Reviewing Stonewall’s latest list of the 100 best employers for lesbian, gay and bisexual staffrecently, I was struck by the fact that although there were a few local authorities and universities, there was no academy chain or federation of schools included.
This led me to think on about the experiences of teachers and school leaders who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), and the challenges that this throws up for our members, as individuals and as employers.
I’m fully aware that many LGBT people don’t feel able to be open about their sexual orientation at work for fear of discrimination, bullying or harassment, and that the issue is even more difficult in schools where concerns about the response of pupils and parents can deter staff from being open.
LGBT teachers from across the country gathered in Birmingham for the NASUWT’s LGBT Consultation Conference to discuss the challenges facing them as teachers, the impact of the Government’s policies on children and young people and to engage in professional development workshops.
The Conference heard that:
- more than 60% of LGBT teachers said they have experienced discrimination on the basis of their sexual identity in the course of their teaching careers;
- over three quarters of LGBT teachers said they had experienced bullying and harassment during their teaching careers;
- 60% of LGBT teachers said their school has no policy which explicitly opposes homophobia, biphobia and transphobia;
- two thirds of LGBT teachers said it was not safe for LGBT teachers to be out at work.
My own journey started a long way away from how I was presented in this piece. I may have come out as a 18 year old to positive responses and plenty of support, but at Teacher’s College I was knocked back. One doesn’t come out once. Every time I meet a new person I’m faced with a choice: do I say something that reveals my sexuality? Sometimes I don’t because of safety or because I don’t feel it’s worth it. But most of the time it comes up naturally enough and it’s hardly a problem. When training to be a teacher, I was faced with this decision on an entirely different level in deciding how to come out in a classroom.
As an training teacher I chose to focus on my practice and not get caught up by this. I chose not to lie, but to avoid (something that I now acknowledge is actually another form of lying). In one particular class I was being observed teaching I made a comment, or maybe a gesture, which lead to my associate teacher pulling me aside and angrily denouncing how I had flaunted my sexuality in front of the class. I was told I was being deliberately provocative and my personal life was none of the students’ business.
While this incident could have inspired me to resist such oppression and vow to never let someone stop me from being who I am, it actually did the opposite. I shrunk as a result; I hid. I entered my first teaching job with no intention of coming out – but kept telling myself I wouldn’t be lying because I just wouldn’t be addressing it.
And then I found my inspirational colleagues. They were out and proud and students knew this. Once they knew about me I began building back that confidence and gaining more strength to let me be me. This was complex given the first few years of teaching for anyone are extremely challenging as to be effective a lot of skills need to be mastered in a very short space of time.
I learnt about ‘othering’. When I applied for leave for the North American Out Games in Vancouver, I wrote my leave request letter to the Board of Trustees and intended to talk to the student representative about what they were going to learn about me. My colleague pointed out that outing myself to that student for that purpose was emphasising a difference that denormalised my sexuality; I was ‘othering’ my identity and making it less valid.
When I became a Dean, a student in my cohort came out to me. I don’t know whether he sensed an ally, or whether I was just in the right place at the right time, but this triggered a tidal wave of action that led to the Seven Sharp story. Some students knew, but while I was talking about diversity issues in class, I wasn’t openly discussing how they affected me. Some students clearly knew, but I hadn’t created environments where they felt like they could talk about it with me. I was still vulnerable and this had to change.
With the support of my colleagues we formally established a diversity group that met once a week with students identified through our supportive Guidance Counselor. We were small at first, but the opportunity for the students to discuss the issues they were facing together without stigmas was invaluable. Many of those students faced complex issues including not being safe at home, bullying from peers, navigating their churches as well as the difficult journey of coming to terms with their identity and being a teenager.
The next critical step was to advertise. I stepped on stage for a school assembly with my colleague, Kirsty, and we presented a message that affirmed every student’s identity. We used pictures of celebrities the students knew and told them that LGBTI+ people are all over the world, in their communities, maybe in their families, that they are in this school and “two of them are bringing this message to you today”.
This was a personally a huge step for me as I finally shook the demons that had forced me to put a foot back into the closet. It felt unbelievably liberating, like I had busted through a wall that intolerance had built, but that I had been partly responsible for.
The next phase happened very quickly. The numbers in our support group grew. The conversations in the student body about these issues became more frequent and more normalised. I joined the PPTA Rainbow Taskforce, and have begun delivering whole staff professional development sessions to schools around New Zealand on creating safe environments for all students. I also became an Executive Advisor for InsideOUT, who are a group of inspiring young people responsible for projects big and small that contribute to making Aotearoa a safer place for young people of all sexual orientations and genders. I started Rainbow Teachers NZto promote discussions and share stories. I also had the opportunity to present all this work at ILGA Oceania Human Rights Conference.
Where are all the gay teachers? Basic maths would suggest there must be hundreds if not thousands out there but I have never heard from one. I’m guessing they must be a real beacon and example to teenagers grappling with their sexuality (as if the teenage years weren’t baffling enough). I could understand hesitancy in some of the conservative schools around New Zealand but it’s 2016 and it’s time.
The wheels began turning and the story became a reality. But it is only a checkpoint. The story acknowledges there is so much more to do because this is not representative of most New Zealand schools. In fact, there is a lot not said in the story that I feel is important:
- Lesbian and gay exclusively is not diversity. Bisexual, trans*, intersex and others face similar, and often worse, struggles in our schools.
- Supporting LGBTI+ students is not the responsibility exclusively of LGBTI+ teachers. All teachers should be teachers of diversity, and all teachers need to come out in support of every single LGBTI+ student.
- Where I am today would not be possible without the strength and mana of Kirsty Farrant, David Pegram and so many other teachers and campaigners before me. I am so privileged to be working in the position I am today because of these people.
And finally, the way the story was handled by the presenters, Mike Hoskings and Toni Street, just emphasised how important this work is. Hoskings comments that inferred gay teachers have an association with deviant and sexually inappropriate behaviour was wildly off the point. It potentially did harm by undermining the messages of the story.
My hope is that this story is seen by students and staff across New Zealand, and that we can start making genuine change. There are so many positive pockets of best practice. But it’s time that this best practice becomes the norm. The policies that sit in behind what schools do need to ensure that LGBTI+ students are supported for the good of all students. Only then can we turn around the embarrassing statistics that simply show what we are doing at the moment is just not good enough.
This is an original blog post by Sara Kost (@Sara_KostMN), an out teacher from Minneapolis.
It was never a question for me, whether or not to be out at school. Even throughout my undergrad, in all of my education classes, and during my student teaching, I was out. After coming out when I was 16, there was no way, I decided, no way I’d go back in the closet as a teacher.
My mom was worried for me. “Are you sure?” she would ask me. “Are you sure you want to be so open at school?”
“But what about the Administration? What if they don’t like that?” she asked.
“Then I don’t want to work at a school like that,” I responded.
“But what if you can’t find a job? Can you really afford to be choosy?” Mom replied.
I know she was just worried for me, but I bristled at her suggestion that I hide my sexuality for a job. I couldn’t do that. It just wasn’t an option.
You see, my outward appearance usually clues people in to my sexuality. I’m fairly masculine. In lesbian lingo, I’m butch. There’s no way I would sacrifice my comfort just to dress a bit more passably feminine. I’m just not comfortable in feminine clothing. I feel so much more like myself wearing clothes from the “men’s” section.
It still took me a while, however, to feel comfortable going to job interviews in a very masculine-presenting suit and tie. I want the people I interview with to understand right from the start what they are getting with me. I don’t have to say it in the interview, my outward appearance says it for me. I’m gay, and I look like it. But that can be a double-edged sword. I don’t have to come out, my outward appearance does that for me, but I also don’t have the protection that conventional outward gender appearance offers, like the ability to claim straight privilege if needed.
I do sometimes wonder how many teaching positions I lost because of my appearance during the interview. I know of one for sure. Early on after I graduated, I had a job interview at a private school where they asked if the required dress code for women (a skirt) would be a problem for me. I said that it would be. Obviously I didn’t get that job, but oh well. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable, or even remotely like myself, and therefore I wouldn’t have felt like a good teacher.
Feeling comfortable is fundamental to my ability to work with my students. I am at my best as a teacher when I am my most authentic self. I think we’ve all had days as kids, as teens, and as adults, days where we throw on an outfit only to realize after we’re out of the house that it doesn’t fit right, or colors clash, or just doesn’t look good, and we feel awful and awkward the rest of the day. We don’t feel like ourselves. In that same way, I only feel like myself when I dress and outwardly appear masculine.
For my students, they just know me as Ms. Kost. They see me and the way I dress, and that’s how they know me. They only know me in the way I’ve interacted with them at school. And right from the start they’ve never questioned it. I stood in front of them on the first day of school the same way I stand in front of them the first day after winter break, the same way I will stand in front of them on the last day of school.
I’ve never hid anything from my students. It’s freeing, being an open book. I don’t have to worry about what to say or how to phrase things. (i.e. girlfriend/partner vs. “friend”/“room-mate”) That doesn’t mean I disclose to them everything about my life, but in general if they ask, I’ll tell them. I want them to know that I’m human. I want them to know that I have a life, a family, hobbies outside of school.
For instance, I have a bunch of pictures on the wall behind my desk of my family, friends and my partner. Whenever students come up to my desk, they’ll stop and look at my pictures, and sometimes they’ll ask about them.
“Ms. Kost, who’s that?” they’ll ask as they point to a picture.
“Oh, that’s me and my Grandma,” I’ll respond.
“Ms. Kost, is that your brother?”
“Yep, that’s my brother and sister-in-law.”
“Ms. Kost, is that your baby?”
“No, that’s my nephew. He’s cute, isn’t he?”
“Ms. Kost, who’s that?”
“That’s my girlfriend.”
It’s all very matter-of-fact, as it should be. I believe being honest and open with my students builds better relationships with them. My honesty builds trust. And sometimes, I may be the only gay person my students know. I put a face to the label. I challenge their preconceived notions.
Most importantly, for my LGBT students, I am a role model for them. I can be a beacon during their adolescence, a symbol of hope for them as they come out. As a queer youth, I didn’t have many out role models, so I want to be the kind of role model I needed when I was young. I want to show them that they can grow into a productive, happy LGBT adult too.
Being an out teacher has it’s challenges, but I am so lucky to work for a great school where I am supported and appreciated for everything I bring to our team and our students.
Brought to you as a collaboration between OutTeacher and The Guardian, a trans teacher discusses life in the profession.
Gay Star News (Via The Glass Closet.org) The founder of the Teacher Development Trust talks about his decision to come out at the school where he worked
Emma Baldry (@emmabaldry) is a secondary supply/substitute teacher in Merseyside, England. She is co-ordinating an education area at this year’s Liverpool Pride, predominantly aimed at families and children to educate them about the LGBT community. Emma is running a Liverpool Pride competition for the schools in Merseyside, with the aim of increasing LGBT visibility (for students and teachers) in primary and secondary schools.
Being the only openly ‘out’ gay member of staff at a school in North Yorkshire was just the norm’ for me and my pupils and colleagues, aside from the yearly ‘outing’ on arrival of the new year 7 cohort each September! However, it wasn’t always like that.
It wasn’t the first time I had come out. As a teen I had been very open about my feelings for members of the same sex but this had led me to experience the same bullying and low self worth that I am now trying to change for future generations. This time around, however, was different.
This time I was confidently ‘out’ with my friends and colleagues and was, in the summer of 2009, having a civil partnership ceremony to my partner and taking on her surname. There lay the predicament. Baldry, I was Miller! I was going to be taking on her surname which meant that the pupils were going to have a new name to learn! On my return that September I arrived to a new name badge and proceeded to introduce myself to new and old pupils as Mrs Baldry. Many of the older pupils started to ask what my husband was called and it was at this that I had a choice to make – do I lie or do I tell the truth. I chose the latter. I had had enough of pretending and now I wanted to be true to myself. I responded proudly “She’s called Joanne”.
For the first few months it was at times hard with pupils writing offensive messages for me to find on pieces of paper in the classroom and sniggering down the corridors but issues were dealt with by SLT and, although low level comments were still being made up until the day I left, they were less prominent and pupils would often be the first to stick up for what was right!
In 2011 Stonewall offered my school a visit from Lance Corporal James Wharton, as was, to do an assembly about being ‘out’ in the army and being a garrison school I jumped at this opportunity. With this came my 3rd big outing as, in front of the whole school in the assembly hall, I introduced James as being gay – just like me.
From this moment on I have helped to Champion the work of Diversity Role Models and Stonewall within schools across the North and this has helped them to move forward to tackle homophobic bullying and help the pupils become more accepting of one another. This has led to several pupils feeling safe enough to be open and ‘out’ themselves.
I feel, as in all schools, there is still more that needs to be done but I am now happy to be the ‘OUT’ role model for the pupils, and staff, alike that I see come through the school gates each day in whatever school I am working in.
Teacher Lindsay Skinner has written in the Guardian that being seen by children as out is powerful. We agree!
OutTeacher founder David Weston writes in the Guardian that denying LGBT young people their identity is child abuse.
Every school in the world has a significant number of young people who aren’t heterosexual. Some have already identified that they were born this way, some may yet do so. Schools can and must have an increasing role in helping them develop into confident, healthy adults.
Many are lucky enough to be growing up with supportive teachers, families, communities and legal systems, but not everyone is so lucky. Even in the growing number of countries that are, at long last, putting the law on the side of respect and tolerance, there are many young people who will face discrimination, even abuse, from their communities or, worse, family.
This makes it more important than ever that schools are oases of support and celebration of diversity. As a young man growing up and struggling to come to terms with being gay, I found my peers’ homophobic attitudes terrifying. The memory of these difficult years inspired me many years later, as a teacher, to discuss my forthcoming civil partnership ceremony in whole-school assemblies. I know from messages I received then and since that my “being out” as a teacher made a positive difference, not only to those students questioning their sexuality but also to their heterosexual peers. Giving children gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans role models has great impact – far beyond merely reading about gay celebrities. It is also hugely powerful when heterosexual teachers demonstrate that they celebrate diversity.
Read more at The Guardian: