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.