David Lowbridge-Ellis portrait

Written by David Lowbridge-Ellis

Leader of school improvement for Matrix Academy Trust in the West Midlands. In addition to writing extensively on equality and diversity he has been published widely on topics ranging from curriculum and assessment to workload and well-being.

You can’t be what you can’t see. It’s a phrase bordering on cliché. But just because something is clichéd that doesn’t make it any less true. It rings so true that, at this point, we should probably consider it conventional wisdom. And sometimes, it just takes a glimpse to start making change happen.

 

Friday night after a long week: my husband and I are on the sofa, watching a football match – of all things! 

 

Now I don’t want to indulge in gay stereotypes but I’m not very into football. My husband is more keen, especially when it comes to an international competition. When the World Cup’s on, he goes gaga for it. It’s the whole ‘world coming together in harmony’ part that gets him going. He’ll also watch any match that Gerard Piqué happens to be playing in. My husband claims he’s a fan of Piqué by proxy: the Spanish footballer is married to Shakira, whose music my husband enjoys. But I know the truth.

 

Anyway…

 

The match we were watching was the England vs. Scotland match of the Euro 2020 (sic) competition. A pretty unremarkable feat of football as it turned out, with a 0-0 final score. What was arguably more significant was an advert from Nike played in the break. Calling it an advert is an understatement, although that was its purpose. The short film, entitled The Land of New Football, was a vision of how football could be. Starring Free School Meals-champion Marcus Rashford it might have been considered by some to be utopian, but nothing was outside the realm of possibility. It finishes with the ‘UK’s first hijab wearing referee’, a real person. And 20 seconds in it featured a gay footballer (Josh Day, of London Titans FC) celebrating a victory by kissing his partner on the pitch.

 

Let’s just pause (like I did, rewinding the brief footage seven times) and drink that in: millions of people just saw a gay footballer kissing his partner. There was no cutaway at the last minute. This wasn’t queer-baiting; we got the setup and the payoff. Yes, it only lasted a few seconds, but it was still around 400% longer than the lesbian kiss in the last Star Wars movie which was much heralded but was, ultimately, a crushing disappointment.

 

I know there are arguments that corporations are just jumping on the Pride bandwagon now it’s a commercially advantageous option. I get as frustrated at anyone about companies seeking out rainbow pounds/dollars/Euros without giving anything back to the LGBTQ+ community. But Nike has a better track record than most. Back in 2013, Nike actively sought gay athletes to be front and centre in their latest campaign. A little known fact is they also finance the queer-friendly animation studio Laika, famous for stop-motion movies Coraline, Paranorman and Kubo & The Two Strings (the studio head is the son of Nike’s co-founder).

 

One advert, no matter how well shot and well edited and well intended, is not going to change the world by itself. But things like this do chip away at the homophobia that sometimes seems like an immovable monolith, an ugly slab of uncut stone blocking out all the light, preventing mutual understanding from taking root.

 

When homophobia feels like this – and in my experience, it feels like this a lot of the time – we can get discouraged. We start to feel that it is an intractable problem: no matter what we do, we are just not going to shift it. But what I’ve learned over the years is this: anything you do, even if it’s chipping away, is enough to start something.

 

I’m reliably informed (thanks Wikipedia) that ‘chipping’ is also a term used in football for getting the ball where it needs to go by skilfully applying less than the usual force to the underside of the ball so it goes over opponents’ heads. Apparently, Lionel Messi (another of my husband’s reasons to watch certain matches) is very good at this. 

 

A footballer chipping in a ball is, of course, very different to someone trying to shift a big rock by hacking away tiny bits of it. It’s closer to a skilful sculptor chipping away carefully at a mass of marble. Less force; more impact. It highlights to me that while more forceful approaches to tackling the problem of homophobia are sometimes required, they aren’t the only options. Sometimes, something more subtle can be effective.

 

It may ‘just’ be an assembly; it may ‘just’ be a PSHE lesson; it may ‘just’ be an interaction in a corridor with a pupil who is putting more effort into disguising their true selves than their school work.

 

But…

 

It may ‘just’ be enough to change that pupil’s life; it may ‘just’ be enough to change the outlook of several members of a class; it may ‘just’ sow the seed of something which will grow as children move through our schools, flowering into something approaching – or exceeding – mutual understanding.

 

It’s well known that there are several gay players in the Premier League. What did they feel when they saw that Nike film played during halftime? Did they look at it with shame, retreating further back into the closet? Did they look at it with envy, wishing that they could be that jubilant player on the screen, unafraid to celebrate in front of spectators with his significant other?  Did they look at it with pride, knowing that they were represented? 

 

Who knows how long it will take for a player in the Premier League to come out as gay. But when it does happen (and it will) I doubt they will be able to point to just one thing that led them to decide enough was enough and led them to take that very brave step. It will be the cumulative result of them chipping away at their own internal monoliths over several years, wearing away their fear about what others will think about them; whether they will still get sponsorship deals; if their dream career will turn its back on them. 

 

When we ask our pupils about their dream careers, we may sometimes have to resist rolling our eyes. You want to earn a living as a footballer, riiiiiight. As it happens, I have taught several pupils who have made it as top-flight footballers, so I know it is possible. I would never have wanted any of those to see who they are as an impediment to pursuing those dreams.

 

Similarly, I would never want the critical mass of pupils who follow football to grow up thinking there is no place in the national sport for queer people. Or, for that matter, any occupational field. And that includes teaching.

 

I’ve been out as gay for over a decade and I never bother to hide this part of myself in front of my pupils. I find it startling to remember that I was the first out teacher at the school I currently spend most of my time in. I’m far from the only queer teacher at my school currently. I’d go so far to say we are well above national average as far as proportion of queer teachers goes. And the same goes across our multi-academy trust. I would never claim sole credit for this but we have trained queer people to be teachers who were former pupils of mine. And several of them have told me that knowing I was gay meant they didn’t close down the possibility of being a teacher themselves.

 

Football and education may not seem especially comparable (and I’m far more qualified to comment on the latter than the former), but they’re both fields where homosexuality has been less tolerated than in other social spheres. On most football pitches and school playing fields we’re still far away from having the differences in who we love being universally celebrated. And, yes, I do get VERY frustrated at the agonisingly slow pace of change! But I calm myself by recalling that even little things can have a big impact over time. Let’s keep chipping away.

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