Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is an unofficial policy being implemented in primary schools today. It creates an environment of secrecy, fear, and inequality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teachers. How does it work? Colleagues in school who know you’re gay will enquire in a whisper about your girlfriend, your dinner date, or your holiday. Colleagues that guess that you might be gay will avoid asking you questions about your personal life, sometimes skipping over you in a conversation that goes right around the table, including everyone but you. What’s odd is that those who enforce this policy are actually well intentioned colleagues who don’t want to embarrass you or put you on the spot, they don’t know how open or how visible you want to be, and they don’t know who is listening. But Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has the power to make you feel invisible, it belittles your relationship and makes it feel inferior, and it takes away part of who you are.
What visibility means
When someone asks me what I do as a profession, I usually answer, “I’m a primary school teacher”. I have never answered, “I’m a gay teacher”. I don’t believe being gay has anything to do with my job. But the secrecy, silence, and discrimination around teachers who are LGBT forces me to make the connection between the two. For me, it was a difficult decision to come out to my colleagues. Many of my colleagues are my friends, we socialise together, we travel together, and we support each other personally and professionally. But my friends and family had advised me that it was probably wise not to come out in school because of Section 37.1. Because I’m quite a private person anyway, I almost agreed with them. But I had an inner struggle going on. If I couldn’t be honest about who I was, then that meant that I believed there was something wrong with who I was. It was like an internalised homophobia. And in the end, I couldn’t justify keeping it a secret because how could I honestly and effectively challenge homophobia in the workplace and in school if I couldn’t be true to who I was? So I began to tell my friends at work. What made it easier for me was that I was on career break at the time, so I could distance myself from the school and its ethos. I thought the information might trickle down the way gossip tends to do in schools, but no, it appeared the only people who knew were the people who I had told. So when I returned to school, I came out to my colleagues in different ways, depending on our personal or professional relationship. Or they came out to me, by letting me know that they knew by telling me they saw a picture of my girlfriend and me on Facebook, or they saw me in the InTouch magazine with the INTO LGBT Teachers’ Group. This gave me the opportunity to talk freely and openly about my relationship, LGBT issues, and my life, instead of having the dreaded “coming out” conversation, which tends to result in the following awkward response:
Really? Seriously? Are you kidding me? You’re not joking are you? Really?! Haha oh my god I never would’ve known. Wait, are you joking? No? Oh my god, well that’s great, who is she?
So finally I thought that everyone knew, but then someone asked me about my love life that let me know that no, not everyone knew. I was tired of having the awkward conversations. I decided I needed to be completely open and direct so I emailed the whole staff to invite them to come support the INTO LGBT Teachers’ Group at the Dublin Pride parade. And after that I felt a huge relief that it was finally out of my control. Everyone knew. I still have to come out to new members of staff, but it’s different now because I’m not so tense about it. Everything is much more relaxed and carefree. I am back to having normal conversations with my friends and colleagues where we talk about our partners or we don’t, it’s just easier and happier.
What invisibility means
Section 37.1 forces teachers to hide who they really are. Having to lie and avoid conversations about your personal life has serious implications for your self-esteem, mental health and well-being. In the staffroom you find yourself talking about your plans for the weekend, the struggles of house-buying, summer holidays etc., and when you feel pressured to lie about who you’re doing all these things with, these conversations become stressful minefields. The fake self that you’re portraying impacts on your own identity and on interpersonal relations you have with your colleagues and parents of pupils. Your home life can be affected too. It can be difficult to be your true self in the neighbourhood that you live and teach in if you are LGBT. The secrecy that you work so hard at maintaining in school then infringes on your home life. I wouldn’t kiss my girlfriend goodbye at the door, hold her hand on the street or in the local supermarket. When heterosexual relationships and families are presumed, teachers who are lesbian, gay or bisexual can feel marginalised, invisible and silenced. The presumption is that everyone is straight until they say otherwise. Heteronormativity means that teachers and students who are LGBT are always either hiding who they really are, or coming out, and this can be exhausting.
Why visibility is important
When I had Junior Infants, they thought that I lived in the classroom and that I climbed up a ladder into the skylight every night to sleep. Children don’t tend to think of their teachers having a life outside of school. Teachers who meet their students outside of school will know exactly what I mean by this. The look of shock on their faces is priceless! Visibility doesn’t mean students are suddenly going to privy to all sorts of personal information about their teacher. I find children are far more interested in their teacher’s pet than their wife or husband. They want to know how cute and funny your dog is, about your hamster’s latest escapades, or how many pieces of furniture your new kitten has peed on. They might occasionally be entertained by baby stories but usually only if there’s an exploding nappy involved. Special occasions such as weddings and birthdays can be interesting too, usually because there’s cake! With marriage equality hopefully becoming reality in next year’s referendum, teachers should be able to celebrate their engagement or their marriage with their staff and students in the same way their straight colleagues do. If your next-door neighbour is also a child in your class, or if the other kids on your road know there are two mammies in your house, this should not need to be hidden. When meeting with parents, and the professional conversation turns personal, you should be able to talk honestly and give your family or your relationship the respect it deserves. I feel that all teachers should be able to conduct their professional life and personal life in a dignified and equal manner to that of their colleagues.
Why do kids need to know about being gay in primary school anyway?
I’m often asked this question. They need to know one thing – that it’s ok. It is our jobs to prepare children for real life. Most children will eventually know someone who is gay, be it someone in their immediate family, a friend, a classmate, a colleague. They need to know that it is ok to be gay, and schools need to be sending out messages of acceptance and inclusivity to ensure this. It’s never too young for children to learn about LGBT people and issues. Myself and another teacher were with three students, an 8 year old, a 9 year old and a 10 year old. The 9 year old student student asked me “Does gay mean happy or something else?” and the 8 year old student answered immediately “Yeah it can but it can also mean two men or two women who love each other”. And the 10 year old answered promptly “Yeah and that’s ok,” and snapped her fingers, “love is good in any way”. The teacher and myself looked at each other and smiled, there was no need to intervene or say anything. For any child who is LGBT, thinks they might be LGBT, has a brother or sister who is LGBT, has two moms or two dads, EVERY time the child hears the teacher or other students use positive, inclusive words about LGBT people and families, they feel that sense of belonging, that they don’t need to hide any part of themselves. As teachers we should be including all types of families in the discussions that take place in the early years of a child’s education. ‘Myself and my family’ make up a huge part of the early primary school curriculum and to omit one type of family from children’s education excludes many and keeps others uninformed. Secrecy and shame can eat a young person up, and can lead to depression, abuse of alcohol and drugs, self-harm, and most worryingly thoughts of suicide. Learning about different types of families is an ideal way of informing children about LGBT issues, so that in later years, they can deal appropriately if they themselves, their friend, teacher or family member is LGBT. Being inclusive of all people and all families from pre-school would be far more effective in combatting bullying than in later years, when you end up trying to solve the problem of existing bullying rather than prevent it. Teachers being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity send a powerful positive message of diversity and equality, and play an important role in contributing to an inclusive society.
Teachers as role models
A teacher’s job is the education and protection of children. Part of this is the promotion of equality, tolerance, and acceptance of every person. It is also important that children coming from families headed by same-sex parents will have other positive LGBT role models in their life. Students who know their teachers are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and are leading a normal, boring, happy old life, will see that it is nothing to be ashamed of or worried about. This could impact hugely on any young person who is LGBT, and will also create a positive impression of LGBT people on all students. Teachers that are LGBT will continue to talk to children about their pets rather than their relationships, exactly the same way teachers that are straight do. But schools should recognise, respect, and value all identities including LGBT members of the school community. For this to happen teachers need to be accepted in the workplace for who they are. Visibility is about belonging: belonging in the staffroom, the school and the community. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell makes people feel invisible. Ask, Tell, Talk, Laugh is a much more healthy policy to have in our schools.