The Importance of Being Open In The Classroom

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David Lowbridge-Ellis

David Lowbridge-Ellis has 15 years experience in the classroom and has been a senior leader for more than 10 of those. Deputy Head Teacher of Barr Beacon School, he is responsible for CPD, staff well-being, quality of teaching, parental engagement, equality and diversity. An SLE...
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Why do queer teachers not come out?

Recently, the government made it unequivocally clear that it was okay for Lesbian, Gay, Transexual, Bisexual and Queer (LGTBQ+) teachers to be open about their sexuality with their pupils.

Loudest and proudest was Schools Minister Nick Gibb, who put the following on Twitter:

#LGBT teachers must feel comfortable and supported if they want to be open about their sexual status or gender. Head teachers should stand up to those parents who resist a more diverse culture.”

A wake-up call?

It’s a courageous move for a man who only publicly came out as gay three years ago himself. In a single tweet, he’s influenced the lives of potentially thousands of school teachers. For those headteachers still labouring under the misconception that “it’s not something the children should know about their teachers” it should prove to be a wake-up call.

And yet, the misconception dies hard, as revealed by some of the negative reactions to Gibb’s tweet. Some people still don’t understand. It is essential for queer teachers to not be invisible. The damage wrought by decades of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, asexual and pansexual role models being in the shadows is still felt in schools today.

Being honest with my students

Personally, I’ve been out for a decade and there’s not one of the 1500+ pupils in my school who doesn’t know I’m married to a man, but at the start of my teaching career I felt I had to self-censor. If I was teaching a GCSE English class ‘how to write a film review’ I would say something like, “Oh, the person I live with loves superhero movies”. Today, I say “my husband is completely obsessed with X-Men” and so forth.

There is no doubt in my mind that I would have been a much happier teenager (and early 20-something) if one of my own teachers had been open like this. All I wanted was to know gay people existed in real life. Television didn’t count. I wanted to know that people I admired, who loved books as much as I did (but also happened to fancy people of the same sex), had made it. They were okay. There was nothing wrong with them and, therefore, there was nothing wrong with me. All it would have taken was just one of them to be open.

Misconceptions: Why aren’t more teachers coming out?

It’s not even being ‘open’ when you stop to think about it: it’s just being yourself. So, what stops LGBTQ+ teachers being themselves in the classroom? Every person is different, but in my 15 years of teaching these are the biggest misconceptions I have encountered again and again.

1. Sexual orientation is all about sex

There are some who view telling their pupils, “I have a male partner” as the equivalent of “I’m having an affair with the head of geography.” Or, “I did the walk of shame last night and I have my underwear in my bag”. No seriously, these were the examples used recently when I was recently invited to participate in a radio debate on the issue!

Whenever anyone expresses a view along these lines, they expose their own ignorance. No one is suggesting any teacher shares their own sexual history. (Which isn’t to say that LGBTQ+ doesn’t need to be incorporated into sex education. It most emphatically does and, according to the government’s recent action plan, it will.) No teacher, straight or queer, should be talking about their sex lives. But, any teacher, straight or queer, should feel comfortable sharing who they love with others.

2. Gay people are sex pests

Only a few weeks ago, I spoke with another PE teacher who was worried about ‘coming out as gay’ because he thought his headteacher might think he would be taking too much interest in the boys getting changed. So, this is the ‘traditional gay person’ stereotype = sex fiend/pederast argument. Yes? Clearly, any headteacher who still thinks like this is a buffoon – especially when all teachers are subject to enhanced safeguarding checks.

3. Queers choose to be queer

There are dwindling numbers who still think homosexuality can be ‘promoted’ by telling pupils “I’m gay,” and somehow this is going to turn them to the dark side! The government used to think this as well, in the Section 28 days, which is why recent announcements, such as Gibb’s are so important for curtailing this pernicious narrative once and for all.

At the recent launch of LGBTEd (which Nick Gibb supported), one of the questions to the panel was from a newly-qualified teacher. They who wanted advice about coming out to colleagues and students in their new school. Before giving my response to the 100+ queer educators in front of me, I thought carefully about the impact my words might have. In the end I didn’t allow my words to be vague, going with what I sincerely believe: “Do not compromise”.

Yes, it’s a good idea to let the headteacher know you’re going to be ‘open with the pupils’ so they can support you, but it’s your right to do so and don’t back down. Come out. Be yourself. You definitely won’t regret it, and you might save your pupils years of regret.

10 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Open In The Classroom

  1. When I was teaching R.E at a school I was told not to tell the students that I am a Christian. To me that is ridiculous, so I fell in line and stopped telling the students I was a Christian. So why should we be disclose other areas of our personal lifestyle except for our religious background.

    I have several close gay friends, as a person from a diverse background I have had discussed issues of not being appointed over a white colleague. When a white colleague turns up for an interview, nobody ask them about their sexual preferences, when I turn up for an interview i cannot hide my race. I am constantly faced with the concrete ceiling. As a BAME teacher we are less likely to be promoted into SLT than our white colleague. Why do you have to come out, why are there so many labels ? As black teacher who has been blocked from promotion because of the colour of my skin, it frustrates me that if I was a white teacher with my skills and background I would be in the SLT. We seem to have forgotten our much needed BAME role models in our education system. There are very few role models, that is why there are so much crime on our streets. In our efucation system in london our SLT/ middle leaders staff do not represent our students in the school. Try walking in my shoes everyday, as a professional black person who gets rejected constantly because the colour of my skin. Do you get rejected on first impressions? I am proud of being a black person, but I am not proud of our racist institutions that focuses on their own agenda. This government only care about one diverse community and it is definitely not the BAME community.

    In this country we are not EQUAL, there is white people first, then LGBTQ, then all others behind.

  2. I love this article by the way. A great inspiring read. What would your advice be if I have been told (by the director of school) to take down some posters relating to LGBT+? They were from Stonewall and said “Some people are Gay get over it” and the same for lesbian bisexual and transsexual. Their reasoning behind taking them down is that the school does not normally allow posters that express the teacher’s own person opinions/views. They then went on to compare this to not allowing posters of promoting certain religions in the classroom. I’m just seeking advice as I do not want my students feeling/thinking that they are not in a safe environment to come out or to be themselves.

    1. I’m so glad you found it inspiring Jack.

      If it’s school policy not to allow posters promoting awareness of protected characteristics then it’s school policy, but how else are they saying ‘it’s OK for people to be gay’?

      All nine protected characteristics are equal under the law: sexual orientation, religion/belief, sex, gender reassignment, race, age, disability, pregnancy/maternity, marriage/civil partnership. I would therefore expect any school to ban posters for ALL of these protected characteristics, otherwise it’s not equality.

      This means, no posters advancing equal pay for men and women, or career opportunities, for example.

      The law in question is 2010’s Equality Act.

      Not allowing posters is their prerogative, but they will need to make sure they are meeting the requirements of the Equality duty using other means. Specifically, they need to make sure they are:

      – advancing equality of opportunity
      between people who share a protected
      characteristic and people who do not share it;
      – fostering good relations between people who
      share a protected characteristic and people who
      do not share it.

      Therefore, if they aren’t fostering good relations (e.g. between people who identify as ‘gay’ and people who identify as ‘straight’) through posters, they need to be doing it through other means, such as the taught curriculum, assemblies, etc.

      It’s a requirement for all schools to publish an overview of what they’re doing to meet the Equality duty on their website.
      This is a great overview of the Equality duty that affects ALL public sector institutions, including schools.

  3. Why are we having this conversation?
    Why do we have to talk about who is what?
    Why can we not all be adult educators doing our best for our students?
    Why does it have to be about sexual preferences?
    Why do students have to know this information, they are children?

    1. I believe the content of the blog answers these questions Shirl.

      All teachers talk about themselves, otherwise we might as well be robots.

      In my own experience, I’m a much better teacher since being out to my pupils. Anyone who has to self-censor this vital part of their lives places a huge burden on their cognitive load. Additionally, pupils need role models. I would not want pupils to go through what I went through at school. For an extended personal take on this, you may be interested in this article I wrote for Leeds Beckett University:

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