Last Monday (Feb 1st), Nicholas Hewlett, headmaster at St Dunstan’s College in London, made headlines by coming out to his pupils and discussing his sexuality in a virtual school assembly. He wanted ‘to stand up and be frank’ about his sexuality. In this Laughology opinion piece Stephanie Davies asks if 'sometimes it can appear that we haven’t come too far in terms of diversity and inclusion?'.
The headlines reminded me of my friend at secondary school called Paul. I knew he was gay, so did he, but it was never spoken about. The reason? He couldn’t be gay on the Isle of Man because, at that time, he wasn’t allowed.
In the early nineties, when I was still at school, under Manx law it was a criminal offense to commit a homosexual act. The repressive regulation was only scrapped in 1992, a full 25 years later than in England and Wales, and 12 years after Scotland.
My school days were spent on that ‘quaint’ tax haven in the middle of the Irish Sea; the Isle of Man. It was the 1990s and while there is much to like about the place - no Covid and you can leave your doors open at night - I found it quite remote, both geographically and culturally. Let’s just say people don’t go there to broaden their horizons.
Last year, the head of the Isle Man parliament issued an apology and pardon to all the men convicted of same-sex offences under previous laws. Which is a step forward, but is it acceptable that it took almost two decades to get to that point?
Sometimes it can appear that we haven’t come too far in terms of diversity and inclusion. Lately it seems the world is still full of prejudice, no matter how many people binge-watch It’s a Sin.
But Nicholas Hewlett’s story from last week was a ray of light and spoke volumes about the advances that have been made, particularly when it comes to the attitudes of young people.
It was undoubtedly a brave and inspiring thing to do. But what was so lovely – and encouraging - about the story was his reason for doing it.
“Of course, I was aware of a huge sense of responsibility to my students, their families, my own husband Alberic, and the wider LGBT community,” he said.
Mr Hewlett realised that his audience – his pupils – were actually extremely comfortable about his sexuality. Indeed, for them, it was no big deal. He explained that two weeks prior to his ground-breaking assembly, he had been talking to students about diversity and inclusion, and was amazed at how free and open they were about differences in identities in their own peer group. It was important to them, as a diverse group, to be represented by a diverse staff body. Which made him realise that he owed it to them to be open about his identity.
Juxtapose that with Mr Hewlett’s own school days in the 1990s when the Isle of Man was still persecuting gay people and Section 28 outlawed the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. You begin to see the difference between our generation and the next.
Section 28 was only stopped in Scotland in 2000 and the rest of the UK in 2003. It’s taken two decades to progress to the place where we are today, when the progressive attitudes of students influence the decisions of their teachers, who can talk about their own sexuality without fear or oppression.
It would be nice to think that this is a beautiful example of diversity working on a chronological continuum. That as the years passed, society as a whole has progressed, and that Mr Hewlett’s students, and all their contemporaries, will take their progressive attitudes with them into adulthood when they become the leaders of tomorrow.
And to a degree this happens in society. Whitney was right, children are the future. But the glitch is the ‘teach them well’ bit. Because sometimes that’s hard to do as adults hamstrung by the prejudices and fears of our own past.
The lesson in all this is that we are still not in Utopia. We are not in a position to relax and assume the next generation will have it all sorted. Prejudice exists, and it will always exist in one form or another. Things are getting better and they will continue to get better, but the onus is still on us to make sure they do.