Picture Perfect

Picture Perfect

A few weeks ago, a picture of some members of the INTO LGBT Teachers’ Group appeared in the Irish National Teachers Organisation monthly magazine InTouch. The photo was taken at the GALA awards ceremony (www.galas.ie) in March when we won the award for Best Voluntary Organisation. It was an incredible night and the support we received from the audience and other LGBT groups and advocates was incredible. But standing in that photo meant a lot more to us than just showing off our shiny award and fancy outfits.

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Few INTO LGBT members are completely out at work.  The majority of the teachers in the photo were out to friends and family and for some, a small number of co-workers. But this was different. The decision to be in that photo and to agree to its publication in InTouch magazine meant that we would be potentially coming out to 30,000 teachers, including our current colleagues, principals, boards of management and future employers.

So we explained to the photographer that we would need two pictures, one for the official GALA photos, and a second one with those of us who agreed to be pictured in InTouch. When it was time for the second photo, we paused to let people move out of shot.  Nobody left the picture. I can’t overestimate how proud I felt of everyone in the group that night.

For some of us, it was the first step to coming out to colleagues, for others, it was a celebration of just how far they’d come in being open about who they are with the people they work with and of their ten years of incredible work towards visibility, equality and diversity in schools.

And it got better. It was with more than a little trepidation that I entered the school building, the first Monday after the article had been published in InTouch. I comforted myself with the thought that most teachers probably wouldn’t have read the magazine yet and would most likely miss the photo altogether anyway. I was wrong.

Inside my classroom, I was met with a delightfully crafted sign made out of magnetic scrabble letters.

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As I ventured back out into the corridor, I was greeted by SNA’s and teachers alike who openly congratulated me on the award and on my “lovely dress.” I was beginning to feel pretty good about the whole thing but there was one very important person I had yet to bump into. And there she was – the Principal herself – standing in the hallway in the midst of parents and pupils. “I’ve been trying to get into that magazine my entire career and they still haven’t put me in a photo. Congratulations!” she beamed.

And there you have it. It was not simply a case of tolerance of my sexual orientation by school staff, as it has been in other schools. It was a public acknowledgement of my identity, not just as a teacher, or just as LGBT, but as a complete individual. For the very first time in my teaching career, I felt visible – I felt equal.

Can you imagine if every teacher and every child, no matter who they are, where they come from, or what they believe, had the opportunity to feel like this?

In the yard the next day, a senior infant told me I had bright happy sunshine coming out of my eyes. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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Straight Talking Staff Rooms

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Straight Talking Staff Rooms

On a really good day, when there is no queue for the bathroom or the microwave, and no child from your class manages to injure themselves in the school yard, there is a 20 minute window to sit down and relax in a child-free environment of semi-calm. Well that’s the idea anyway.

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Most teachers are very good at including everyone in the staff room conversation and making sure that new members of staff are not left out. This is lovely, but it can also be very stressful. From nothing more than an attempt to include you in conversation and to stay away from discussing pupils, the questions about your personal life start rolling in. And suddenly you find yourself negotiating a minefield of simple and innocent questions from lovely, friendly people who just want to get to know you better. They have no idea that you’re internally hyperventilating as you decide how best to answer each question. You don’t always want to spend your lunch break coming out to a group of people you’ve just met, including your principal and on occasion, the parish priest– sometimes you just want to eat your lunch.

For anyone who has ever experienced an oral language exam in a foreign language, you’ll understand what it feels like. You start to edit and change your personal history to suit the environment and to match the suitable language available to you.

These are some common options:

1) You avoid pronouns at every cost – You say “we” instead of “she”, and “their” instead of “her”.  I’ve even found myself repeating “other half” or “better half” instead of partner or girlfriend.

2) When someone presumes you’re talking about a man, you just go along with it. “Yes, he’s great, never met a man quite like him before…….” Until they ask for a name and you either make one up or pretend to choke on your sandwich.

3) You can pretend you’re single when you aren’t. I hate this option, but I have used it and feel awful about it every time I do. I have this incredible partner who share my life and heart with, and here I am pretending she doesn’t exist. It feels like cheating.  It also gives people the opportunity to play matchmaker. “You’re so right, I just haven’t met the right man yet… oh yes… I can’t WAIT for the Christmas party where you can set me up with the soccer coach. But I’m very picky; it will take some man to sweep me off my feet!”

4) You edit the names of bars/social groups/movies or just fake selective amnesia. Suddenly, you can’t quite remember the name of the bar you were in, or the name of the sports or social groups you meet up with – every week.

5) Take the pressure off by asking lots of questions instead of answering them. I turn into an over-eager chat show host or amateur psychologist, throwing questions left right and centre. And the more I get to know these lovely friendly people, the worse I feel. The longer I leave telling them about my life, the harder it gets.

Schools are more than just places of work, they are like an extension of your family and they profit from the bond between teachers and staff. But how can you develop a friendship with people when you can’t tell them about your relationships, your friendships, your dreams for the future, or which bar you were in last Saturday? If someone asks you about your weekend, you shouldn’t feel the need to edit out who you were with or where you went.

Everyone has the right to share as much or as little information about their personal lives as they wish. Sharing information about your life does leave you vulnerable to other people’s opinions. I can live with this. But coming out in a school leaves you exposed to far more than just opinion. I have enough support from friends, family and nowadays colleagues too, to protect myself from other people’s attitudes but no amount of love from them can shield me from this discriminatory law. And that makes me feel very isolated.

But I’m not alone in feeling this way.  Once I made the decision to come out to staff, I soon realised that I’m not always the only teacher who feels the need to deflect questions or edit their answers.  Some teachers who are single parents, unmarried parents, separated, divorced, have gay children, or are even LGBT themselves; also feel that staffroom conversations can be stressful. Outside work or in a one-to-one conversation, they rarely think twice about talking about themselves and take pride in their relationships and interests. But in a school environment they feel they risk being judged for failing to live up to the standard of “perfect primary school teacher”.

This was an eye opener for me. Here I was, making the same presumptions about other people’s personal lives and predicting their opinions when all the time, I’m not the only one counting down the minutes until the bell rings.

Perfect Timing

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.

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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.

Conversation 1:

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.

 

Conversation 2:

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.

 

Conversation 3

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.

 

Conversation 4

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.]

 

Conversation 5

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.

 

Conversation 6

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.