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Should LGBT Teachers Come Out to Their Pupils?

We talked to a gay and trans teacher about what it's like to be out—and not out—in the classroom.
February 26, 2015, 4:30pm

Image via Flickr user Jerry Pritikin

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

For many LGBT students who brave coming out at school, the harsh reality is getting bullied the hell out of. Schools themselves are rarely set up to cope with young people considering their sexual identities, and those thinking of leaving the confines of the closet are hardly encouraged by the institutional lack of support and near total invisibility of LGBT figures or culture across the curriculum. School is a tough enough gig without having to worry about coming out.

It doesn't get much easier for teachers, either. As well as dealing with the same discouraging factors that students face—namely, getting called a "faggot" in the playground—LGBT teachers also have to contend with resistance, even abuse, from senior management, co-workers, and parents. Those who do come out often find an already challenging job becomes even harder.

The question is: with so few role models for LGBT students to look up to, should more be done to encourage teacher visibility? And if so, what's preventing them from coming out in the classroom?

Ellie, a subject leader at a school in Greater Manchester, has been in a relationship with another female member of staff for the past eight years. While her colleagues are aware of her sexual orientation, her students aren't—something she doesn't plan on changing.

"The job of teaching is challenging enough," she says. "If I was an overweight teacher and I asked students to do something they didn't like, the immediate response would be some sort of fat comment. It would be exactly the same if I was known to be gay. It would be that instant, 'I'm going to hurt you with what I know about you,' reaction. I'm scared of that happening, if I'm honest."

Tony Fenwick, a teacher and co-chair of both School's Out and LGBT History Month (which is this month in the UK, by the way), says we have to ask what's so wrong with education that teachers don't feel safe coming out. "They're very often discouraged from doing so by their heads, although that's technically illegal," he says. "We've had a lot of LGBT teachers who've been driven out of the profession or out of the school they've worked at because of the approaches of the senior management team, or governors—people around them who have made life difficult."

In a recent report, 44 percent of teachers told Stonewall that students have used homophobic remarks against them. The report also found that the vast majority of teachers—nine in ten in secondary schools (89 percent) and seven in ten in primary schools (70 percent)—hear pupils use expressions like "that's so gay." It creates a negative culture for those students and teachers who do identify as homosexual—either privately or publicly.

Pupils at Ellie's school are generally pretty progressive. Plenty have felt confident and safe enough to "come out" to her, and the school's only transgender pupil receives no abuse that the teachers are aware of. "The parents are the main challenge," she says. "We're working in a deprived area and until fairly recently it's had a large BNP support group. It's not a very open-minded neighborhood. I reckon I could come out to the students that already know me and they'd be like, 'Cool, whatever,' because I've got a good relationship with the kids." She says she'd fear new students starting who were aware of her sexuality, and may come with negatives preconceptions. "Rather than getting to know me," she says, "the barriers would go up straight away."

Ellie's discretion hasn't stopped her from promoting diversity throughout the school. "I feel like I'm a positive role model for LGBT students, regardless of whether I'm out or not," she says. "I actively champion equality and diversity and have put together materials for assemblies as well as drop-down days that are all about challenging inequalities and promoting a diverse culture within the school. Students regularly come out to me, and yet, I've never felt the need to be out myself."

Image via Flickr user Kurtis Hamel

Out teachers provide LGBT students with visible role models, but belonging to sexual or gender minority group shouldn't be a prerequisite for confronting discrimination. Heterosexuality isn't an excuse for delegating the responsibility for tackling homophobia and transphobia. "More often than not it would be an LGBT teacher or member of staff that is responsible for pushing that forward," says Ellie. And she doesn't believe that should necessarily be the case. "It should be everyone," she says.

Discretion with co-workers, let alone pupils, is arguably less of an option for trans teachers—a problem that trans activist and former teacher Juno Roche knows all too well. "If you're trans then by necessity everybody has to know; you can't transition subtly," she says. "If you're outwardly changing your gender then it's a far bigger thing."

After informing her head at the time of her intention to transition, Roche became locked in a two-year legal battle to save her job. Sensing defeat, the school eventually settled, magnanimously allowing her to return. To ensure that no teacher would ever have to experience such an ordeal again, Roche decided to tackle the issue head-on.

"I couldn't find any information at all on trans teachers, so I thought I'd find out as much data as I can," she says. "What I found was a really horrible picture—people leaving and pushed out of their jobs, people who'd been deputy heads or head of science for 27 years losing their posts and sitting at home being on benefits."

The resistance Roche faced is all too common for the few trans teachers who do transition while teaching. The suicide of primary school teacher Lucy Meadows, who's transition became the subject of intense, nationwide press coverage in the UK, is a poignant reminder of that. But while bigotry no doubt plays a role in this opposition to trans teachers, Roche believes fear and ignorance are just as culpable.

"I think the resistance comes from senior leadership who are just terrified," says Roche. "They don't know how to deal with it or take it forward. They're terrified about the response from parents, the response from pupils, of all the practical things." Until the fear is "trained out" of head teachers, she says, "they'll go on being scared."

Roche now spends much of her time supporting teachers who wish to transition, working with their schools to put the necessary policies and practices in place to guarantee protection. While many teachers might believe that their sexual orientation or gender identity should remain their private business, Roche believes it may be beneficial for trans teachers to be more open.

"Gender stereotypes and fixed gender points don't help anyone, really," says Roche. "When pupils go into the classroom they shouldn't look up and see a bunch of white, middle-class teachers, male or female. They should see a diverse range. In most schools I go into where there's a trans teacher, I always say to the head teacher: 'Get this right', because somewhere in this school is someone that's dealing with gender dysphoria. That young person can look up and have a role model."

Stonewall's report states that fewer than one in five secondary school teachers in the UK say students have a visible LGBT model in school. Raising this number won't suddenly eliminate all homophobia or transphobia, but it's an incremental step toward building an education system that doesn't marginalize, ignore, or neglect.

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