Recently, on the request of a friend, I hosted a reunion of a small group of people with whom I’d studied at the University of Leeds in the late 1970s. I was curious to find out what had been happening for each of us in the intervening 30 plus years, and particularly to one of our number called Geoff Brighton.
Like me Geoff had decided to follow his degree with a Post Graduate Certificate in Education so that he could teach. Whilst I went on teach in a number of schools, Geoff’s plans to do the same never came off. The block he came up against would be unthinkable in the UK of the 21st century.
When Geoff went to the university medical services for a routine checkup to confirm that he was fit to teach, the doctor noted that his records stated he was homosexual. Was this true? Yes it was replied Geoff, to which the doctor said that no medical certificate would be issued until Geoff had been to see a psychiatrist.
After 2 years of very high-profile campaigning, including front-page national newspaper coverage, the university made a U-turn, and told Geoff he could in fact train to be a teacher.
Geoff had not really won though: a number of local education authorities made it clear that they would not employ someone who had made such ‘trouble’. In the face of that Geoff chose instead a career in social housing.
So here we are in 2012, and as I talk with Geoff about all that happened I am struck by his clarity and humility. “That discrimination was the making of me” he says, “it was an awakening.”
And it is an awakening for me too all these years later.
You see a year before Geoff’s experience I too had had my sexuality questioned when going for a medical examination to become a trainee teacher. Like Geoff I had stood my ground, but unlike Geoff I didn’t face the intransigence of the authorities. Maybe it was because I’m a woman but, for whatever reason, they ‘let me through’.
I was in my first year of teaching when one of Geoff’s friends approached me and asked whether I would speak out publicly in support of him. I said no. I was scared. I didn’t want to rock the boat; or more accurately, I didn’t want to rock my boat.
I feel some shame for that young woman who didn’t have the courage then to stand up, and to stand alongside. It is the Geoff of today who shows me my next step as I tell him of my regret.
He is instantly forgiving, saying that each person needs to make their own conscious choices in such circumstances. “The decision was easy and simple for me” he says, “I could draw strength from the people around me.”
I forgive myself then, drawing strength from this inspirational man. In so doing I take another step in my growing up.