• Lindsey Bowden

Conversations...with advocate and writer, Shaun Dellenty


Shaun Dellenty

In 2014, whilst running the Twin Peaks UK Festival, I was approached by a man who told me that he had had a magical experience and thanked me for everything I did for Twin Peaks fans. We chatted for a while, and as I watched him go, I knew we'd stay in touch and he would be a real positive energy in my life.


Fast forward 6 years, and I was completely right. Shaun Dellenty is a dear friend and confidant, and his 'must be read to be believed journey' has taken him all the way from the Yorkshire Dales and Emmerdale to 10 Downing Street. It's my pleasure to introduce this inspiring man to you.



Lindsey Bowden (LB)

Hi Shaun, it's a real pleasure to have you on the blog. How are you? Keeping safe in these trying times?

Shaun Dellenty (SD)

Hi Lindsey, many thanks for inviting me to take part and I hope you are well and staying safe. My husband, Mike, Schnauzer (our dog), and I are thankfully safe and well, although our family and friendship groups have sadly not gone untouched by the virus. Not being able to support those we love in person is particularly challenging, but we are grateful for our health, our home, and for being able to access food and online services. Thank goodness we have the ability to communicate face to face via phones and computers, can you imagine how different this experience would have been if we were all still using Bakelite telephones and queuing with bags of change outside red phoneboxes to keep in touch? I had just returned from working in Mumbai when lockdown started and have been keeping in touch with friends there via Facetime; if in the UK we think one hour of exercise a day feels limiting, their experience has been far more isolating.


LB

Humbling words there Shaun and you’re completely right. We’ve had a pretty relaxed lockdown here compared to others. Shaun your career has been varied to say the least, actor, educator, advocate and author. Let’s start with your acting, where did that all begin for you?

SD

Varied indeed! Apart from a natural leaning towards creativity, which I think was always there, I have two people to thank for my acting career: singer/actor Anita Harris and my middle school teacher Mr. Biebrach. My parents took me to see Peter Pan at the Oxford Playhouse when I was four; apart from feeling overwhelmed by how magical it all was, I decided there and then that one day I would be on the stage. Unfortunately, when I arrived at school it became clear that I was a shy little boy. It wasn’t until I was ten years old that Mr Peter Biebrach encouraged me onstage as the character, the Journalist in a school production of War of the Worlds. Having astutely clocked my shyness he wisely informed me that acting was akin to wearing a mask, one I could hide behind. As a kid who already knew he was gay from an early age, I was already developing some survival strategies to conceal my true nature, in response to familial and societal prejudice. Playing a character became a coping strategy, giving me respite from who I was, and my confidence grew as a result. In secondary school I became known for mimicry, often noisily acting out TV comedy sketches from Kenny Everett and The Young Ones to distract from who I was and to gain social approval with the ‘cool kids.’ In secondary school I was blessed with a supportive drama teacher Sheila Hill, who encouraged me towards the acting profession. I was part of a two-year pilot of an accredited drama course at secondary school, so by the time I walked out of formal education aged seventeen due to sustained homophobic bullying, I wanted to get ‘out there’ and perform, rather than train formally. Initially I did a lot of extra work, just to listen, observe, and to learn the ropes technically. I also did some amateur dramatics but ultimately found it unfulfilling as the emphasis fell too heavily upon applause and acclaim rather than the creative process itself. In my mid-twenties (whilst also training to be a primary school teacher) I worked as a presenter, corporate host, and stand-up comedian performing hundreds of live shows. I also wrote a few one-man shows and was repeatedly informed by audiences that I was able to deliver difficult and challenging content and messages in a way that drew people in, rather than throwing them out, this would prove to be a key skill in my advocacy work later in life but I learned it telling rather risqué jokes onstage! The two halves of my professional life collided when I began performing and directing Theatre In Education (T.I.E.). After a year in full-time teaching, I left to pursue my acting career and was lucky to get picked up by an agent. I got my Equity card and for the next five years I was very blessed with a wide range of work, ranging from national Shakespeare tours, voiceovers, TV presenting work, adverts, and television, including soaps.

Shaun Dellenty in Emmerdale

LB

I love how we all have that one teacher who made such an impact. I had one in school and one is drama school who are both still dear friends. As you say, you featured in some great stage shows as well as high profile TV shows, including Emmerdale, which you are still known for. Can you talk a bit about working on one of the UK’s top soaps?

SD

It's twenty years ago since I last appeared as Dr. Steven Rawson but occasionally in pubs I still get asked if I was in Emmerdale, despite the fact I look very different now! Working on a successful soap is a very different discipline to stage work and requires real stamina in terms of maintaining energy levels and line learning at often no notice. It is surreal to walk onto a set featuring actors and characters you have seen on screen since you were a kid, and then act alongside them with nothing but a short camera rehearsal. I remember when my episodes were first broadcast, I was still undertaking teacher supply work in a local school and they asked me to open the village fete and sign autographs in a sweaty tent full of cakes and oddly shaped vegetables! I still have a bag of Emmerdale fan mail somewhere, it started arriving before I had even filmed a scene! The whole team were hugely welcoming, and it was a very positive experience. A friend of mine actually worked as the announcer on regional ITV (where I was based) and I for a laugh he introduced one of my episodes live by saying ‘look out for the hot Doctor in this episode’ which was sweet. I also fulfilled a lifelong ambition by getting my name for the first time in the Radio Times thanks to Emmerdale. Working on Crimewatch was a whole different experience though and I was once attacked by an elderly woman with a handbag in Rugby and reported to the police simply because I had appeared in Crimewatch that week. I guess we’ve got to admire her community spirit!


LB

That's hilarious! Was there a certain point that you thought your acting may be developing into another career?


SD

It was my father who suggested that I train as a teacher to maintain financial stability, and he was absolutely right. Inevitably as you get older your priorities change and in 2000 at the end of a twelve-year rural Midlands based relationship, I made a snap decision to move to London to reboot my life. Independent for the first time, I needed to sustain myself financially and found myself teaching more and more. Around this time my agent ungraciously did a bunk with all the money, leaving me without monies due or indeed an agent. He was subsequently Equity blacklisted, but I never got my money back and it left a bad taste in the mouth at a time when I was quite vulnerable. At this point I auditioned for and was offered a presenting job on a nightly news show, it was set to be my biggest break and I was thrilled that I would also have creative input. The set was built, and the first location reports filmed; then the evening prior to the filming of the first show I had an apologetic phone call from the producer to say that Sky TV had bought out the channel and had cancelled all existing commissions. I was pretty crushed. The following day a primary school in South London asked me to stay on and teach for a year and I ended up as Deputy Head and staying for sixteen; that marked the end of my professional acting career. I fell from acting into teaching and school leadership quite organically, although as a school-based professional one never really stops acting. On one occasion a Channel Four programme for schools I had filmed was shown to children by one of my class teachers. As I walked in with a message for the class, several of the children got very worried that I was apparently able to appear in their television and physically in their classroom simultaneously! Teaching is a profession in which my acting, presenting, and sometimes even my voiceover skills could all be kept alive, due to the demands of the job. The skills I had developed as a presenter also bore fruit as I unexpectedly moved into LGBT+ advocacy on the world stage.


Shaun Dellenty at the Excellence in Diversity Awards

LB

Ha! I can imagine the kids reaction seeing you on TV and in front of them. I love that innocence! So, you’ve just mentioned your LGBT+ work. Can you talk a little about how you become an advocate for the LGBT+ community?

SD

I certainly never sought or planned to become an advocate for any community, LGBT+ or otherwise. As a teenager, growing up in the 1980s under the prejudicial law Section 28, I like many others experienced homophobic bullying from my peers and teachers, in addition to suffering from familial and societal rejection. With some kids at school telling me I deserved to get AIDS and die, purely for being me, I came very close to ending my own life aged 17. Even as a gay primary school leader, I was closeted until 2009 due to experiencing homophobia within the profession and from some parents. In late 2009 my school undertook pupil surveys with our primary aged pupils. When the data was crunched, we were appalled to learn that 75% of our pupils were experiencing homophobic bullying on a daily basis, in and around the school; 98% heard the word ‘gay’ deployed as a negative term or put down, as in ‘that’s so gay.’ It didn’t matter whether they identified as LGBT+ or not (some did by the way and others had LGBT+ parents and friends) the homophobia was targeted at any child who simply didn’t fit perceived social ‘norms’. Appalled by our data I ‘came out’ as gay to my whole school community in an assembly, ostensibly to provide an authentic point of connection with the potential lifelong impact of bullying and prejudice and to provide a role model to any students, parents, and staff who were LGBT+ themselves. Men working in primary schools was still quite taboo, even in 2009. Had our bullying data related to racism, we would not as a leadership team have hesitated to plan our response; yet as our data related to ‘gay stuff’ and we hesitated-out of fear. I realised that the words ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender’ had never been spoken during my professional training as a teacher, nor in any subsequent professional conversations or staff training sessions. Despite this I knew all too well the impact of LGBT+ bullying and felt compelled to act on our bullying data; I contacted some of the leading LGBT charities such as Stonewall and asked if they provided teacher training or age-appropriate curricula for primary schools, but I was told no, due to a fear of parental/press reprisal. I then wrote a compassionate LGBT+ inclusion teacher training strategy called ‘Inclusion For All’ aimed initially at primary schools and subsequently for faith and secondary schools and teacher training faculties. I delivered it first in my own school with great success and interest and ten years on I ‘ve personally delivered to over 65,000 UK educators. My work immediately went viral and as a result national and international organisations including Stonewall, Amnesty International, Church of England, Kidscape, Show Racism The Red Card, NSPCC, teacher trade unions, and politicians visited and worked with me to develop their own LGBT+ inclusion offers. I have now taken my training around the world, into Parliaments and had the privilege of working the entire Isle of Man education system to make it LGBT+ friendly. I led a national social media and blogging campaign on tackling the use of the word ‘gay’ as a negative term and campaigned for LGBT+ educators to be supported to out at work, should they choose to be. My work has been reported around the world in newspapers, magazines and on television. It continues to be an unexpected but mainly joyous journey, with several major awards along the way, however making schools and our wider communities safe for all, not just some naturally diverse human beings is the only reward I seek.


Shaun Dellenty at Southwark Cathedral

LB

It's an incredible journey Shaun, and one that I’m sure many people will relate to. You really hit a large audience when you founded the charity, Inclusion for All. For those who aren’t sure, what is Inclusion for All and what was the ethos of the charity?


SD

Inclusion For All grew into a small charitable organisation as a result of the national and international interest in my training offer. Inclusion For All and latterly Celebrating Difference (a revised version of my training offer launched as a business in 2016) is rooted in the realisation that as human beings we all experience bias and prejudice. Historically, our education system has told stakeholders ‘not to be prejudiced’ and even banned specific racist or homophobic words. This is all very well, but what schools fail to do is to encourage young people (and indeed staff and parents) to explore and bring non-judgmental curiosity to our potential for prejudice from an early age in order to work positively and pro-actively with them throughout our lives in order to prevent us from damaging other human beings; this is the core of my approach. As we are learning to co-exist with a virus and work pro-actively to diminish its impact, so we must aspire to work to co-exist with our prejudice and bias to avoid hurting our fellow human beings, however different from us they might seem on first impressions.


LB

100% agree, it all starts with educating the younger generation. Your work within the LGBT+ community has grown to astounding heights, to the point that you were named one of the 100 most influential LGBT+ people in the U.K. and designated a ‘Point of Light’ by the U.K. Prime Minister for services to both LGBT+ and education communities. That must have been an incredible high point for you?


SD

Thank you for your kind words, yes, a week in May 2016 was a week I will never forget! I was awarded the Mayor of Southwark’s Highest Civic Honour at Southwark Cathedral and given the Freedom of Southwark. The following day I travelled to Leeds for the national Excellence In Diversity Awards and was named ‘Education Champion 2016’ and whilst at the ceremony (and quite honestly after one too many glasses of champagne) I took a call from the Cabinet Office inviting me to a reception in the garden of 10 Downing Street later that week. On my arrival at Downing Street I was told I was to be presented with a ‘Points of Light Award’ by the Prime Minster for services to education and LGBT+ communities. Let’s just say he wasn’t my Prime Minister, but as it was not a political award, but one awarded to people around the world doing compassionate things I was very grateful, even if I had to bite my tongue a few times in conversation afterwards-time and a place and all that! As a child who had suffered under Section 28 at school, which essentially precluded teachers from talking about the existence of LGBT+ people in school, it was startling to find myself in 2009 being honoured by a Conservative Prime Minister for doing just that, and in primary schools. I was also given a letter of recommendation for my work signed by the PM. My work was then tweeted from the Number 10 account to millions of followers, resulting in a significant amount of online hate, but I am used to that, and at the ripe old age of 52 there is really not a lot people can write that I haven’t heard before. This year The Bishopsgate Institute in London asked me to curate a public archive of my ten years of international LGBT+ inclusion work which will also serve as my public legacy when I am long gone. It is a huge privilege and the archive will feature some of the awards and letters from politicians and celebrities I have accrued along the way.

Shaun Dellenty at 10 Downing Street

LB

What a legacy you have Shaun. So, all of this work, as you mention spanning ten years, climaxed in the publishing of your first book Celebrating Difference. The book is a guide book almost of inclusion in education. Can you talk about the process of how you were approached for this book, the journey, and the path it has led you to?

SD

I can. Bloomsbury Publishing had been following my social media accounts for some time as well as articles I‘d written for The Huffington Post and The Guardian etc. In 2017 I was tweeted by my (now) editor Hannah who asked if I was interested in writing a book about my life journey and, by then, tried and tested approach to compassionate LGBT+ inclusion. We met for coffee and she kindly heard me speak at Amnesty International. It was clear that she got the bigger picture of my work; I simply wish the world was a kinder place and want to help facilitate that. Although it was my first experience of working with an editor (on a book at least) I saw how vital it is to work with an editor with whom one can form a relationship based upon mutual respect and understanding; this allowed me to respond and react to her feedback with an open mind and heart. From the start it was agreed that the first section of the book would ground my training approach in lived experience in the form of a summarised autobiography, before going on to describe (in the form of a handbook) my six tier approach to compassionate LGBT+ inclusion, utilising case study, research, impact study and first-hand accounts to make the book as accessible as possible, without reading like some dull and lifeless academic tome, which I find a real turn off! I hope in the end we succeeded. The book was certainly well received, even being recommended in the House of Lords in April 2019. As you know yourself Lindsey, to find oneself signing books after years of asking others to sign books, is surreal, but rather lovely too.


Celebrating Difference by Shaun Dellenty

LB

It is very surreal yes. I’ve done it in London and Los Angeles and it felt almost outer-body!

SD

Exactly! My advice to any budding writer is to write down what is in your heart and mind and then give yourself a good distance from it before reading it back. As a meditator I am very aware of my judging and comparing minds and this proved extremely helpful when it came to self-editing. Lots of people say ‘ I think I have a book in me but I am not sure how to get started’ my advice is just to get started and if you don’t like what you write at the beginning, well that is what editing is for. Just get writing; life is too fragile, too brief not to at least try. These lockdown days and months are the perfect opportunity to externalise thoughts and feelings and ultimately no one needs to read it except you, it’s your choice.


Shaun, his husband Mike, with myself at his book launch

LB

Absolutely. I think any writer would agree. We all sit and stare at the computer, but as soon as you start to writing something, that’s when the dialogue naturally comes. So Shaun, now you travel the world delivering training and also making personal appearances for your work which must be hugely rewarding?

SD

It is hugely rewarding to be invited to travel and meet and train new people in new places, I never could have anticipated in my life when I was a bullied little asthmatic gay sci-fi geek that one day politicians, Archbishops, even pop stars would be seeking my input and help, or that I would be invited to help facilitate change across whole countries-what an immense privilege. My international book talks and training sessions also enable me to gain a more holistic view of the experiences of LGBT+ and other minorities globally, who often don’t enjoy the privileges we currently do in the UK. It is heart-breaking to hear of LGBT+ children rejected by their parents, thrown out of schools, of those murdered for simply being transgender, or of teachers sacked for being in a same-sex relationship. A ten-year accumulation of these negative experiences could potentially take me down, or cause me to feel hopeless, instead they instill me with an even greater passion to nurture a kinder and more compassionate world in my own small way.

LB

So with all of this incredible experience , could you see yourself ever returning to acting?

SD

Do you know, I would love to return to some kind of performing. My last gig was a stand-up slot with Zoe Lyons at the legendary Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 2007. I miss the creative process a lot and as I get older, I certainly do feel the pull back to the creative process and even the stage. It would be interesting to explore whether the unique set of experiences I have gained via my LGBT+ life journey and ten years of advocacy could somehow be woven into a one-man show moving forward, it has also been suggested that the first chapter of my book would make a film script and I would like to explore ways of collaborating to take this forward. Watch this space I guess!

Follow Shaun Dellenty on Twitter @ShaunDellenty and Instagram @shaundellenty_lgbtauthor. Visit Shaun's website at www.shaundellenty.com

Follow Lindsey Bowden on Instagram @lindseybowden76 and Twitter @lindseybowden76


Celebrating Difference is available in iTunes and at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Celebrating-Difference-Shaun-Dellenty/dp/1472961501








Follow Shaun’s journey at htthttps://www.facebook.com/shaundellentycelebratingdifference/



© 2020 Lindsey Bowden.