Coming out in high school, as a teacher

Paul at work in the classroom
Me at work as a chemistry teacher at Kirkcaldy High School.

It started with the daily bulletin. Every day in a school does…

“The LGBT Group will meet in A18. Anyone interested in Equality is welcome”

“Surely we don’t need such a thing”, my inner voice said. “Surely we are in a world where everyone is equal and we don’t need to worry about these things.”.

I’m naïve and idealistic, I admit it. My other inner voice said something else: “You have recently got divorced and you’ve wondered about your sexuality since you were a bairn. This could be an opportunity to find out more.” That voice was louder.

Paul in sixth year at school
Sixth year me at school

So I found myself of a lunchtime round a table with sandwiches and a group of kids who were very open in discussion their attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity. A number of identities were mentioned – some I hadn’t heard of before: “non-binary” seemed to be a thing along with “pan-sexual” and “ transgender”. I considered my own sexuality. I’d had feelings towards all genders all my life but had decided I couldn’t be “gay” because I genuinely fancied women. I also didn’t want to be gay as it sounded like a lot of trouble.

“I’m Bi” said someone. Hmm, I’ve heard of that. That’s fancying boys and girls isn’t it? Hmmm. Bell rings, back to a crazy S1 class.

This was the pattern over the next wee while and over time, this term “Bisexual” became more and more familiar and more and more something I understood and could identify with. I figured out that was me, I was and am Bisexual – it makes sense! Only took 36 years.

I didn’t make any particular effort to “come out” as it didn’t seem like any kind of big revelation. I was on my own and had no particular plans to change that.

Paul ay Dundee Pride
At Dundee Pride

Wind forward to later that year. I was teaching “reproduction” to an S1 class. A classic topic in Biology that kids (and some teachers) fear. It’s common to do a “secret questions” box – that is an opportunity for kids to write down questions anonymously they wouldn’t want to ask publicly. I said I’d answer anything they liked and one kid asked “so if we ask you if you’re bisexual, you’ll tell us?”

Now this is interesting – the kid didn’t as “if we ask if you’re gay…” and at no point had I made any comment on my sexuality. I confirmed that if the question was asked, I would answer truthfully so amidst much giggling the question went in the box.

The questions started. “What is a clitoris?” (common one that), “Why do people have sex when they don’t want a baby?” (another common one!) and eventually “Are you Bisexual?”

“So someone’s asked me if I’m bisexual and the answer is….yes.”
Mild intake of breath. “I can’t believe you told us!”. “Why wouldn’t I?” “Oh, fair enough, what’s the next question?”

So, that’s how I “came out”. To a class of crazy first years. Unplanned, unscripted.

When Sir Ian McKellen visited Kirkcaldy High School
When Sir Ian McKellen visited Kirkcaldy High School

Wind forward a few more months. February 2017. Kirkcaldy High School is buzzing as a famous LGBT+ celebrity is to visit, talk to the seniors and have lunch with the LGBT+ Group. Exactly who it is, is a closely guarded secret which means of course that everyone knows it’s Sir Ian held the attention of a group of teenagers for an hour. No visual aids, not even using a microphone, but they were rapt. More attentive than I’d ever seen them. It was seriously impressive. After the talk we had lunch and the kids became the impressive ones as they engaged in intelligent and meaningful conversation with this aging thespian over soup and sandwiches. I could hardly believe my eyes and ears and I had never been more proud of my school, its’ teachers and kids.

That evening, the news of the visit went “viral”. The secret was out and of course, I joined in the conversation with relish. I went on to Facebook and posted this with the group photo of us all with Sir Ian.

“So this happened today. Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf) visited Kirkcaldy High as a Stonewall Ambassador today. As an LGBT group member I got to have lunch with him. He was utterly charming and I think all of KHS fell in love with him hook, line and sinker. The kids did us utterly proud and kept the conversation going right through lunch. I’m always proud but today I’m especially proud to be a bisexual teacher at Kirkcaldy High School. Huge thanks and “well done” to Gillian Pirie for bagging us this one! 🏳️🌈”

The rest is history.

Paul Murray, Kirkcaldy High School, Fife. Came out 22/2/2017

Update: During LGBT+ History Month 2021 Paul was named by Pink Saltire as one of their ‘unsung community heroes’ – read the post here

Dr Paul Murray is a high school chemistry teacher who kindly responded (via a family member who works in the NHS) to our request to hear from members of the LGBTQ+ community about the importance of LGBTQ+ visibility and awareness in STEM. We are very grateful to Paul for sharing his experience.

Why LGBT+ visibility and awareness in the workplace is so important

Alain KempWhen I joined the University in 2012 as a research technician, LGBT+ visibility was fairly minimal at work. Before I moved to Edinburgh, I had been out as a gay man for about a decade and was quite comfortable with my identity. However, moving to a new city and workplace, I had to go through the whole “coming out” process all over again.

If you combine that with the stress of starting a new job, living by yourself in a new city and without a support network of local friends or family, it can be quite daunting. It took me quite some time before I felt comfortable in the workplace, as I engaged with people and got to know them better, and felt sufficiently at ease to simply be myself.

When the Staff Pride Network launched the rainbow lanyards several years ago, it changed my workplace in a significant way for me. The simple presence of rainbow lanyards throughout the institute, from students to members of senior staff, both fellow LGBT+ staff and allies, is incredibly uplifting and comforting. It is a strong signal that you can be your true self and focus on your work, from the first moment you set foot on site, no matter who you are or what level of career you’re at. I have often heard comments from new students, staff and even a visiting contractor on how welcoming the sight of the lanyards was for them.

It highlighted to me the importance of LGBT+ visibility, and it also introduced me to the Staff Pride Network. The impact of this campaign in particular was one of the main drivers for me to join the SPN and help with their work to make our workplace safe and welcoming for LGBT+ staff.

Alain J. Kemp
IGMM South (ECRC) Laboratory Manager
UoE Staff Pride Network Treasurer

Why I’m passionate about being an LGBT+ ally

Tara's lab at the 'Dance for your life' event
Me and my lab group at the ‘Dance for your life’ event

I’m a neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh studying brain changes in Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders. One of the absolute best things about being a scientist is working with many different people with unique perspectives and ways of thinking. This is essential to tackle complex scientific problems.

That’s not just my opinion, there are a few studies out there indicating that papers with more diverse groups (based on nationality or ethnicity of names) are cited more often.

See this article in Nature

Zoom photo from our lip sync at our lab meeting movie
Zoom photo from our lip sync at our UK DRIlab meeting movie

Sadly, in STEM subjects, we seem to be losing brilliant minds as LGBT+ scientists often experience exclusionary, harassing behaviour at work, which leads people to leave jobs in science.

See this career feature in Nature

To help make the University of Edinburgh a safe, supportive, and welcoming environment for all who self-identify as part of LGBT+ communities, I am a member of the Staff Pride Network.

Outside of work, I’m also passionate about more widely increasing LGBT+ inclusion. Growing up in rural Texas, some of my close friends could not be themselves out of fears for their safety if people found out they were gay. But we have marched and we have voted and things have improved since we were kids.

Prof Tara Spires JonesA few years ago, I went back to Texas for a weekend (a long trip for 3 days), but I HAD to be there for the wedding extravaganza of one of these amazing people I grew up with. He was legally able to marry the love of his life and they now have two beautiful babies. I hope things will continue to change and improve and we can have both a workplace and a world where everyone can be themselves.

Prof Tara Spires-Jones, Neuroscientist, LGBT+ Ally, and aspiring Glamazon

A little slice of me for LGBT+ History Month

StevenMention Stonewall, Marsha P Johnson or Harvey Milk, Terence Higgins, Peter Tatchell or Allan Horsfall in the presence of some ‘BabyGays’ (a term used for the younger LGBT+ community) and they’ll all say ‘who?’ Which is a shame. Or is it?

Those many fearful but brave souls who stood up for their rights and the rights of their community ‘back in the day’, paved the way for recent generations of LGBT+ to exist a little more easily, to come out a little less scarily and express themselves a little more courageously.

We older ones tend to say things like “It was never like that in my day” or “the young uns get it too easy these days. They haven’t had to hide or fight to be who they are.” We look at Pride marches and see it more as a carnival nowadays, a celebration if you will and not so much a protest march, but isn’t that what we wanted back then? I know I did. I dreamed of a time when acceptance was automatic, that my sexuality wasn’t an issue in my connections with other human beings.

I would have loved LGBT+ orientated support services or a helpline or just something to help me realise that I was not on my own. I knew I wasn’t ‘the only gay in the village’ but there was nothing offered when my parents and I approached the social services when I was forced out of the closet at age 15.

Picture this, raised in a small town in Fife (and discovered sex with men at too early an age some would say) and at 15 yrs old I had a boyfriend who was 9.5 years older than me. We went off on a little 4 day break having told millions of lies to my parents so I could go and of course, I was found out. After quite a long interrogation when I got back, I blurted out I was gay and had been away with my boyfriend. My Bi-polar mother hit the roof – no surprise there and my step-father just said “I knew it.”

My mum fled to the neighbours to call the police (we didn’t have a phone) and she was calmed down and we were advised to go to social work the next day. When we did, we were then informed that as I was still a minor (under 16) there had been a criminal offence committed even though I was consenting. Back then, the age of consent was 21 and the police would still have been called – so either way I was screwed (pardon the pun).

The police were duly called and I had to undergo a highly embarrassing medical examination and then two policemen (one of them a neighbour) had to sit and take my statement. All this without my mum or step-father present and no-one to support me. It seemed to be ok for social work to treat me as a minor in one respect but then not do all they can to help or protect me in the other.

To cut a very long story short, it was kept out of the papers and thankfully, my boyfriend got a small fine on the strength of my statement. We lasted another 5.5 years after that. School had no idea how to cope with this either and again, there was nothing in place from social work or the school to help me cope with all the bullying, beatings and humiliation I suffered throughout that academic year.

Maybe that’s why I side with the underdog and get too easily frustrated often when things like the Pride rainbow flag is usurped by the NHS and the like….
And then I check myself, think back and remember and smile. I’m glad that the generations who’ve come after me have it a little easier (the fight’s still not over, I know that) and that they can truly express who they are in the workplace in any way they choose and that they are also supported and encouraged in that expression.

For some, it will still be a struggle but at least these days, we definitely know We Are Not Alone.

Steven, Clerical Officer, NHS Lothian

Being my true self and not my censored self at work in the NHS

Gordon at PRIDEHi I’m Gordon and I’ve been an openly gay man for nearly 20 years now. I’m a nurse and have been for 17 years, and I’m also a Trade Union Shop Steward and UNISON Lothian Health Branch’s LGBT+ Officer.

It is only in the last year or so that I have been out to my patients and their visitors and tried to raise LGBT+ visibility and awareness in NHS Lothian and UNISON Lothian Health Branch. Being a gay man is part of my identity and something I’m proud of, and human rights and LGBT+ rights are things that I campaign for in my personal and professional life.

It has been through my post-graduate study of person-centred practice that I have realised that in order to be truly authentic and in turn effective in the workplace I need to be my true self not my censored self at work. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a private life and professional boundaries.

If I’m not visible as an LGBT+ NHS employee, how can I expect other employees to be, let alone patients or their visitors who are so often in a vulnerable and distressing situation in our healthcare environment?

I felt conflicted, I am different, we’re all different but we’re not all treated the same – should we be . . . ? Then I had my light bulb moment, what mattered to me wasn’t in fact equality it was equity. I didn’t want to be treated the same, I wanted to be treated fairly. I wanted my diversity not to be celebrated but to be embraced.

For me it’s not about “We’re here! We’re queer! And we’re here to stay!” or in your face demonstrations or protests. It’s about “I’m a person, I’m a gay person and I will be treated fairly like all people.”

Irrespective of sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexuality and/or any other protected characteristic we should all be treated fairly. In terms of being visible and raising awareness, the NHS can keep the “Covid rainbow” because I’m going to be rocking the progressive pride flag!