Life has come full circle for LGBT+ rights champion Aaron Hussey. Two years at Xaverian College, Manchester, and a history degree at the University of Nottingham saw him defer FE teacher training plans for a year only to fall into a comms and marketing role after asking his local MEP for a work placement. He’s been in comms ever since and three years ago moved to the Association of Colleges (AoC) where he is head of communications.
“I’d always wanted to give something back to the sector,” says Aaron. “I went to school in East Manchester in the mid-1990s and was one of the few pupils who really enjoyed learning and the more academic side of school. It was quite tough being a bit camp and not really playing football.”
Aaron was also shy and, while at a central Manchester drama class to boost his confidence, was persuaded by students attending the local Xaverian College that he might consider doing his A levels there. He took their advice: “At college, for the first time, I met people who were gay. It was a genuine melting pot and there was less pressure to conform to a certain very narrow view of what it was to be a man.
“Most importantly, when you move on and start at a college, you get to introduce yourself from day one as the person you want to be and not conform to the expectations of people who may have known you most of your life.”
Aaron reckons he was probably among the last set of young people to realise they were different and yet were unable to find like-minded people online who looked like them or had had the same lived experience - there was no Twitter or Tik Tok social networking.
His college filled the gap. “It introduced me to people who are still my best friends to this day - and most of them are non-LGBT+. It gave me the space and confidence to explore who I am and who I could be. I was challenged and I was supported. I met people from all parts of the world, every race and religion, every sexuality. It was the first time in my life that I felt truly happy and truly me. Many LGBT+ friends agree – moving from school to college allowed them to form their own identities, ‘loudly and proudly’.”
College remains the space where everyone - and not just LGBT+ students - can find themselves, start afresh and get introduced to new ideas. “So from day one I introduced myself as gay,” says Aaron. “It was a real relief, there was no ceremonial ‘coming out’, it was just in conversation.”
And what’s true for students is also true for college staff. “That’s what is so special about colleges, you are given a second opportunity to reintroduce yourself on your own terms.”
For Aaron, college is a microcosm of society; things have moved on since he was a student: “In my college days it was kind of ok to be gay, but I’m not sure it was the same for transgender people. But I remember my school history teacher bringing me in a Madonna album and saying I really needed to have it in my life - it was all about discovering who you are.” (At the time, under section 28 legislation (since repealed), teachers were banned from saying anything direct to students about homosexuality.
“I’ve since seen many attempts in FE colleges to make it clear they are a safe space, with Manchester College, for example, now regularly joining the Manchester Pride march. You see today’s students standing up for each other and supporting trans students’ right to be themselves. And I think the environment for LGBT+ teachers to be themselves has also changed.”
A key question for potential and existing LGBT+ staff has been how to become a senior leader and yet still remain authentic to their true selves. Aaron, who prior to joining the AoC worked in comms for the British library and Ark Schools, regards himself as very fortunate in his choice of workplace. He lauds his current AoC CEO, David Hughes: “he’s always made clear that I should never lessen myself or reduce who I am just to get on – and has always encouraged me to bring my whole self to work.”
Aaron regularly works with senior college leaders: “Several I’m aware of refuse to change who they are and lead from the front with tremendous authenticity. People who are visibly ‘out’ and talking about it are very powerful agents of change in a sector where the only thing that really matters is what works for the students.”
But there is no room for complacency. Legalising same-sex marriage was a milestone and ‘Yes, FE is largely inclusive,” says Aaron. “But these are scary times across the world with shockingly high numbers of trans people taking their own lives, getting beaten, made homeless or even murdered, “LGBT+ rights are being trampled on or dismissed in more than 80 countries where it’s illegal to live as a gay person. Rights are fought for but then need protection.”
He argues it’s easier to be a white gay man than to be trans or a lesbian or a person of colour who is gay or trans, even within the LGBT+ community. “Many people think the job is done since gay marriage became law. But it’s far from over.”
Colleges, more than any other sector, are again pioneering the way forward for trans people, starting to open up space where trans people realise they do have the right to exist.
As LGBT+ students are constantly given the freedom to be their true selves, potential LGBT+ staff recruits should realise they too will benefit from working in such a unique sector. “FE never gives up on people in or out of the classroom. It’s truly transformative.”
Colleges have a key role to play in supporting and protecting vulnerable students and staff, and helping to shift societal attitudes. “The next generation of politicians, journalists, business leaders, community organisers and activists are in colleges today – so opening them up to new ideas, attitudes and people who might not look or sound like them is vital to progress. It’s what colleges have done for well over a century, and I’m confident it’s what they’ll do for the next 100 years and beyond.”