Anseo! How a new generation of gay teachers is fighting back
There is an assumption that all teachers are straight – but they’re not and even though there is no legislation to protect them, some gay teachers are coming out, writes GRAINNE FALLER
‘IT’S IMPORTANT for people to speak about this,” says Eoin Houlihan who was going to be anonymous for this article. But, after talking it over with the principal in his school, he decided to allow his name to be published because silence, he feels, is part of the problem.
Houlihan is in his 30s and has been a secondary school teacher for almost 10 years. He is also gay – something that he kept under wraps to begin with.
“I suppose I was nervous about it,” he says. “I teach in a Catholic school so there was a big fear about it hampering my chances of being made permanent or gaining promotion.”
After about three years, he made the decision to come out to his colleagues. “I just stopped hiding it,” he says. “There was no big announcement but everyone knows. The school still has some Brothers teaching and they know. I just became very comfortable with my colleagues and for me it has been a positive experience. Other people wouldn’t be so lucky.”
Hugh preferred not to be identified. He believes that staff in the primary school where he works in south Dublin would probably be fine if he revealed the fact that he is gay, but he has concerns about how parents would react. He has worked in other countries where he felt he could be open about his sexuality. On coming back to Ireland he felt he had to, “step back into the closet,” he says.
“The self-censoring is the biggest bugbear,” he says. “You can’t talk about your life. I remember having a really innocent conversation with a colleague about hiking – I’m a member of a LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual) hiking group – my colleague asked me what group I walk with. I just said I forgot the name. I feel really bad lying about it. Why should I have to go to these lengths?”
“You’re afraid of the reaction of the principal. You’re afraid of the reaction of the parents, of the children.”
Leo Kilroy now works in primary teacher training and is treasurer of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Teachers’ Group. He came out after he had left classroom teaching. “Teaching is a very conservative profession. It was one of the big factors impeding me in coming out.”
Teachers speak of not wanting to make an issue of their sexuality. Some resent the idea that they need to make an announcement about it – after all, that’s never something a heterosexual teacher has to do.
However, when there is a presumption within a school that everybody is straight, many simply find themselves going along with that presumption. “I suppose there is just a lack of recognition that this could be a reality in schools,” Kilroy says. “But there is also a culture of silence that pervades the whole issue.”
While staff members in Houlihan’s school know and accept that he is gay, he has made a conscious decision not to come out to his students.
“When you see how some students are treated when they are perceived to be gay – they may not actually be gay but the perception is there – I honestly don’t feel as though I could [come out to my students],” he says. “I don’t know how it might impact on my personal safety or my property, my car. The school would back me and protect me but I would feel a bit too nervous and vulnerable to take that risk.”
“The problem is that if people react badly, you don’t have the protection of the law as a teacher,” Hugh says. “You know in yourself that the general reaction would probably be fine but it’s a risk. If someone in management doesn’t like the fact that you’re gay, it could be held against you and you don’t have any legal protection. The law is definitely an issue.”
He is referring to a provision in the 1998 Employment Equality Act. Section 37.1(b) which states: “A religious, educational or medical institution which is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes or whose objectives include the provision of services in an environment which promotes certain religious values shall not be taken to discriminate against a person for the purposes of this Part or Part II if . . . (b) it takes action which is reasonably necessary to prevent an employee or a prospective employee from undermining the religious ethos of the institution.”
Essentially, an institution that operates within a religious ethos – 98 per cent of primary schools in Ireland fall into this category – has a right to take action if an employee is seen to undermine the religious ethos of that institution. Gay teachers are not the only group that could be affected by this but they are particularly vulnerable.
“It’s a legal allowance for discrimination,” Kilroy says. “Getting rid of it would be a catalyst for further change.”
Fianna Fáil Senator Averil Power recently published the Employment Equality (Amendment) Bill 2012, which aims to remedy the matter. At the time, Power explained, “If the Bill is enacted, schools will still be entitled to insist that staff members demonstrate respect towards the school’s ethos and not actively seek to undermine it.
However, they will not be permitted to treat staff members differently simply because of their sexual orientation or civil status.” If passed, the Bill will be a start, but the difficulties facing gay teachers will not disappear overnight.
“Homophobia is alive and kicking in the Irish education system,” Houlihan says. “Getting rid of Section 37.1 would herald a new era for gay people but it wouldn’t mean that there isn’t a lot more to do. I hope that we can start moving forward for everyone's sake.”
Each of the teacher unions has a support group for lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers. Confidentiality is assured. INTO: firstname.lastname@example.org; ASTI: email@example.com; TUI: firstname.lastname@example.org
Niamh teaches in a Dublin primary school. She is in her 30s
“When I started teaching I honestly felt as though I was the only gay teacher in Ireland. I never thought when I started teacher training that it was going to be an issue but I began to realise early on that this wasn’t going to be easy. Training colleges are religious institutions after all. I started wondering whether there was any place for gay teachers in the system.
“I’d get all the usual questions – ‘Were you out at the weekend? Did you meet any nice man?’ It did become very wearing but I’d just say, ’No,’ which wasn’t a lie at the time. But then I met my partner. When someone comes into your life, you start to lie about it. That’s a huge part of your life to be keeping under wraps. At the moment, there are more than 25 people on my staff and four of those know that I’m a lesbian.
“I think it’s dawned on some people because the questions have stopped. The problem is that they’ve been replaced with nothing, which is strange. I’m not going to make a big announcement. Why should I have to? The teachers who know, well it just came about. I met one of them in a pub with my partner for example.
“There’s an assumption that all teachers are straight and that’s a problem. The secrecy surrounding the whole thing doesn’t just affect me. My colleagues that know ask about my partner, but they do it really discreetly. There’s a teacher on staff who has a close relative who’s a lesbian but she never talks about it. There’s just no room for LGBT people in schools. My guess is that most teachers aren’t out.
“I’ve tried to raise visibility a bit. Twice I’ve suggested that homophobic bullying be explicitly mentioned in the school’s anti-bullying policy, but it’s been brushed off. I made a suggestion about including specifics in the school code of behaviour. At the moment, there's a section that says, ‘Do not make hurtful comments.’ I suggested we be explicit – putting racist, sexist, homophobic and so-on in there. Again, three times I tried and nothing came of it. It’s frustrating. Why doesn’t someone else bring it up? Why does it always come down to me?
“I don’t think about the fact that I’m a lesbian on a daily basis. I just do my job. It’s only a part of who I am. I suppose the problem is that schools are hyper-hetero places. There is simply no room for people who don't fit into that bracket. It's honestly as though we simply do not exist."
Dave teaches in a rural primary school. He is in his late 20s
“I’ve been out in every school I’ve taught in – except the one I’m in now. “I know, it’s crazy, but being gay creates a complication. It’s such a small area and I haven’t been in the school for that long. “I wasn’t a teacher to begin with. My background is actually in law. Coming from that profession, which is very open and willing to engage with all sorts of issues, to such a conservative, old-fashioned environment in the teacher training college was a shock. I think there was perhaps one other openly gay person on campus.
“I didn’t make a big thing of it, but I told people if asked and I didn’t hide it. I found the whole college experience quite restrictive. There was the college ethos – there was a monastic feel to the whole place. It wasn’t a place that encouraged discussion and debate.
“Gay teachers exist. It’s undoubtedly an issue but there is an attitude of, let’s not talk about it. If we brush it under the carpet, it might go away. “There’s also just a massive lack of awareness. I remember being in a staffroom where a colleague passed some comment about a child throwing a ball like a gay – something like that. I brought it up later on – he hadn’t realised that I’m gay but in fairness he took my point and saw how a comment like that could be offensive.
“A lot of the decision, about whether to be open or not, depends on the school you’re in and how supportive your principal is. I’ve yet to fully suss mine out. There’s a huge amount of fear there for teachers about what could happen if they do come out. “People have a problem using their vocal chords in this country. I don’t have that problem and yet, when am I actually going to start telling my colleagues? It’s been months now.
“I suppose there is just a fear there that it could be used against me. They say the law has never been used against a gay person but I think it’s a huge factor in people not coming out. “I don’t know any other young teacher who says, ‘I’m gay,’ in school. School staffrooms are full of chats about husbands and kids.
“I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not. I’ll come out to my colleagues, and then the parents will know by default. It’s not something that I’d bring into the classroom, but letting my colleagues know is something I have to do.
“Living a lie long-term would destroy me.”
Sarah teaches in a Dublin secondary school. She is in her 40s
“I returned to teaching a couple of years ago. I had taken a career break and ran a business for a couple of years and things were going well so I resigned from my teaching post altogether.
“Part of the reason for taking the break in the first place was because I was living close to the school and my partner lived close by as well. The pressure of keeping everything secret while teaching was getting to me. However, recession hit, business went downhill and here I am.
“I haven’t had a permanent position since. I was in one school for more than three years and, after about a year and a half, I told one or two colleagues.
“The first time I mentioned it to management was when some people were retiring in that school. I spoke to the deputy principal (she was one of those retiring). I told her I was gay. I wanted to know whether it would be a problem if I were to apply for a position. Her reaction was one of surprise that quickly became, ‘So what?’. I explained about Section 37.1 and it turned out that she was totally unaware of it. She couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t be an issue at management level though. She just didn’t know.
“I’ve taught in various schools since. Experiences are mixed. There was a private school that had a very obviously supportive environment for students. I felt much more at ease there. When I spoke about my partner, nobody batted an eyelid. “In another school, someone put up a poster in the staffroom for an anti-homophobic bullying campaign and it disappeared that same day. Nobody mentioned it. Some of the staff would have been very conservative.
“Then at the first staff meeting I attended in another Catholic school, the principal said directly that from her point of view, homophobic bullying would not be tolerated. That was great to hear.
“I haven’t said anything in my current school. If I had a permanent position I would have no hesitation about saying that I’m gay. If it was an issue for anyone, I would take it on.
“I think that for most people, this is a non-issue. It took me a long time to realise that. Even people within the religious orders seem quite progressive in my experience.
“Self-censorship is ingrained in me at this stage. It’s second nature. I’ve spent most of my career almost living a double life. I think I’d be a different person if I didn’t have to do that – less cautious, more relaxed.”
GUIDELINES FOR SCHOOLS
The INTO LGB recently launched a leaflet, Good Practice Guidelines, aimed at creating an inclusive staffroom in schools. The guidelines are as follows:
Be aware that a percentage of your colleagues or their family/friends are lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Challenge homophobic jokes and comments. It is important not to remain silent because doing so implies that you agree. Make sure that staff social events involving partners are open to same-sex partners.
Encourage the use of inclusive and gender-neutral language. Respond positively when a colleague discloses their sexual orientation.
Be informed about current information concerning LGB issues in INTO publications and display relevant INTO posters in the staffroom.
Review the adult anti-bullying policy to ensure that it contains an explicit reference to homophobic bullying.
Include in your positive staff relations policy a way of dealing with situations when “gay”, “queer” etc are used as terms of abuse.
Talk about issues that affect LGB teachers alongside all other equality issues that are discussed in the staffroom. Break the silence.