As a kid I was quite arty, I used to have long hair and wear clothes from charity shops and oddments stolen from the school’s costume department. I did plays and read poetry. Now in an exclusive single sex public school that’s pretty much all the evidence needed to tar and feather a chap and have him branded as ‘putting from the rough.’ I’m not gay and wouldn’t presume to know or understand that particular journey but from some of the finger pointing and whispering that accompanied my scholastic career I can’t imagine it’s easy. Even now in this ‘post-sexual orientation’ world I’m not always convinced that outside of liberal bubbles word of that paradigm shift has reached every student, in fact from what I know of school kids now they can be every bit as brutish, hateful and intolerant as they were 50 years ago. Not all of course but that’s the point.
So – why do I say this and why should you listen? I saw on the news today that a 14 year old student, Lewis Bailey, was banned from performing his drag act at his school’s end of year talent show. The school’s official response was that although it celebrated diversity it felt the act was inappropriate. The first response is ‘well, duh’, drag acts by their very nature are risque, off colour and often crude. The staff of the school presumably having lived and operated in the world would have known this and sanctioned Lewis’ performance right up until the day before, after which they pulled the rug out from his under his feet.
I’m not a crusader, and I’m no fan of virtue signalling, nor do I believe that behind the school gates all bets are off in the race for inclusivity. Schools should be rigorous, academic and the extra curricular activities should be for enrichment purposes not decadence or pandering. Schools at their best (and away from the purely pedagogical) are there to foster and encourage students to discover who they are and allow them the chance to explore and flex their talents. What better place, one would imagine, than a talent show itself? But sadly no, not for Lewis or Athena Heart, his onstage persona. Having just witnessed my eldest son’s end of year music concert (largely dreadful when you remove sentiment), I’m more convinced than ever that the commitment of students to make a success of these kinds of events requires a Herculean level of dedication and sacrifice and to veto Athena’s act at the last minute is unnecessarily cruel and a slap in the face for a hard-working student. Whilst not in itself a political statement from what I can tell, one can’t help but feel that getting up in front of the whole school in drag and performing his act is a bold and brave move for someone so young, an attempt to define who he is and ask for acceptance of it. No matter the reason for it the school now looks to be complicit in not just denying him that opportunity but by suggestion condemning him, or at least that’s how it must feel. In a school where he felt comfortable enough to take that leap he now no longer feels he is ‘accepted’.
The school aren’t I believe guilty of any particular malfeasance here other than short sightedness, had they recognised the risk that the show may have been a touch ‘blue’ they could have given him clear parameters about what he could and couldn’t do within the context of his act. However they have now given every left wing journalist if they are so minded, the perfect opportunity to conflate mismanagement with homophobia and transphobia which actively detracts from a much sadder narrative, a young student doing something courageous, working hard and then being made to feel that the work he’s done is without value and is entirely disposable and by extension so too is he.
Watch this video and even if drag isn’t your cup of tea, it’s very hard not to reach the conclusion that Lewis (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-birmingham-44935876/drag-teen-banned-from-dudley-school-talent-show) is as an articulate, self aware and engaging young man who is proud of his act and has worked hard at it. The courage to attend school in drag in defiance of social mores, in Dudley mind you, not in West Chelsea, is a credit to both him and the school. More than that he has a very clear idea of what he wants to do with his life and at the age of 14 is already working hard towards that goal and the careers advisor in me is just incredibly impressed, I only wish more schools had students with such a clear sense of self and purpose.