Christopher Bryant talks to the pioneering Elly Barnes about the importance of educating schoolchildren about LGBT history, and the power of music to overcome prejudice.
Elly Barnes is an exciting and indispensable voice in LGBT activism. She has been teaching LGBT history since 2005, and in 2010 established a Diversity Training Centre in her school at Stoke Newington. She was honoured for this work when she was listed as number one in the 2011 Independent on Sunday’s Pink List.
I caught up with Elly as she prepared for the ‘Educate and Celebrate’ showcase at the Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal Football Club, on February 28.
You’ve been teaching History Month since 2005. How has that changed over the years?
The project started as a small assembly for my Year 7s. I had 240 minds whose perceptions I could change, I wanted to start a new ethos. The school was homophobic, unsurprisingly like a lot of schools are, of course. The project has grown from an assembly and a few lessons in the curriculum for year 7, then added in each year group year after year until the whole school had been exposed to an inclusive curriculum. We started rolling out the curriculum ideas to other schools in the Borough of Hackney and began to deliver training to other teachers. From this point I rolled out the project nationally which is when I joined up with Sue Sanders at Schools Out.
The project grew into a national teacher-training program called ‘Educate & Celebrate – How to make your school LGBT friendly’, which I now do full time. I’m a freelance diversity trainer and LGBT schools advisor for Birmingham City Council and for London schools. The project has grown because there’s an absolute need for it. Birmingham City Council created a new post for me because they saw the benefits of making their schools LGBT friendly.
How did it help with this work when you were listed at number one in The Independent on Sunday Pink List 2011?
It was brilliant because for the first time ever they picked a total unknown, and in the field of education. We’ve been pushing at local authorities and ITT courses to deliver specific LGBT training but it was just not available. This is what Sue Sanders at Schools Out has also been pushing for all these years. So, I set up my former school in Stoke Newington as a Diversity Training Centre for teachers. I was advertising throughout the country for teachers to come to me. I would give them a day’s training, and consultancy after to help them in their own schools. That is what I had achieved at the time of the Pink List. It raised the profile of the training to the point that County Councils, more schools and numerous charities and organisations became interested in the work that I was doing. I then started delivering training for Boroughs, individual schools and workplaces.
I think adults can feel a little left behind with these developments and changes, especially when they don’t have that much contact with kids or the education system. I didn’t know what STEM meant when I went to the History Month launch event at Bletchley Park last November.
We choose a different subject each year to focus on in schools, so at Bletchley Park you would have seen the year of STEM. We focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths through the work of Alan Turing. He’s a great role model. Stoke Newington ICT department have been studying him for 7 years, all the Year 7s do a project on him. They look at the very first computer, which was a big as a hall. The kids can see the progression of how technology has developed because of the work of a gay man.
It’s important to ‘usualise’ the fact that he is a gay man. That really makes a difference in education because if we’re not talking about it then the kids don’t think it exists. Which is why they laugh, giggle and bully each other, because they really don’t know what the words mean. They are led to believe these are negative words. So what I do is give definitions of the words lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans and show positive representations of LGBT people in the classroom so they are educated about the great things LGBT people have done which have formed the world we live in.
You’ve told the story of a boy at your school who came out in front of thousands singing ‘An Easier Affair’ by George Michael. Do you think music has a way of helping people overcome prejudice in a way that no history lesson can?
Yes. I think it’s an advantage. The arts are full of LGBT people who are accepted and respected. We’ve got people like Katy Perry, Jessie J and Rihanna, who are all identifying as bisexual, Frank Ocean has also just come out. That really helps. It’s accessible to young people because they love music. It’s not so obvious in other subjects but it is always there hidden in the curriculum, we just need to highlight it.
For instance, before we did STEM we had two years looking at sport, this allowed us to step up the campaign. We have been working with ‘Football V Homophobia’ and Pride Sports. That’s why we’ve ended up with this fantastic LGBT gig at the Arsenal on 28th of February. The Arsenal Premier League Football Club is supporting an ‘Educate & Celebrate’ schools showcase! That is a massive move forward. It’s all steps in the right direction. Every subject can be completely open, that’s the goal, to make all workplaces and all schools LGBT friendly.
I was talking a friend’s 14 year old recently, and he goes to school in Peterborough. He didn’t know what LGBT History Month was, and said it wasn’t mentioned in his school. Is this typical?
Yes, it’s completely typical.
You need a beginning point, a safe point. Teachers can be fearful because of the backlash from parents; or there’s a religious aspect, or teachers feel uncomfortable with the subject matter. This is what the training is all about: to give teachers confidence and also give them the resources and skills to effectively tackle homophobia confidently within their classrooms.
For me, my role is about getting to newly qualified teachers, to teacher trainers, and getting into schools and working with head teachers and getting into staff meetings whenever I can. Generally, when I go and deliver the training, it always elicits much emotion. There is a sense of relief that this can be done, and that there are tools out there to do it. It’s always a positive atmosphere after we’ve done the training. I get very favourable feedback from people who have been fearful for years about using the word “lesbian” in the classroom, as if all hell is going to break loose.
The problems that we think we’re going to face are not with the kids but with the staff, because they’re scared and do not know where to start the process.
Interestingly, my friend’s kid also asked, “why don’t we have heterosexual history month?” Do people ask you that, and if so how do you answer it?
We’re dealing with protected characteristics from the Equality Act. We’re dealing with oppressed groups of people who should be treated equally. That wasn’t legislation in this country until 2010. And we’ve only just had the OFSTED criteria which says that schools now have to be seen to tackle homophobic bullying or they fail their OFSTED report. We’ve only had that for 1 year and it is making a difference.
We’re at the beginnings of dealing with these issues in schools. There is this ethos that right now we have to segregate because we have to highlight the achievements of these oppressed groups, which is why we get Black History Month, Women’s History Month. I don’t think we’re at a stage where we fully understand the issues of different groups of people. Ideally this would be embedded in our curriculum everyday.
In my Utopia, before I die hopefully, we will not have to segregate in the way that we do at the moment because everyone will be allowed to be who they want to be without the fear of discrimination in their schools. Right now there’s widespread discrimination at all levels, which is why we have to highlight our histories.
Next year’s theme is music, and you’re in charge of that. What have you got planned?
I’m organising the prelaunch event for next year and the focus is on music. I went to university at Birmingham Conservatoire, so I know how brilliant the city is for music. There’s the CBSO [City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra], Symphony Hall, the Town Hall, the Crescent Theatre, The Rep, so I decided we’re going to hold it there. We haven’t secured a venue yet but it’s most likely going to be a split site event at the Conservatoire, CBSO plus others. I want to keep a local. It would be great if we could get Beverly Knight.
Also it’s the centenary of Benjamin Britten. I have a couple opera singers coming along. And I’ve just met this fantastic Birmingham lesbian punk band from called Drag. I am going to mix the genres. It won’t just be classical. There’ll be punk, and rock, and kids performing their own compositions and songs by LGBT artists. There will be a schools music competition and concert in the afternoon.
The London Gay Men’s Chorus are supporters, and they’ll no doubt be involved in some capacity. They’re coming to sing at the event at Arsenal. They’ve started their own outreach programme, and go into schools to work with choirs. It’s brilliant work. That’s the sort of thing I like, ‘usualising’ LGBT people. The London Gay Men’s Chorus are a great example of that. They go in and say, “we’re here to teach you to sing, but by the way we happen to be gay”. That’s what we advocate.