human beings.”

What is your top tip for businesses wanting to create a more inclusive culture?

My top tip for a business wanting to create an inclusive culture is to start with individuals.

“We’re talking about a cultural change of ethos here, not just a tick box approach. And culture change begins with change within individuals. What we are aiming for is not a fixed point – there is no train station with ‘inclusion’ written across it. 

“What we’re aiming to do is nurture organisations that are agile, that can react and respond to the demands of human diversity in the present moment, but also in five years and 10 years.

So that if all of the staff left the organisation, it could continue being an inclusive, representative, diverse organisation.

How has your experience with homophobia and bullying shaped the person you are today?

When I was in school back in the 1980s, I experienced homophobic bullying and prejudice on a daily basis.

Over the years, I was privileged enough to work through the damage – the negative impact that had on me as a person. I was privileged to access, for example, therapy and counselling. And that is a privilege because not everybody can do that.

I realised that I could either let my past define me and therefore become my future, or I could turn around, face the future and see what was possible. That’s what I chose to do, but I know I’m lucky to have been able to get to that point.

And in my 10+ years of work around the world, tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying, I know that many people have not been as lucky as me to outrun the past.

There’s also energy there. I think for anybody who’s experienced bullying and prejudice, it creates an energy, and that energy can be very negative, or if you take the time to bring curiosity to it and befriend it, the energy can be transformed into something positive.

It connects with people’s hearts and minds. And in turn, it can take them on a journey where they reflect on their own lived experience and how it intersects with the lived experience of those around them.

Sometimes, we can all be mean to other people. I have been too, and unless we take the time to notice that and work with that positively, compassionately and proactively, we won’t understand where our biases and prejudices come from.

I believe all of us need to stop, reflect and notice what’s going on in our own hearts and minds. And instead of pretending that we’re not racist, homophobic or ableist, we fess up and learn to notice it when it’s triggered. We can then work with it positively to prevent our bias, our prejudice and our fear and anxiety from damaging other people’s time on earth.

That’s quite a big ask, but I believe it can be done.

It’s about taking responsibility and accountability for what we think, feel and say.
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