Being a gay and Asian teacher
Ambassador Mandip was bullied at school - vowing to never return. Now he's back and proud of his intersectionality, advocating for BAME LGBT+ representation.
Growing up gay and Asian in late 80s/early 90s Birmingham wasn’t easy. There weren’t any Asian role models, or gay role models that I could identify with (the exception being the iconic Madonna).
My sister and I are first generation Indian, but we very much identify as Brummies. Our whole young lives, we grew up and went to schools sticking out like sore thumbs. Racism was rife; we got called every derogatory name you could think of. Walking home from school we were often shouted at, spat at and threatened. As a little Sikh boy in primary school, kids thoughts it was ok to grab my top knot and call me a girl.
I had the added pressure of going to an all-boys grammar school, where being ‘out’ would lead to relentless homophobic name-calling and - if caught alone - a good beating. At the time I could just about tolerate the racism, but throwing in a dose of homophobia made my life hell. At the time I loved Kylie, Bananarama and Doctor Who (a whole other conversation - but can you think of anyone who embraces differences more?). I started writing about my gay icons in the school paper; from then on being called a ‘poofter’ became the norm. Whilst I hated it and at times hated myself, I never showed it.
Racism was rife; we got called every derogatory name you could think of. Walking home from school we were often shouted at, spat at and threatened.
We never had any pastoral sessions on race or sexuality, so no one ever talked about it. Section 28, introduced by Thatcher’s government, prohibited schools from "promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". This made my generation of LGBT+ kids easy targets.
There was one instance where I was walking to the art block, when a couple of boys started groping me and shouting how I must love it – of course I told them to stop but they didn’t. A teacher saw this but stayed silent. Might the teacher himself be in trouble if he intervened? Maybe he thought I deserved it? Who knows? It was a horrible time and I flunked my A-levels as I was so low. Luckily, I still managed to get the grades I needed for uni.
My school years and my time at university are what I call my forgotten years. I rarely look at photographs from that time because it was so traumatic. When I left school, I vowed never to step in one ever again.
One of the Spice Girls
Growing up I had a raft of expectations thrust upon me, including being a doctor – try telling that to a kid who almost fainted while dissecting a fish. I was also told that after university I would be introduced to suitable families in the hope of finding a wife. That wasn’t going to happen!
Once in university, I was desperate to find out what my religion (Sikhism) said about being gay, so I plucked up the courage to go for a stroll along Hurst Street, the heart of Birmingham’s gay village. I visited a gay counselling service and I met with an Asian counsellor (who just so happened to be Sikh like me). After a chat with him, I learned that there is no mention of it in our scriptures. My mantra now is that if it’s not mentioned, then it must be okay!
Section 28 prohibited schools from "promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". This made my generation of LGBT+ kids easy targets.
Around this time the Spice Girls had taken over the world and I found my new role models: bold and sassy, they didn’t care what anyone thought of them. I cheekily nicknamed myself ‘Curry Spice’ with a new sense of empowerment.
I also decided to come out to my mates, which was a disaster. I lost all but one of them. Dropped like an underperforming pop star by the record label. No phone calls, no nights out – I was completely blanked. Maybe the world wasn’t ready to accept me as much as I thought. I decided to pull a Madonna and reinvent myself. I quit my job, completed a Master’s degree and ran off to Belgium.
My life began at age 25. I moved to a country where no one knew me, and I couldn’t speak the language. Ironically, I arrived in Brussels four days after the 2001 Twin Towers attack - the racism I thought I’d left behind came back with a vengeance. I was warned that if I wore my turban I’d be a target, as there had already been a spate of attacks on anyone brown-skinned, but turban wearers were at even greater risk. I put my hair in a ponytail instead.
I was regularly stopped by police as I approached the European Parliament (where I worked at the time), and had to prove I was an employee. Sometimes the security guards would come out and vouch for me. I lived in Belgium for nearly 10 years and being stopped by the police who incidentally carried guns became the norm.
During my decade in Brussels I became more at ease and I lived an ‘out’ life. As result I made some amazing friends - but there was still that weight on top of me. I craved to be honest with those close to me in life. By the time I hit 30, the pressure to get married was immense – every visit home to the UK coincided with a visit from an ‘Aunty’ and her single daughter.
After constant turn downs and numerous heated ‘discussions’ with my family at how I was next in line to be married, I’d had enough. One day my mum she wanted to know why I was being so stubborn. “Have you already met someone?”, “Do you have a girlfriend?”, “Are you ill?” were some of the most memorable questions but then the big one… “Are you gay?”
Should I be honest and tell the truth? Shall I break her heart? The only son left unmarried. Or do I lie?
“Yes mum” I said. I had finally done it – after a few tears we hugged it out. Then I told my sister, who was great about it. We decided not to tell anyone else for fear of being outcast. Looking back now, I realise I couldn’t care less.
While the pressure of getting married dramatically fell, it wasn’t until 2012 when I visited Goa for a wedding that I realised that being gay and Asian is dangerous.
Should I be honest and tell the truth? Shall I break her heart? The only son left unmarried. Or do I lie?
During the wedding reception, my alcohol-drinking, meat-eating, very ‘manly’ male cousins took me to the side and said I could be with anyone I choose regardless of colour or religion - except with a man. I’d never felt so unnerved. This was the same year the Indian government reversed the decriminalisation of being gay (although in 2018, that decision was reversed again). That was when I realised that I am blessed with the family and friends who have accepted me. I also realised that not everyone is as understanding or as tolerant as I hoped, not even family.
Being a gay, Asian teacher
After moving back to England, I decided another Madonna reinvention was in order. I wanted to do something fulfilling and I initially thought about training as a social worker, or going back to university to study psychology with a view to go into counselling. After studying Child Psychology for two years, I decided I wanted to work with children. Despite never wanting to set foot in a classroom again, I joined the Teach First Training Programme and retrained to be a business and economics teacher in East London.
While teaching, I saw that things had changed so much since I was at school - both for better and worse. I saw kids being themselves and comfortable in their own skin, and supported by their peers. The removal of Section 28 meant we could have discussions on different kinds of relationships. I remember a pastoral session where we explained that you could have two mums or two dads – what a difference a change of law has made!
Despite never wanting to set foot in a classroom again, I joined the Teach First Training Programme.
But I also saw disrespect and intolerance for older gay people like me. I will never forget a year 10 student telling me in front of his mates: “If you’re gay, sir, I don’t want you teaching me,” with other boys cheering in support. When I told my headteacher I was gay she was supportive, regularly checking that I was ok and there if I wanted to talk. However, as a trainee teacher I didn’t feel confident to speak out about the specific comments I received from my students. I think I was embarrassed and didn’t want to appear weak. With hindsight, I should have spoken out as I know it would have been dealt with. At the time, while training with Teach First, there wasn’t any support on how to cope with being an LGBT+ teacher and the hurdles I would face.
I thought to myself: If I ever came out to students, what would happen? I used to have posters stating “It’s Ok To Be Gay/Lesbian” in my classroom, as well as stickers on my laptop so everyone knew I was at least an ally.
There wasn’t any support on how to cope with being an LGBT+ teacher and the hurdles I would face.
I put up with the ringleader of the homophobic gang’s jibes for two years, and my heart sank when he also joined my A-Level class. Everyone joined in: “Sir, are you gay?” “You can’t be gay, you’re Indian.” I kept building myself up to say something, but I couldn’t. I was scared, plain and simple. There was no way I would confide in my colleagues about my anxieties. Looking back, I wish I did.
From teacher to role model
I never confirmed nor denied my sexuality to my students. After they sat their final exams in Year 13, they came back to say goodbye. “Sir, we are leaving school,” they said, “and we just want to know if you’re gay because we’ve never seen an out Asian gay person before”.
I came out to them, and talked about the hardships I’d faced growing up and still face today. I also talked about life as a gay teacher, life outside school and how we need tolerance and understanding. They listened and were respectful.
The boy I had taught since year 10 apologised for giving me a hard time over the past four years. And to my surprise, they all shook my hand as they left. They came back again and, despite not having much money, got me a leaving gift. I craved having an Asian gay role model growing up - but what I didn’t expect was that I would be an Asian gay role model for others.
Out and proud Development Lead
After some years teaching, I decided to join Teach First as a Development Lead. During this time I became a member of the LGBT+ Affinity Network, which has been a fantastic experience. We look at issues, discuss policies and host events to raise LGBT+ awareness and promote inclusivity at work.
I craved having an Asian gay role model growing up - but what I didn’t expect was that I would be an Asian gay role model for others.
One thing I’m most proud of is our work with the LGBT+ youth charity Just Like Us, who recorded a session for our trainees on inclusivity in the classroom. We have since signposted trainees to free resources to mark School Diversity Week. Feedback from Just Like Us showed that they had a lot of sign ups from Teach First trainees.
During Summer Institute last year, I attended the fantastic LGBTQI+ Diversity Series event for our new trainees. It was eye opening hearing how LGBT+ trainees are feeling about starting school and how they will deal with the prospects of being out. I reflect back at how much I would have valued attending an event like this, as I once shared many of the concerns these trainees had. I was a table facilitator and was so pleased to share my experiences and reflections on how I should have dealt with issues when I was teaching.
Being loved, respected and treated as an equal
Some people think being gay is a choice. But would ask them to consider if we would consciously choose a life subject to torment and hatred. When I was a kid, I used to think how much easier it would be if I were a straight white man with a girlfriend, settling down to have kids. But those thoughts don’t lead anywhere. Now that I am in my 40s, I am finally happy in my own skin and proud of the gay, Asian man I've become.
Working for Teach First, I am grateful that we have affinity groups, meaningful discussions and the opportunity to influence policy. Having BAME LGBT+ representation is so important. All people are different; their beliefs, thoughts and preferences may not align, but at the end of the day we are human. By having a diverse community, we can learn from each other.
Since growing up, the world has changed. People are speaking out on Black Lives Matter all around the world. Pride month is celebrated more openly than ever. All anyone ever wants is to be treated as an equal, to be loved and to be respected.
I don’t want our next generation growing up in fear because of their skin colour, sexuality or any other difference. Learn from each other and be open. We only have this life after all.