It’s 2009. I am an underwater archaeologist. I’m working as a diver, spending a month stranded out on a grimy barge in the middle of the River Thames. It’s smelly, it’s dirty and we’re all mashed into tiny cabins together. It’s a very male-dominated workplace where masculinity can often be over-exaggerated. There are photos cut out of Loaded magazine on the walls all over the cabin (I wake up in the morning staring at Gemma Atkinson’s breasts – or are they staring at me?).
And I’m gay. And it’s ok.
Some of the older boat crew might not be totally comfortable about it, but they know better than to say anything about it – after all, I’m a professional, I’m an employee, and I’m protected against discrimination by law.
It’s 2012. I’m now a teacher (the career-change story is long one, but it’s the best change I’ve ever made in my life). I’m walking into my old school, now as a teacher rather than a pupil. It’s a lovely light-filled place where positive messages about inclusivity and diversity greet you as you enter the door. I’m surrounded everywhere by beautiful, smiling, friendly women who want to get to know their new colleague and go out of their way to be welcoming to me.
And I’m gay. And it’s not ok.
The vast majority of these people are unlikely to have any issue with my sexuality, but I can’t be certain of that. I now work for a religious institution and I am not protected against discrimination. I’m in one of the few careers which fall victim to Section 37.1, a part of the Employment Equality Act of 1998 which says that it’s perfectly acceptable for my employer to discriminate against me for being gay. I’m 30 years old and I’m scared of losing my temporary job. I’m 30 years old and I’m scared because I’m gay. I’m 30 years old and I’m about to start lying about who I am, for the first time since I came out at 18.
People often ask if this matters, if you need to be upfront about your personal life in the workplace? Well, the answer to that is that non-LGBT people are upfront about their personal lives every minute of the day, they just don’t realise they’re doing it. People assume certain things about their partners and relationships and they don’t need to say anything about those assumptions because they are correct. For me, as an LGBT person, the assumption that my partner is female is incorrect, so I need to say something about it. I’m not interested in going on and on about my personal life, I’m just making a minor correction. However, now that I’m working in a school I’m actually getting more questions about my personal life than ever before because a school is an unusual workplace – it’s also a family and a community. I’m the new addition to the family and they want to know all about me! And I’m lying. Lying with every answer! At this time in my life I have a wonderful partner living back in England. We’ve been together three years and he’s a very important piece of my life. The boat crew on the Thames had to endure endless tales about him as we’d just met at that stage and I was swept up in the excitement of first love. Now here I am, three years on, lying about him, denying his existence every time I answer a question. I work in an environment in which we teach children to value love and value honesty and to embrace difference and I, the teacher, am doing the opposite.
If that sounds stressful, it was, but my story has a happy enough ending. Although the strain of the long-distance relationship eventually proved too much, we’re still good friends and something positive actually came from that break up, something which changed everything for me. One evening over drinks, one of the teachers finally decided to address the elephant in the room. “Niall, sorry to hear about that break-up. Em, Niall, the ex in England…. eh…. we are talking about a man aren’t we?” I looked her in the eye and smiled, thankful for her approach, thankful for her hint that she didn’t see this as a problem. “Yeah,” I replied, “but I wouldn’t be talking about it, I don’t know how the Principal would react and my job could be at risk”. The teacher in question grinned and said “She was the one who brought it up, she doesn’t really understand why you’re being so secretive about it”.
So with a few words, my problem was solved and I could go back to living my life in the same way as everyone else I worked with, happy, honest and proud. The Principal hadn’t even heard of Section 37.1 and when I explained it to her in conversation this year she said my sexuality had about as much bearing on my ability to teach religion as the colour of my socks did.
My experience ultimately has been a positive one. It could have been very different however. Principals set the tone in their schools and had mine had a different attitude towards LGBT people, my wonderful career change could have become the biggest mistake of my life. LGBT teachers are openly bullied in schools in this country, by colleagues, by management and even by students. They can’t stand up for themselves because Section 37.1 means they have no legal support behind them.
We campaign against Section 37.1 because it is state-sanctioned discrimination and has no place on the statute books in a modern society. I’ve written about how I was returned as an adult to a place of fear and secrecy that I’d thought I’d escaped from at 18. I’ve mentioned how teachers who are victims of homophobic bullying in the workplace are unable to stand up for themselves. Most worryingly though, this isn’t just a problem for gay teachers, it has a serious impact on the protection of children from bullying also. It can be used to discriminate against or discipline anyone who is thought to undermine the school’s religious ethos. This means that not only can teachers not stand up for themselves, they can’t stand up for the children in their care. If a child is being bullied for being gay or for having gay parents or brothers and sisters we want teachers to intervene to protect the child, but a teacher (gay or straight) who utters the sentence “There’s nothing wrong with being gay” could face serious consequences in a religious run school. On the one hand we have guidelines from the Minister of Education and Skills telling us to implement anti-homophobic bullying policies and on the other hand we have Section 37.1 which leaves us wondering “Can I even say gay?”
There are too many contradictions in our approaches to LGBT lives in society and in our schools. We’ve seen a sea change in attitudes to LGBT lives in Irish society over the last decade, our schools need to catch up. We should be leading progress in society, not chasing behind it. A good first step? Axe Section 37.1, free LGBT teachers from secrecy and allow them to be the excellent role models they no doubt will be.