Education People: Eileen Gamble, a gay teacher on coming out in the staffroom
As an LGBT teacher, sharing even the simplest facts about your life could put your place in the school community at risk
Eileen Gamble. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
I’m an LGBT teacher with a fabulous sense of rhythm but an incredibly bad sense of timing. It took me eight years to realise I wanted to become a primary school teacher, and even longer to come out as LGBT, even to myself. After a 10-year straight relationship, a wedding and, in hindsight, a breakdown, I accepted I was a lesbian. 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. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done when you are an LGBT teacher working in religious-run schools.
Coming out in a school leaves you exposed to far more than just opinions. Without the employment equality rights that most people take for granted, LGBT teachers are often left feeling vulnerable and isolated in their work environment. For many LGBT teachers, being open about their sexuality is not a risk they are willing to take.
This can make the smallest things, such as staffroom conversations, immensely stressful. From nothing more than an attempt to include you, the questions about your personal life start rolling in. Suddenly you find yourself negotiating a minefield of innocent questions from 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. 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.
The self-editing is constant. You tend to avoid certain pronouns as much as possible, like saying “we” instead of “she”, and “their” instead of “her”. When someone presumes you’re talking about someone of the opposite sex, you just go along with it until they ask for a name and you either make one up or pretend to choke on your sandwich.
Sometimes you might pretend you’re single when you aren’t. I hate this option, but I have used it. I have this incredible partner who I share my life with, and here I am pretending she doesn’t exist. It feels like cheating. It also gives people the opportunity to play matchmaker as they try to set you up with the sports coach.
You fake selective amnesia when asked about your weekend. Suddenly, you can’t quite remember the name of the pub you were in last Saturday, or the name of the sports or social groups you meet up with – every week. Or, you can take the pressure off by asking lots of questions instead of answering them. I frequently turn into an over-eager chatshow host, throwing questions left right and centre.
It’s exhausting. The more I get to know these lovely people, the worse I feel and the harder it is to start being open. Schools are more than just workplaces; they are a community. Births, marriages and deaths are visibly acknowledged by the entire school. But as an LGBT teacher, sharing even the simplest facts about your life could put your place in this community at risk.
Like lots of young teachers, I don’t have a permanent position so over the past few years, I have had the chance to work in many different schools, of different religious denominations. I soon realised that I couldn’t carry on this charade for the rest of my career, without it affecting the quality of my teaching or my personal life. So I made the decision to answer staffroom questions honestly and openly more often. In general, coming out to staff has given me the opportunity to receive far more support and respect from other teachers than I expected.
Awareness and support for LGBT teachers is growing day by day. Some LGBT teachers I know report that they have had absolutely no issues with being LGBT in their school. They feel as respected and valued as any other member of staff and have been assured by their principals that their sexual orientation is not seen as having any bearing on the quality of their teaching in any way. This has been my recent experience.
In other schools, discussing appropriate language about LGBT issues is still seen as being a taboo subject. I remember after I’d come out in one school, a teacher asked each member of staff at the table who they were spending Christmas Day with, but when it was my turn she hesitated before skipping me completely. Homophobic bullying I have been told multiple times that my sexual orientation is not an issue in school because I “don’t look gay”. One principal told me that I should be grateful for being a woman because if I had been a gay man, I would not have been allowed back in the school. I have also been told that Section 37.1 (see panel) would have no effect on my job unless I “flaunted my relationship”.
When I asked what “flaunting” entailed, I was met with a rather non-committal answer that left me none the wiser. Did it include walking in the park with my partner when pupils from school might be there? Being seen eating in a restaurant with my girlfriend? Wearing an engagement ring or publicly celebrating a civil partnership? I still don’t know the answer. Some teachers and principals have expressed concern that a parent might have a negative reaction to the news. I’ve always found parents to be far more interested in how their children are doing in school than what a teacher might get up to in their free time.
This ambiguity about what constitutes “endangering religious ethos” referred to in Section 37.1 affects far more than just teachers. Homophobic bullying is the most common form of bullying experienced by young people.
This year, all primary schools were required to include procedures and guidelines to specifically tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying in their anti-bullying policies.
But the lack of discussion on the subject means that many teachers, both straight and LGBT, are unsure how to tackle the problem in the classroom. I have witnessed teachers ignore name-calling when it involves the word “gay”. Other times teachers attempt to stop name calling by telling the class that gay is a “bad word” simply because they are unsure what language is appropriate to children in this age group, and to the ethos of the school.
The issue is not going anywhere. There are children with same-sex parents attending religious-run schools; others have LGBT family members; many will discover as they get older they have LGBT friends or are LGBT themselves. For many LGBT teachers, the fear of losing our jobs is nothing compared to our fears that we are sending the message to our pupils that some types of bullying are worse than others and that some people and their families are worthy of less respect than others. This goes against the inclusive ethos that most schools strive to achieve.
Things are changing for the better. As awareness spreads and support from schools communities, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, LGBT organisations and political figures continues to grow, I believe all schools can and will succeed in not just tolerating diversity of families and individuals, but celebrating it.
Eileen Gamble blogs at notasecond-classteacher.com