Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – Ciara’s Story

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell                Ciara Blog pic                            

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.

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Sea Change – Niall’s Story

Sea Change by Niall Callan                 Niall Blog Pic 

 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.

Invisible – Cecelia’s Story

invisible
Pronunciation: /ɪnˈvɪzɪb(ə)l /

ADJECTIVE
1. Unable to be seen
2. Concealed from sight; hidden
3. Treated as if unable to be seen; ignored or not taken into consideration

4. Me

I spend a good portion of my life feeling like I’m completely invisible. I’m a bisexual woman in a long term relationship with a guy – why would anyone think I was anything other than straight? For most of my life I was invisible even to myself. It took 24 long years of feeling abnormal before I came to the realisation that I was in fact bisexual. I was very lucky in this however and although it was hard to accept and come out to myself, I had an amazing boyfriend who supported me every step of the way. Once I came to terms with my sexuality, I felt like a fuller person somehow. I wasn’t weird or strange or just generally ‘wrong’. Somehow accepting my ‘gay side’ made me feel more secure in my ‘straight side’ – I was a whole person.

The thing is, though, I’d already been (permanently) working in my school for three years before this momentous event. It’s now three years since then and I still don’t think I’m generally out at work – even though I’d like to be. I’m ‘not sure’ because although I have mentioned some things to colleagues about LGBT issues, I don’t know if they’ve realised that this is actually a personal thing for me. It’s pretty hard to get past the ‘she has a boyfriend so she’s straight’ mentality.

Firstly, I have to say, my school is fabulous place to work. Section 37.1 doesn’t apply, the principal is extremely passionate about equality and human rights and one of the teachers with a post of responsibility is LGBT so I know it’s not going to be an issue career wise. So why aren’t I out? Well, a bisexual in an opposite sex relationship is pretty invisible. Short of walking up to people and saying ‘Hi, I know we’ve known each other for six years and we talk almost every day but I just wanted to double check that you know I’m bisexual’, it’s really hard to let people know.

Option 1: Mention partner in conversation
Generally interpreted as: Oh, she’s got a boyfriend – straight, straight, straight, straight, straight.

Option 2: Drop in a ‘Wow, *insert famous woman’s name* is fabulous looking!’
Generally interpreted as: Yes, she is, isn’t she/I’d love to look like that too.

Option 3: Discuss how much I love certain LGBT artists/musicians.
Generally interpreted as: She’s very into her alternative music. I suppose, her boyfriend is a musician so that kind of makes sense.

Option 4: Talk about some of the LGBT activism stuff that I do – INTO LGBT Teacher’s Group, BeLonGTo etc.
Generally interpreted as: She’s so passionate about equality. That mother language project she did was great, oh and the thing she organised when the Traveller activists came in was nice and all the books she has looking at ‘race’ and disability and different religions are lovely.

Sometimes you know, I’m actually jealous of how gay and lesbian teachers can come out by just talking about their partner! Also, the thing is, I AM passionate about equality in all its forms – not just for the LGBT community but in all areas of society. I think that if I was a bit more of a one trick pony, people might question whether I was straight but when I do stuff on the other areas also (which don’t directly affect me), it just seems like LGBT stuff is just another of my ‘issues’.

And so… I’m invisible.

This doesn’t affect my teaching, it definitely doesn’t affect the children in my class but it does affect how I feel in school. Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m being disingenuous because people don’t know this rather important fact about me. Other times it still makes me feel like an outsider. Recently we were talking about the media coverage of the issues facing LGBT teachers in schools and one of my friends questioned whether there really was an issue or whether it was just something that ‘these teachers’ had in their own heads. I realised then that despite my continual references to the work I was doing with the INTO LGBT group, she hadn’t made the connections. I wanted to say something but in that moment I just didn’t have the strength.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not to put my name on this blog post. Not because I’m afraid that people will find out about me but rather because I don’t want readers to dismiss this as just one personal story. This IS my personal story but it could also be the story of the person sitting next to you in the staff room on Monday morning – you just might not know it.

But since invisibility is the problem, anonymity hardly seems like the way forward.

My name is Cecelia.
I’m bisexual.
And maybe, just maybe, I’m not quite as invisible as I was before I wrote this.

 

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

http://www.facebook.com/INTOLGBTeachersGroup

 

 

Straight Talking Staff Rooms

Aside

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.

Image

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.

staddroom door

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.

 

Eileen’s Story

“I learned a long time ago the wisest thing I can do is be on my own side, be an advocate for myself and others like me.”  Maya Angelou

It took me a long time to come out to anyone, even to myself.  I had a ten year straight relationship, a wedding and, in hindsight, a breakdown, before I accepted that I was gay. And although I regret the major upset I caused my loved ones when I first exploded out of the closet, the support and positive reactions I have experienced from my family, friends and even my ex-husband, have shown that life is so much better for everyone when you truly embrace and accept yourself. That initial decision to come out was the best choice I have ever made.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that for most gay people, you don’t just have to come out once.  Every time we meet new people and encounter different environments, subconsciously or otherwise, we make the decision as to whether or not another person’s knowledge of our sexuality is relevant to the situation.

I was so busy coming to terms with my own sexual orientation,  I hadn’t anticipated how irrelevant my sexuality is to the majority of people I meet. I was relieved to discover that the fact that I am a lesbian is usually accepted as a simple detail about me, neither more nor less important than many other pieces of information I share about my life.

But some situations are different.

 Sometimes I meet people who I am not entirely comfortable with or I find myself in environments where I know I might be judged unfairly, based on my sexuality. Even when our private and personal lives have nothing to do with the situation, seemingly harmless questions about our backgrounds, our families and our relationships crop up all the time in conversation ice-breakers and small-talk. There are few better examples of this type of environment than a typical religious-run primary school in Ireland.

In most schools, when questions do arise, the fear and trepidation I felt before I came out for the first time comes flooding back. In these cases, making the decision to be open or not about my personal life takes energy and strength – strength I don’t always have.

Over the last few years, I have had the chance to work in many different schools, both part-time and full-time. I’ve worked in Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian schools. I’ve taught in mainstream classes, learning support and language support, in contracts lasting from a month to over a year.

I know what it’s like to be work as a “straight, married teacher”, a closeted gay teacher, and as an openly gay teacher. I know how it feels to be praised for your professional abilities. I also know what it’s like when you are suddenly perceived by those in charge as being a less capable teacher because of your sexual orientation. I know how it feels to be accepted and included by school staff for being who I am. I also know what it’s like to feel invisible and inadequate as a teacher because our employment law does not protect me from discrimination because I am LGBT.

A lot has changed in my life in recent years, but my capabilities as a teacher have not. And since it took 28 years for me to come out of the closet, I won’t be sneaking back in again anytime soon –  not for public acceptance, not for an easy life and certainly not for a job. Especially when there is no doubt in my mind that my sexuality does not, in any way, affect the quality of my teaching and the well-being of the children in my care, regardless of the ethos of the school I work in.

My name is Eileen Gamble – I am a Primary School teacher and I am a lesbian.

I am overwhelmingly proud to be both.

In my next post, I’ll be sharing my experiences of how and why I came out to school staff and the consequences of doing so. I hope it will encourage others to share their stories too.