Elly Barnes is so articulate and lively, and so dedicated to educating young people about the importance of accepting ourselves as we are, that it was only a matter of time before she made national headlines.
As music teacher and LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) co-ordinator at Stoke Newington School, she believes that to achieve acceptance, young people need the facts. She says: "It's ignorance that causes homophobia - once educated, attitudes change. Sometimes it's a deep-rooted hatred which can take a long time to change. The best way is to show positive role models."
This can involve using shock tactics, like when she invited black lesbian rapper, Mz.Fontaine to a school assembly. Elly recalls: "She announced straightaway 'I am currently a lesbian and I am transitioning'.
"The students were amazed. Mz.Fontaine then spent an afternoon delivering music workshops which were attended by some previously homophobic girls. Together they wrote a 12-minute rap about diversity."
Elly put Hackney's innovative approach to diversity on the national agenda last October when the Guardian ran an article about how lessons on gay history had cut homophobic bullying at the school. "I've been doing this for six years," she says. "When the article came out I got 300 e-mails from schools and parents asking for advice."
Music has been at the heart of Elly's life since the age of five when she was picked for the first of many school performances. She explains: "Because I'm tall, I played boys, mums, witches - the character roles. I was never the diva."
Singing was her first love - as a mezzo soprano she studied opera at the Birmingham Conservatoire - but she is also classically trained in piano, guitar and cello. Before becoming a full-time teacher she was a session singer and still sings at weddings and in cabaret.
Her own role models as a teenage Goth in rural Leicestershire helped to define herself as a young woman. She says: "I loved anyone that was a bit different. The 1980s, when I grew up, was a fantastic time for men in makeup. I loved David Bowie - his music, the way he dressed - and Annie Lennox, All About Eve, The Cure."
The power of music and musical heroes can unlock prejudice, as happened six years ago at her first LGBT assembly, when she used Bronski Beat's 'Small Town Boy' to illustrate the pain of rejection and the joy of coming out.
On 17 February, she presents this year's show at Stoke Newington School to mark LGBT History Month, with students performing Elton John's 'Your Song', as well as numbers from Queen, Dusty Springfield, Janis Joplin and Chopin. The whole school is involved, with each subject department taking a fresh look at LGBT issues through their own disciplines.
Elly has just taken on a new challenge - running diversity sessions for teachers all over the country, helping them to challenge prejudice and celebrate diversity in the classroom.
She adds: "Some schools think they don't have to do it, but they do. Schools have a duty to protect young people and create an environment where staff and students feel safe to
- 1992-5 Studied opera at the Birmingham Conservatoire
- 1997 PGCE at Edgebaston College, Birmingham
- 1998 Music Technology Diploma, Hertfordshire University
- 1999 Started teaching at Stevenage Secondary School
- 2000 Started at Stoke Newington School as part-time classroom & singing teacher
- 2004 Became Head of Music
- 2005 Became Head of Year & introduced LGBT History Month into the curriculum
- 2007 Schools rep for Schools Out & LGBT History Month
- 2010 Set up the Diversity Training Centre for Teachers
For info about LGBT History Month visit: www.lgbthistorymonth.org.uk.
Page updated: 22 Feb 2011