My experience of coming out as a leader

Sept. 15, 2018
chris richards

Chris Richards

Deputy Headteacher at Villiers High School, Southall

Growing up, I didn’t have any positive male role models who were openly gay.

I ended up burying my sexuality quite deep and didn’t really begin to deal with it until my early twenties, causing quite a bit of personal distress for a few years. Although I didn’t suffer terribly, I know many others who have had far worse experiences and I did not want this for my LGBT+ students.

That’s why I am determined for LGBT+ (including allies) leaders to show our young people (and staff) that it’s okay to be yourself.

I was happy to find a diverse student and staff body on arriving in London but was initially a little apprehensive about coming out to colleagues. It soon became apparent I was in good company and there was an active LGBT+ working party which arranged opportunities for students to march in London gay pride, did outreach work with local primary schools and, most excitingly, celebrated LGBT+ history month.

A year or so before I’d arrived, they arranged an assembly where a number of colleagues talked about their experiences of being gay. I thought this was incredibly important and, the year I arrived, they decided to repeat the concept and many of us recorded a short interview about our experiences of coming out.

Standing in assembly when this was played, I can remember my heart being in my mouth just before my section of the recording and I couldn’t look at the students in the audience while I heard my words echoing around the hall.

However, there seemed to be no negative reactions during the whole of the assembly and one of the most touching moments in my teaching career was when some of my Year 11 boys came to find me afterwards telling me how great it was that I’d done that; that they hadn’t known but, as far as they were concerned, nothing had changed.

All this work didn’t mean that we had eradicated homophobia, biphobia or transphobia, but regular staff training and working with students who had expressed homophobic attitudes helped ensure the school community was well educated on the issues.

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It was with a degree of sadness that I left this job to move on to a school in West London where I’d been appointed deputy headteacher. Would the staff and students be as accepting? Would the parents be accepting? How would the community react? I made sure to drop ‘husband’ into conversation with staff at regular intervals and remember a conversation early on about the television show Orange is The New Black with one of the students who expressed how similar I was to one of the male characters. She said “but he’s gay, so…” and I replied “oh, that’s one more thing we’ve got in common then!” What seemed like hours later (though it was probably milliseconds) she said “Oh, that’s cool!” and we’ve continued to talk about the latest Netflix arrivals since! This certainly gave me a bit of confidence that the students would be accepting.

What the new school lacked though was visibility; my old school was plastered in Stonewall ‘Some people are gay’ posters and teachers had stickers on their desks as well as other visuals. At the end of term, when I was given the task of talking about the spirit of adventure in an assembly, I decided to take a chance and I mentioned getting married to my best friend last year and put a picture of us on our wedding day in the presentation.

"That’s why I am determined for LGBT+ (including allies) leaders to show our young people (and staff) that it’s okay to be yourself."

As I came to the slide with the picture of me and my husband, I could once again feel my heart beating nineteen to the dozen but I knew there was no going back. I got to the end of the assembly and received rapturous applause.

Students have continued to behave as normal towards me and the positive comments received from a huge number of staff members have been incredibly encouraging. One staff member, also a parent of a student in the assembly, said how much it meant to her son to hear that and knowing that made it worth taking the risk.

While inwardly it may feel like a massive challenge to bare your soul to a room full of people, it’s incredibly important to do it. Young people need to see that LGBT+ people exist; that they live, love, study and work with them; LGBT+ people contribute; and that we share a lot in common.

I wish I’d had teachers who were ‘out’ when I was growing up; to have seen that it was okay to be gay would have meant an awful lot to me as a confused teenager.

Since the assembly, a number of other staff have stepped forward and joined a working party. Happily, several of these are allies and we’re training staff and students about how to eliminate HBT bullying in and out of school.

We applied for our Stonewall Bronze award this Summer and I’m looking forward to making LGBT+ lives more visible in my current school and the local community.


Chris is a graduate from our 2016 Future Leaders cohort. Future Leaders is a two-year intensive leadership development programme for senior leaders who aim to become headteachers of schools in challenging contexts within three years.


This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.


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