OPINION: Role models have a real impact on the mental wellbeing of young people

by Nicholas Hewlett | St Dunstan’s College
Tuesday, 9 February 2021 14:06 GMT

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The interest generated by me coming out during my school assembly was surprising - hopefully one day a gay headmaster coming out will no longer be news

Nicholas Hewlett is headmaster at St Dunstan’s College, an independent school for pupils aged between three and 18 in London

When planning a school assembly, you never quite imagine that thousands of people will be watching from around the world. It is just over a week since I came out as gay during my assembly to mark the launch of St Dunstan’s LGBTQ+ Week celebrations, and I am still rather bemused by the level of interest it generated.

The assembly reflected on the life of a former student and staff member, Martin Preston, an incredibly cultured man, and a creative and inspiring teacher, who was openly gay. When, in 1981, the then editor of Private Eye tried to out Martin publicly, students rallied around him. They published letters of support and showed great humanity, dignity and respect towards him.

I was struck by how brave Martin must have been in that very different era, and I’m sure he was a role model to many people who had been struggling with their sexuality at the time. I am sure he would have been delighted to know that these days St Dunstan’s is a place where being gay or having any form of different sexual identity, does not carry with it such stigma, such a need for attention, or such controversy.

Since the assembly going out and my first piece here, I have received hundreds of messages of support – from students, parents, alumni and even complete strangers – as well as supportive tweets on Twitter including some from parents of children at other schools thanking me for my openness. Role models really do matter and can have a real impact on the mental wellbeing of young people. For them, being educated by a diversity of adults who represent differing races, genders, sexualities and backgrounds, helps identities to settle and grow. It fosters an ethos of inclusion and respect.

Speaking to friends, students, colleagues and journalists this week, it has made me reflect on why there are so very few openly gay heads. Growing up in the 1990s was a completely different world. The now widely condemned Section 28 would have got teachers fired for evening mentioning gay issues. Reflecting on the consequences of that hostile legislation, it is clear to see why there are so few openly gay heads.

Thankfully, here in the United Kingdom things have moved on since then, and I do believe it is important to recognise those changes. Pride is celebrated each year and LGBT+ week activities take place in schools across the country.

However, as I tell students, liberal freedoms cannot be taken for granted and there are many places in the world where these hard-fought freedoms are being rolled back. Watching the news of the horrific scenes in Russia is a reminder of this. There are people who are being bundled into the backs of cars and not seen again, directly as a consequence of their sexual identity.

The value of an open and tolerant community that is accepting of all identities cannot be overestimated, and I hope that the message has come across that that is what we have always sought to nurture at St Dunstan’s. I believe young people should keep an open mind as to their identity and the identity of others, and not let others, or society, pigeonhole them into a certain way of thinking about themselves or each other. Sexual identity should never be seen as a barrier to success or happiness, in fact it should be the reverse. Deciding and being content with your sexual identity is a key component of guaranteeing your future wellbeing.

The more we can do to speak openly and easily about who we are, and be true to ourselves, hopefully the better things will be for future generations.

I hope that we reach a place in society, where coming out is no longer worthy of news.

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