What are the realities of being an openly gay teacher?
New guidelines published by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) outline the support LGB+ and transgender teachers should expect from their schools. But what is the lived experience?
I am openly gay in every aspect of my life, and I make no exception to this at work. I am fortunate that my sexuality and family life have never come under any form of negative scrutiny.
When my wife gave birth to our eldest child, my Year 7 for group sent us a multitude of cards, addressed clearly to both of us. We received flowers from parents and they regularly enquire about how my family are.
However, having spoken to friends both in the teaching profession and outside of it, this is, unfortunately and all too commonly, not everybody’s experience. Coming out is not just something you do once – in fact, it occurs every time you start a new job, meet a new colleague, and can also happen when you meet a new class (my wife writes far more eloquently about this than I do – “Superficial Equality“).
“What does your husband do?”
Pupils innocently ask, when the opportunity arises, “What does your husband do?”, and if you are not in a position where you feel comfortable announcing your sexuality this can be an incredibly daunting question.
I am extremely grateful that I have never had to hide my sexuality – my parents and family are equally as accepting of my wife as they are of my sister’s boyfriend, my friends are a mixture of individuals from all walks of life, and as a result I have always been accepted and our differences celebrated. Therefore I am able, some might say naively, to progress gaily through this world, as I have never faced the fear and hurt that comes with disapproval or downright disgust.
For some people, coming out is just not possible. A friend of mine is openly gay in every aspect of her life except at work, and she puts this down to the fact that she is a PE teacher. She feels that her closer physical proximity to pupils (a natural part of her role) makes her vulnerable to accusations and she is unsure of the level of support she would be offered should any issues arise.
What the guidelines say
It is situations like this that make the new guidelines published by the NAHT so important – it sends a clear message to all staff, not just LGB+ and transgender individuals, that promoting inclusivity and tackling homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying is a priority.
NAHT urges all schools to be supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans staff who want to reveal their sexual identities in classrooms.
The guidelines highlight a number of steps schools can take to ensure inclusivity and support for LGB+ and transgender members of staff. For example, the wording of documentation should not assume gender or family situation, referring to “parents”, “partners” or “carers” etc., rather than “mother” and “father”. I personally have noticed a rise in the use of the phrase “partner” and “person” in my work place, which is a positive step towards not making assumptions about individuals.
A question of confidence
Another important point highlighted by the NAHT guidelines is that the confidence of LGB+ teachers has a positive impact on the pupils. I made the decision to be out to both my colleagues and pupils because I wanted to be a “normal” role model in the school.
For many young people who are grappling with their identity, the main sources of information are social media and television, neither of which will portray the boring, day-to-day reality of being gay or transgender.
While individuals such as Caitlyn Jenner, Ellen Degeneres and Neil Patrick Harris increase visibility, and shows such as Lip Service and The L Word portray different types of relationships, television thrives on stereotypes and drama.
Nobody would want to watch a series about my life as a mum, wife and full-time teacher; it would be so boringly close to their own, mainly heterosexual, lifestyle that it just wouldn’t be interesting.
Allowing staff to be open about their identity also impacts their own well-being – members of staff who are comfortably out at work are more likely to enjoy it, be more productive and are more confident, whereas members of staff who do not feel supported in their coming out may suffer anxiety and expend huge amounts of energy pretending to be someone else.
Make your own choice
I made my own choice to come out and be out at work, and I was able to do this because I felt supported and confident in my own identity.
Coming out at work is not for everyone, and irrespective of the level of support provided by a workplace, it is a personal choice to share details of your life outside of school with colleagues, pupils and parents. So while I fully advocate being out and proud as a teacher, I fully respect the decisions of those who choose not to be.
For anyone who would like more information, there are excellent resources and additional guidance for LGB+ and transgender teachers available: