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Teachers: To come out or not to come out?

Teachers: To come out or not to come out?

Despite Section 28 being repealed in the United Kingdom 11 years ago, being ‘out’ is still an issue for many teachers today. A recent trainee of mine enthusiastically began to make their school LGBT-friendly only to be told by a senior leader that they couldn’t… because of Section 28!

That notorious piece of legislation, which barred local authorities from ‘promoting’ LGBT issues, was repealed in 2003. We had to wait a further seven years for the Equality Act in 2010, which ensured LGBT be treated ‘equally and fairly’.

Four years on, however, and many teachers still feel the need to keep their sexuality secret.

‘So… I would like to be out but my partner is head of faculty and wouldn’t be comfortable with being out and as we work closely together, students would no doubt make the link.

‘I suppose we are both scared of being out because of the closed-minded attitudes of many of our students’ parents. At the moment, our students really like us and I want things to stay that way. I could happily be out to kids who have already got to know me.’

In education, we advocate in policies and school codes that the well being of a child is fundamental to reaching their full potential: this should apply to teachers too.

How are we to perform at our best if we have to continually lie about who we are? And yet many teachers remain scared that they can’t ‘come out’ for fear of being unsupported by management teams and governors, or that it will somehow be detrimental to the student-teacher-parent relationship, as described here by a teacher colleague:

‘I worry about the students who I don’t yet know who hear a label first before getting to know me and keep me at a distance due to their own fear of the unknown or their own ignorance.’

However, other colleagues have found fulfillment by being ‘out’:

‘I don’t really remember the first time I came out to students in school. Since I was 15 I have been out, loud and proud. I did not become a teacher until I was 31.

‘I had fought against Section 28 and I had assured myself that I would not say ‘no’ if a child asked me directly if I was a lesbian. However, the school environment surprised me in its conservatism. I thought the school environment would be a big happy family of comradeship, but this was not the case in most schools I worked in.

‘I spent my first couple of years unable to answer the question “are you a lesbian?” in any sort of coherent manner because I was told by management “you don’t need to come out, it’s nobody’s business”.

‘It wasn’t until about a year after when I arrived at my school in North London that I got back into being out, loud and proud when the school started celebrating LGBT History month.

‘I used my role to make rainbow everything and LGBT symbols during the February celebrations. There was a moment when I suddenly knew that the kids really didn’t give a damn but simply wanted to chat and ask questions. It is amazing how often a child will be desperate to say they support you or tell the class about their uncle, mum, sister etc.

‘I’ve had amazing conversations with students that would never have happened if I had not been out and proud. You cannot beat being true to yourself. I totally recommend coming out as soon as you can!’

Is it just our own preconceptions of what we think might happen that stops us ‘coming out’? Another teacher explains:

‘I had been ‘in the closet’ during my first three years of teaching and was finding it increasingly difficult to cope with. During my fourth year I became involved in the first ever Pride event in Norwich. As part of this, I was interviewed for a TV feature on a Christian protest at Norwich Pride.

‘It never occurred to me that so many of our students watched the local news but the following day I was the talk of the school! Looking back it was best thing that could ever have happened.

‘I can honestly say that since that day five years ago I have never once encountered any homophobic bullying. Before I came out it had been fairly common. Now I have the confidence to talk openly about being gay in school and regularly lead assemblies/ workshops on LGBT issues. Many students ask me intelligent, sensible and thoughtful questions. For most of them however, it just isn’t important.’

Another teacher explained to me how ‘out’ teachers can be role models for other teachers too:

‘I joined a school in North London and having trained in a provincial town in the South West, assumed I would need to keep my sexuality a secret. How wrong was I!

‘It turned out my Head of Department was gay and by seeing him being so open about his sexuality and his long-term relationship with other members of staff, I realized that coming out at my new school was no big deal.’

Another teacher felt that we perhaps underestimate the maturity and attitudes of our young people:

‘A challenging year 10 student was sent down to the pastoral office due to homophobic incident in a classroom. The student had called someone a ‘lesbian’. When I discussed this with her, I asked her why she had used this term as an insult.

‘I asked her to think about how it would make a gay person feel to hear this. After she thought I explained to her how it made me feel being gay myself. I have a very positive relationship with this student and she couldn’t respond to any more of the conversation as she was quite taken aback.

‘Afterwards, I expected the whole group of year 10’s, closely followed by the school, would know and I would at least hear a few mutters or rumors, but after days, weeks… nothing.’

If so many of our teacher colleagues are still deciding if they should ‘come out’ or not in 2014, clearly our journey to LGBT-inclusion has only just begun.

Thank you to teacher colleagues in London, Norfolk, Manchester and Birmingham schools for their stories. For advice and support on ‘coming out’ and on how to make your school environment LGBT-Friendly contact [email protected] and see www.educateandcelebrate.org