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.