I’m an LGBT teacher with a fabulous sense of rhythm but an incredibly bad sense of timing. I came out at the age of 28, after I married a man, and three weeks before my college finals. I am credited with ruining my Dad’s birthday by telling him I was gay before he’d even had a chance to blow out the candles on his cake. Even though I’ve always known that I would be a primary teacher, I waited eight years to go back to college and train as one. And now I’ve chosen to publish a blog about being a gay teacher, in a country where you can still potentially lose your teaching job for being LGBT.
Is there ever a good time to come out as an LGBT Teacher?
During my time in the INTO LGBT Teacher’s group, I’ve heard many teachers’ experiences of coming out (or not coming out) to colleagues. Some teachers, especially those who do not have permanent positions, such as myself, worry that being out might cause them to lose out on longer-term job opportunities in that school. Many student teachers and those newly qualified find themselves having to go back into the closet for the first time in their lives. Other teachers working in permanent jobs for many years have never come out to fellow staff members. Some feel that it is now impossible; others are waiting to secure a higher level teaching position before doing so. Some teachers have no interest in sharing any details about their private lives with other staff members. Others have never felt the need to avoid questions about their sexuality or have made the decision to be open about their lives, regardless of the consequences.
The first steps
Everyone’s situation is different, but I’ve found that once I’ve told even just one person in work that I’m gay, I feel the pressure lift and it’s far easier for me to devote my entire working day to, you know, actually working. In my view, happy confident teachers = happy confident pupils. So if you do decide to come out to a teacher at school, just how exactly do you go about telling someone in work that you’re gay?
Due to a lack of long-term contracts and being able to work in more than one school at once, I have numerous experiences of coming out in schools.
For the record, for every school I have come out in, there are many situations that I have judged as being unsuitable to reveal my sexuality. And there were many consequences, both positive and negative, that followed the scenarios below but I will keep those stories for another day.
I didn’t make the decision to come out in this school. It was made for me. A friend of a friend had heard parents from the school talking about me at a Christmas party, miles away from the town I was working in. I’d also overheard teachers talking about it in the staff room. They weren’t talking about me in an overly negative way, but it’s never nice to feel your personal life is being discussed behind your back. Initially, I wanted to quit my job, curl up in a ball in a dark room, and wait 40 years until all the teachers in the entire country who had known me before I came out had retired. Every time I walked into the staff room or spoke to a parent, I always wondered if they knew or not, if they cared, or if they had said anything to the principal or to the Board of Management. So eventually, I decided that I’d rather take control of my situation regardless of the consequences, rather than live with this constant internal dialogue of fear. So on a nice winter’s evening, I took a deep breath and knocked on my principal’s door.
Whilst drinking a cup of tea, I very ineloquently poured my heart out. The principal hadn’t known and was pleased that I had come to them and said it face to face. I felt like a weight was lifted but it was clear that their perception of me as a person, and as a teacher, had changed.
I just hoped that over the course of my teaching contract, things would readjust. But for now, I could simply go back to focussing on my work and the children in my class and have more confidence in dealing with staff and parents, if ever an issue arouse.
Teacher: Do you live on your own?
Me: No, I share with another girl. Are you living with anyone?
Teacher: No, I’m on my own. It’s great, although sometimes late at night, I wish I had someone else there, just to put the mugs in the dishwasher.
Me: Yes, that’s certainly a major advantage to being in a relationship alright. My other half is a clean freak.
Teacher: How long have you been with him?
Me: Actually, it’s a she…. But I don’t bring it up much, since you could still be dismissed for being a gay primary teacher.
Teacher: WHAT? No way! Are you sure! That can’t be right…What about taking it to the High Court?
Me: Wouldn’t matter, it’s still a legal right for religious-run schools to discriminate against you if they feel that you “endanger” their ethos.
Teacher: What about taking it to the European Court of Human rights? Or the United Nations? I mean, does the President know? That’s unbelievable! Who in this day and age would think that being gay would have any effect on your teaching! But if I were you, I wouldn’t tell anyone else here, especially if you are looking for a job for next year.
The reason I came out quickly in this school is because on the first day, I saw poster on the staffroom wall about the Employment Equality Act 2000 which prohibits discrimination on nine grounds including, ironically, sexual orientation. I figured I could use it for backup as a visual aid, the first time a teacher asks me about a partner/where I went at the weekend.
Teacher 1: The new rugby coach is a bit of a looker. Is he your type?
Me: Eh no, not exactly.
Teacher 2: What are you looking for and we’ll keep an eye out for you!
Me: Preferably someone who likes music, makes me laugh and has female genitalia.
Teacher 1: Really? I didn’t know that! You look so straight!
Me: Well, I use makeup to cover up the rainbow flag tattoo on my forehead.
Teacher 1: Really? Oh….. my friend is gay. You probably know him.
Me: We don’t all know each other you know! What’s his name?
Teacher 1: His name is ****.
Me: Yeah… I do know him. Do you think the principal or parents would say anything if they found out I was gay?
Teacher 2: Sure who cares! There’s nothing they can do.
Me: Actually they can…
[I then start my informational rant about lack of employment equality.]
Teacher 1: That’s ridiculous! Why would anyone care if you are gay or not? What’s that got to do with teaching? But maybe wait to tell anyone else around here until you know if there are any jobs coming up.
Teacher: Did you get your copy of InTouch Magazine? [Irish National Teachers Organisation Magazine]
Me: Yes thanks. Although I was a bit nervous, I thought I might be in this one.
Teacher: Ooh! Why?
Me: I’m in the INTO LGBT Teacher’s Group…. It’s like, the gay one? And we won an award the other week. Our photo is going to be in InTouch. I was thinking I should maybe tell the principal beforehand….
Teacher: Well, is your name is on it? Because if not, it might be better to just pretend it’s someone else.
Me: I think we’re being named.
Teacher: Oh, well then maybe just pretend you were there for another reason, as a supporter or something? Because there might be jobs coming up here next year.
Me: I can’t really do that. I’ve given up fear of Section 37.1 for Lent so if anyone asks me questions, I’m just going to tell them.
Teacher: What’s Section 37.1?
[Cue well-rehearsed informational presentation on Section 37.1.]
Teacher: I’m freaked out about being pregnant but not married. The principal hasn’t actually said anything about it to me, but I’m still worried it might stop me from getting a job here after my maternity leave. Do you think I should do something?
Me: You can tell her I’m a lesbian, that will take the pressure off you.
Teacher: Oh that’s brilliant! I feel totally better now. Cheers.
Teacher 1: So! Tell me all about yourself! Where are you living?
Me: In ******, so not too far way.
Teacher 2: Ah, that’s great, do you live on your own?
Me: No, I live with my other half…
Teacher: Would that be a girl half or a boy half?
Me: A girl half.
Teacher 2: Ah, that’s great. My best friend is gay. She lives in Wicklow though.
Me: I doubt I’d know her then!
Teacher 2: Her name is *****.
Me: Yeah…. I do know her.
Teacher 3: Do you prefer the term “girlfriend” or “partner”?
Me: Erm… depends… in school I think “partner”.
Teacher 3: Grand so.
So overall, I’m lucky and a lot of the time, it really has been grand. On good days, I come into school confident and happy. The main worries I have are about the well-being of my pupils and whether or not I’ll freeze to death in the school yard because I forgot my coat!
But next week, my contract will be up and I will have to do this all over again in another school. And maybe I won’t be so lucky. But it shouldn’t be about luck. It should be about equality, dignity and respect. And unfortunately that just isn’t always the case.