“I learned a long time ago the wisest thing I can do is be on my own side, be an advocate for myself and others like me.” Maya Angelou
It took me a long time to come out to anyone, even to myself. I had a ten year straight relationship, a wedding and, in hindsight, a breakdown, before I accepted that I was gay. And although I regret the major upset I caused my loved ones when I first exploded out of the closet, the support and positive reactions I have experienced from my family, friends and even my ex-husband, have shown that life is so much better for everyone when you truly embrace and accept yourself. That initial decision to come out was the best choice I have ever made.
What I hadn’t anticipated was that for most gay people, you don’t just have to come out once. Every time we meet new people and encounter different environments, subconsciously or otherwise, we make the decision as to whether or not another person’s knowledge of our sexuality is relevant to the situation.
I was so busy coming to terms with my own sexual orientation, I hadn’t anticipated how irrelevant my sexuality is to the majority of people I meet. I was relieved to discover that the fact that I am a lesbian is usually accepted as a simple detail about me, neither more nor less important than many other pieces of information I share about my life.
But some situations are different.
Sometimes I meet people who I am not entirely comfortable with or I find myself in environments where I know I might be judged unfairly, based on my sexuality. Even when our private and personal lives have nothing to do with the situation, seemingly harmless questions about our backgrounds, our families and our relationships crop up all the time in conversation ice-breakers and small-talk. There are few better examples of this type of environment than a typical religious-run primary school in Ireland.
In most schools, when questions do arise, the fear and trepidation I felt before I came out for the first time comes flooding back. In these cases, making the decision to be open or not about my personal life takes energy and strength – strength I don’t always have.
Over the last few years, I have had the chance to work in many different schools, both part-time and full-time. I’ve worked in Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian schools. I’ve taught in mainstream classes, learning support and language support, in contracts lasting from a month to over a year.
I know what it’s like to be work as a “straight, married teacher”, a closeted gay teacher, and as an openly gay teacher. I know how it feels to be praised for your professional abilities. I also know what it’s like when you are suddenly perceived by those in charge as being a less capable teacher because of your sexual orientation. I know how it feels to be accepted and included by school staff for being who I am. I also know what it’s like to feel invisible and inadequate as a teacher because our employment law does not protect me from discrimination because I am LGBT.
A lot has changed in my life in recent years, but my capabilities as a teacher have not. And since it took 28 years for me to come out of the closet, I won’t be sneaking back in again anytime soon – not for public acceptance, not for an easy life and certainly not for a job. Especially when there is no doubt in my mind that my sexuality does not, in any way, affect the quality of my teaching and the well-being of the children in my care, regardless of the ethos of the school I work in.
My name is Eileen Gamble – I am a Primary School teacher and I am a lesbian.
I am overwhelmingly proud to be both.
In my next post, I’ll be sharing my experiences of how and why I came out to school staff and the consequences of doing so. I hope it will encourage others to share their stories too.