Hiding in the Classroom – John’s Story

Hiding in the Classroom

It was only on retiring from teaching just over nine years ago that I got the courage to attend a meeting of the LGBT Teachers’ Group (and of course the group had only been recently formed then).

I started teaching in 1968. From 1970, I taught in a very large Dublin suburban school for five years and for the next thirty years in a school that grew from five teachers when I joined to over 20 when I retired. The schools I taught in were boys’ schools.

While a number of my colleagues knew that I was gay, I couldn’t describe myself as being “out”!

My experience in school was that I never heard an anti-gay joke being told in the staff room and I didn’t experience homophobic “bullying”, apart from what follows.

On one occasion (about 5 years before I retired) a First Class pupil stood in front of me and asked “Are you gay?” Shocked that he knew the word, knew how and when to use it and prepared to ask the question floored me! I actually don’t know what I said or how I reacted. Fortunately it was time to go home. But though the pupils were gone home, the fear and anxiety stayed with me – for a long time. Subsequently (and I can’t say exactly how long afterwards) I was in hospital, taken there from my G.P’s surgery by ambulance, having been taken to the doctor from the school playground after “small break”, when colleagues became alarmed. It was a particularly busy time at school just then, and I presented as though having a heart attack. I wasn’t, but I was under stress. Did the above-mentioned incident have a bearing on this? I leave that to the reader’s imagination.

During that hospital stay, I was able to talk to my headmaster about the incident (he knew I was gay), and he was, as always, understanding and supportive. But despite that support, the fear and anxiety persisted. As teachers we are in contact, direct and indirect, with a large population – pupils, parents, extended family, minders etc, and for the gay teacher trying to hide a significant part of him/herself within the school context, it is an exhausting process.

In March of the year I retired (and what I am about to describe was what gave me the impetus to get out – rather than “come out”! – I could have continued in the service for a few years more), I overheard one Fourth Class pupil say to another “He’s homo”; within two days my decision was made – RETIRE!

Someone glancing through what I have written above might think “What’s his problem? He had a fine time”. In ways they would be right – I had a fine time. However, a low level of fear and anxiety ran right through my teaching career. In the early years pupils were certainly not as aware as they were later to become, but social and religious attitudes, not to mention “pre-June 1993” life for gay men in Ireland, didn’t exactly fill one with confidence and self-esteem. This I find ironic for people in a profession in which we were supposed to be developing confidence and self-esteem in our pupils!

As attitudes changed, so too did awareness among pupils, leading to what I described above.

It is wonderful to witness the changes taking place in Irish society for gay people in general, but particularly in relation to the experiences of the next generations of teachers and how (some of them) are able to be at ease about their sexuality in the workplace. There is still a way to go for many.

The “State of Fear” in which I fulfilled my obligations as a teacher is something I hope is becoming rare; it was a crippling burden to carry, and it was only once I left the classroom I felt the full impact of that burden.

The Decriminalisation of Homosexuality legislation in 1993 was a huge step forward for all gay people in Ireland; the removal/amendment of Section 37.1 would be a great step forward for gay teachers in Ireland.

Hiding in the classroom, in front of 30+ (or is it 40+?)pairs of inquisitive, perceptive eyes, is an exhausting and demoralising experience. I hope it is not too long when it is a thing of the past.

John McElligott

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