Tell it to Them? Straight?
A study of the concerns of LGB secondary school teachers in the workplace.
– Written by Lee Samuels
(Full copies of participant transcripts can be requested from firstname.lastname@example.org)
When I first told them that I was, and I came out to them, I’m not gonna lie I went back to the PE office and I cried. I thought “It’s going to ruin everything.”
(Participant 2 Transcript, line 63-65)
Welcome to 2017, where same sex couples can get married, equal opportunities policies are a standard part of every job role, and your race, gender and disabilities are protected. So why does the above account still exist? Why, knowing that the LGBTQI community are in a better standing now than they have been for decades, do teachers from that demographic still have an increased sense of dread and fear surrounding their own sexual identities when it comes to security in their workplace?
“Of all the occupations I’ve studied, and that’s about 80, teachers are in the top three most stressed occupations… The hours are long and antisocial, the workload is heavy and there is change for change’s sake from various governments.”
(Cooper, C. in TES, 2015)
A successful teacher manages all the stresses that Cooper describes, and as a Newly Qualified Teacher from the LGBTQI demographic, I found I was having added stresses in my new career. Living in a heteronormative society, thoughts like “What if a student asks me?” “Do I get in trouble if I tell them?” “What will the parents think?” “What if the students use it against me?” were all too common for me, and I didn’t know where to go for guidance. For clarity, a heteronormative environment presumes or attributes a heterosexual identity to all members of society, and presuming that heterosexual is the ‘normal’ sexuality from which all others deviate. Such presumptions can often result in lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people (amongst others) experiencing marginalisation and disadvantage in their everyday lives. (Johnson, 2002; and Simoni & Walters, 2001; as seen in Fell, G; Mattiske, J; Riggs, D. 2008)
It is worth mentioning here that when the following study hereby refers to (L)esbian, (G)ay and (B)isexual (LGB) teachers, this is because the study was explicitly looking at same-sex attraction. This is not to exclude the (T)rans, (Q)ueer or (I)ntersex communities, nor to ignore the issues they also face working within education, but more to identify that those issues can be either more complex, or not relate to same-sex attraction, and the anxieties, concerns and experiences these people may face are likely very different to those that identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
The Department for Education says ‘A teacher is expected to demonstrate consistently high standards of personal and professional conduct.’ (DfE, 2015) If I did tell the students what they were asking, was that putting my high standard of personal and professional conduct at risk? The DfE continues that “Teachers act with honesty and integrity; (…) forge positive professional relationships; and work with parents in the best interest of their pupils.” So there seemed to be an internal contradiction here due to a set of circumstances somewhat unique to the LGB demographic of teachers, because if I lied to them, or even omitted the truth, shutting down the conversation, I was also in breach of my responsibilities as a teacher.
During a teacher’s training, we are encouraged to use elements of our own life in our teaching, building on students’ natural curiosity and further improving the professional, trusting relationship between teacher and student. Through ongoing CPD led in schools across the country, we are taught that a student needs to feel comfortable to fail in order to learn successfully, but a student will only feel comfortable to fail in front of us if the student feels comfortable and trusts us to begin with. Idea’s like James Nottingham’s (2016) Learning Challenge (or the Learning Pit) only work because that relationship is already formed. Growing up as an LGBTQI youth I often felt alienated and alone, and now, as a fully grown and confident gay man, I was once again beginning to feel this same isolation due to my sexual identity, and I didn’t know how to approach these fears.
This study documents the findings of three other secondary school teachers from the LGB demographic, and how they have chosen to approach their sexual orientation in the workplace, and their findings or repercussions that they have experienced in making these decisions on their own, with particular regard to teaching and learning. Throughout, these accounts will be linked to both relevant literature and my own experiences. School identities and the identities of the teachers and students in question have been anonymised to ensure that accounts could be retold in confidence. Following qualitative research guidance from Glacer and Strauss’s Grounded Theory (1967) (updated following Cooney’s recommendation (2010)), and Wellington (2000) the accounts were collected in a semi-structured interview format, with a focus on events that had actually happened to the interviewee. Any personal accounts referred to were not discussed with the interviewee prior to the interview so as not to influence the stories being told. The theme of the interview was explained prior to the discussion, however the questions being asked were not disclosed in advance in order to obtain a true understanding of the thoughts and feelings at the forefront of the interviewee’s mind. There are a great deal of ethical concerns and complications in interviewing LGBT adolescents, particularly involving parental consent as the LGBT population are considered, incorrectly or no, as ‘vulnerable’ (Mustanski, B. 2011), and interviewing any adolescents on LGBT issues could arguably harbour some of the same risks if a student’s sexual orientation is unknown. Because of this it was determined that students would not be interviewed in order to protect the wellbeing and potential anxieties on both themselves and their teachers (Levine, R. 1995). The purpose of this study is not to argue for or against how teachers choose to approach, or avoid, their sexuality in the workplace, but as a means of sharing accounts and relevant research into the issue to allow each individual to make their own informed opinion. It was also to engage existing teachers in their own decisions, and reflect on the potential outcomes of decisions they have made with regards to their learners. Because of this, the participants (P1, P2 & P3), and myself, were of varying age, gender and experience, and have all decided to take a different approach to discussing their sexuality with students.
P1 and P2, like myself, have disclosed their sexuality to their students after direct questioning from students. P3 has never done so and would close those direct questionings down, particularly in his earlier years of teaching, never confirming or denying the suspicions the students were raising. Something to consider here is how the students felt the ability to ask a teacher’s sexuality as if it was part of their business. This could be because all participants had been successful in “forging professional relationships” with their students, as per the DfE’s standards. For P3, this kind of question may have pushed boundaries too far: “my persona as a teacher and as an individual; there is a fine line and there is a divide between the two. For me there has always been a boundary.” (P3 Transcript, Line 7-8). However there is another reason that students may now feel they have the ability to ask about a teacher’s sexuality. Cole says ‘A legal precedent seems to have been established in relation to sexual activity which makes it not a matter of private mutual consent but of public political interest’ (2000, p91). Here Cole is talking about how having differing laws between heterosexual and homosexual couples actually increased the awareness of homosexuality, in essence, leading people to believing they have a right to know. This is further emphasised here:
‘The message is clear that sexuality represents a cultural field in which the personal and private have been made political. Sexuality has been commodified by the interest of the press and made a legitimate concern of the state.’
(Cole, M, 2000, pg96)
It is fair to assume that because our culture dictates that the sexuality of anyone in the public eye is a big deal, students, whose role models may well consist of us teachers, would be interested in our sexuality, and feel like they had the right to enquire and discover, because that is what they see echoed in the adult life around them. The way in which the question was asked to P1, P2 and myself was always in a respectful manner and was always received well when the truth was revealed, which would link to the idea of the students looking at teachers like role models. P3 made no comment around the issue of how the question had been asked to him.
From my own experience, I tried two separate approaches, initially avoiding the question. This is in line with how Claire, Maybin & Swann (1993, pg208) suggest approaching the question if you are heterosexual:
“We have found one of the most useful strategies is to use this as a springboard for discussion. ‘Would it make a difference?’ provides much more space for educational debate than replying ‘No’.”
But I am not a heterosexual, and so I found that taking this approach led me to feeling like I had rejected a core part of myself. This was even stronger when a particularly challenging student a few weeks later asked me and I had responded with ‘No’. A regrettable mistake that I thankfully resolved later on in the lesson. But why had I said that? Why was that my natural defence? Firstly was an alienation all too familiar with my own adolescence.
“The curriculum, the teachers, and most of the kids all seem so adamantly heterosexual. There is nothing for us to do if we want to survive in this environment except pretend, cover up, be silent.”
(Bahaire, 1987 – As seen in Claire, Maybin & Swann, 1993, pg202)
The natural defence mechanism, pretend it didn’t exist, that way it cannot be exploited. A similar fear to that demonstrated by P2 at the top of this writing, where she explains how after coming out to her students she cried in fear of “It ruining everything”. From the moment I lied to that student a number of concerns went through my mind.
P3 said that “Homosexuality is far more dramatised through television, so it’s out there far more than it was, and therefore the students are far more comfortable and aware of what is going on.” (P3 Transcript, lines 122-124) this is echoed by Cole, who said that students’ ‘confusion is increased by the contradiction between the visibility of gay and lesbian cultures outside of school and their invisibility in school.’ (2000, pg101). If the students are seeing it is okay to be gay… why are they seeing no gay teachers? Unless the teachers are hiding it, and that not only damages the student teacher relationship, which negatively impacts on teaching and learning, but also helps fuel the heteronormative environment that we live in. I didn’t want to be part of that. Redman said: “sexuality is both ‘everywhere and nowhere’ in school” (1994, p1997) meaning that the speculation is everywhere, but the actual topic is never addressed head on, again potentially alienating any LGB youths that may notice this inconsistency within schools, and again, Cole highlights the potential damage this can do.
“As teachers, it is inevitable that engagement with young people will mean engagement with the political reality of sexualities… young people are particularly vulnerable to the play of negative constructions of sexualities.”
(Cole, M. 2000, pg96)
Role models were mentioned previously with regards to students asking teachers outright about their sexuality. P1 was unsure about the need of a teacher as a role model. He said:
“I don’t necessarily know if they need a teacher as a role model because I don’t think they do always see teachers as role models, I think other people might be more important in their lives”
(P1 Transcript, Lines 78-79)
This ties in with what Cole had said previously about the press and our culture, especially in relation to the 21st Century. Do students really need teachers as role models when they have so much ‘news’ about other role models readily available?
“I had no role models. Had to create them in my mind. Had to learn what gay was, and then unlearn it, as society’s stereotypes didn’t fit with my personal expectations or desires.”
(Peterson, J, 2000, pg8)
Here, a gay man explains how not being taught passively about homosexuality via a role model lent itself to him learning incorrectly, as he was having to learn from the skewed reports that came from the press. On a ‘young lesbian’s’ list of things that could have made a difference (reported by Rogers, 1994, p.64), open discussion and role models featured at the top. It seems therefore, that at least retrospectively, it is something that at least LGB youths would find beneficial. Robinson too, has suggested that having an LGBT representative at the school would be beneficial. (2012, pg344)
P2 and P3 both mentioned the need for LGB role models for students in their interviews. This correlates with Claire, Maybin & Swann’s research, although it is worth mentioning that this research was conducted in primary schools:
“Our experience has shown that in schools where there are openly lesbian and gay staff the benefits to the pupils are immense, as they provide role models for all the pupils.”
Adolescents are trying to piece together their internal world, their thoughts and feelings that are rife with hormones during secondary school, with the external world that they live in. For LGB student’s in particular, there can be a mismatch there.
‘The inevitable consequence of this differentiation is that people who cannot reconcile their sexuality with those who are most socially valued can feel they themselves are less valued’
(Cole, M. 2000, pg82)
In this example, the teacher is the ‘most socially valued’ in the idea of the learning environment. If every teacher a LGB student experiences is heterosexual, that means every ‘most socially valued’ person is heterosexual, leading to the learned belief that heterosexuality means value, and therefore homosexuality means a lack of value. This can potentially lead to a student having low self-worth, effecting the students wellbeing, and their performance at school.
At first glance, there appears to be a contrast in the case of P3, who although understanding the need for role models in the student’s day to day lives, also keeps his sexuality to himself. He explains:
“I perhaps should [disclose my sexuality to students], for the wellbeing of students in terms of giving them role models, especially the vulnerable ones who are struggling with their sexuality. Giving them that sense of identity and reassuring them that actually it’s not a problem… (But)… When I first went into teaching it wasn’t as acceptable and I felt that my life would be made difficult… I had made this very, very clear decision that it wasn’t going to be ever divulged or part of my life in school… it certainly wasn’t part of me educating children.”
(P3 Transcription, Lines 135-149)
P3 talks about a fear of his life being made ‘difficult’. A fear that coincides with P2, who explains how she thought it would ‘ruin everything’ when her sexuality was discovered. It is worth pointing out, that these two incidents happened at very different periods in time. P3 was making his decision when he first started training fourteen years ago, before then moving into a position in a Catholic school where negative views towards homosexuality were not only held, but also taught to the children:
“So I had one girl that was in my sixth form class who came to me because she’d had a contraceptive band put in, and she was criticised by her RE teacher for doing it. Then I had another lad who came to me because he was taught in his RE lesson that being homosexual was wrong, and that it was the devil’s work.”
(P3 Transcript, Lines 26-29)
P2 on the other hand was currently in that stage of her life where she needed to make her decision, and although the decision made between the two participants differs, the fears were both very much the same, even 14 years on, and I must admit that these fears echoed the fears of my own. Exploring the reasons for these mutual fears, both personal and professional, turned my attention to the government and their stance on homosexuality within schools.
‘The first major reference to the treatment of lesbian and gay lifestyles from a National Government source comes in the HMI document Health Education from 5 to 16 – “Given the openness with which homosexuality is treated within society now it is almost bound to arise as an issue in one area or another of the school’s curriculum… Therefore it needs to be dealt with objectively and seriously.”’
(DES, 1986 – In Claire, Maybin & Swann, 1993, pg202)
Cole talked in great detail about the relevance of homosexuality in the media, with particular reference to the HIV infection and George Michael, a popular icon in the 1980’s (2000, pg82-84). With the increase of coverage homosexuality was getting, it was promising to see the government realising the media’s effect on the education system. However, the ‘objective and serious’ way they chose to ‘deal’ with the growing openness however is one that has caused much debate in educational fields: Section 28.
Introduced in 1988, Section 28 stated that:
“A local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality; promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”
Around the same time, it was also stated that:
“There is no place in any school, in any circumstance for teaching, which advocates homosexual behaviour, which presents it as “the norm”, or which encourages homosexual experimentation by pupils.”
(DES, 1988, paragraph 22)
Section 28 has been described as intentionally vague, and when looked at in a literal sense, it can be argued that this clause merely states the obvious. It is not a schools place to promote any sexuality, and Claire, Maybin & Swan therefore argue that Section 28 had no real impact on teaching about LGB issues (1993, pg207) However, it is important to consider that this was their opinion in 1993. In 1994, Epstein, a lesbian teacher, released her book Challenging Lesbian and Gay Inequalities in Education, and she acknowledges that the book would not have been taken on by a publisher had Section 28 never been published (pg6-7), going on to claim that Section 28 inadvertently promoted homosexuality. However, she also notes that: “One chapter, commissioned and written, has not appeared because of concern by the author’s head teacher about the ‘marketability’ of the school.” This links with the introduction and reform of school league tables in 1992 (Leckie & Goldstein, 2016), education beginning to follow a consumerist model (Cole, 2000, pg107), and is increasingly pertinent with the education system today, especially when factoring in the academisation initiative, with schools much more directly in competition with each other than ever before. Cole, on the other hand, in 2000, has very strong opinions about the damage caused by Section 28, and his opinion echoes the professional fears suggested by this study. Cole explains that although the wording was vague enough to shelter his own believed intention, the effect of Section 28, in retrospect, was undoubtedly to prevent educating about homosexuality (pg112), an effect which was noted by LGB students at the time, and discussed in interviews, i.e.:
“I was waiting to hear something about homosexuality, safe sex, and different things in sex education. Maybe some information that can help me. But I got nothing. There was nothing.”
(Tim, cited in Frankum, 1996. pg23)
It is likely, through the interviews of P1, P2 and P3, as well as my own experience, that this fear from teachers in discussing homosexuality, and the erasure of it from discussion in the past, has been what has led to the current fears in discussing homosexuality now in the present. Throughout the 1990’s, all participants were in the education system, at one end or the other, not being taught about homosexuality due to Section 28, and the fear of teachers that broaching the subject could result in a drop in the schools image. This potentially leads to us, looking at our teachers as role models, thinking that homosexuality just isn’t something that is taught about in schools. This is further echoed in a publication called School’s Out by the Gay Teachers Group, published in 1987, that describes a number of gay teachers experiences during school and how that has impacted their teaching, and it is safe to say that my perception of school has a child has influenced my understanding of school in the modern day. This is also agreed by P1 and P2, who explain what would have happened when they were in school if a teacher had revealed their LGB status.
Section 28, however, has not had the suspected desired impact of diminishing homosexuality, as described by an interviewee in Epstien’s work: “When I think about it, no one was teaching us about homosexuality, yet here I am, a lesbian.” (1994, pg 22).
“The repeal of section 28 is welcome, but until schools take up the issues in the classroom, changes in the law are unlikely to have any impact on knowledge or attitudes.”
(Cole, M, 2000, pg115)
“Despite section 28 being repealed, the remnants of fear it produced in teachers seem to linger.”
(Robinson, K. 2012, pg332)
Section 28 was repealed in 2000 by the Labour Government, but as suggested by the fears of teachers today, and demonstrated by the statements above, the potential harm it caused to educating adolescents about homosexuality and professionals wanting to offer that education has been done. A cycle of silence surrounding homosexuality is likely to continue unless a full educational initiative begins to take place in order to allow teachers to feel professionally at ease with the subject that they are discussing.
There are more than just professional fears attached to being an LGB teacher however. P3 talked in detail about a school where boys were making strong, derogatory reference to his suspected; due to it being unrevealed; sexuality (Transcript 3, Lines 58-62). Something that very well could have been mirrored during adolescence. Cole’s writing documents the story of a boy called Darren, who was bullied in a homophobic manner for his interest in Drama: ‘Darren is one of countless victims of aggression and violence in schools based on an individual’s perceived sexuality’ (2000, p95). Darren had not ‘come out’, but was in fact just picked on for his suspected homosexuality, leading to his suicide. This was not an uncommon story in the 90’s; Mason and Palmer (1995) disclose, following a study of LGB youths; 48% of LGB youths that responded to the survey had been a victim of a violent attack, with half of these incidents being by ‘fellow’ students, with 79% of LGB youths surveyed having experienced some form of name calling or bullying.
It is also suggested by P2 that she too had personal fears attached to her ‘coming out’ to her students, but was reassured by professionals who she went to for support, being told “if anything does happen, you just follow it up normally, it would obviously be a serious incident.”(Transcript 2, lines 67-68). It is worth noting that it was described by her heterosexual peer that ‘you would just follow it up normally’, which is two pronged. On the one hand, it does recognise homophobic bullying as equal to any other form of bullying, which is a positive. However it also, therefore, fails to recognise the specificity of the hardship caused with a sexuality that is not chosen, but quite simply is, and how this might be approached with the bully. In 2007, the Department for Children, Schools and Families said:
“Whilst many schools are becoming more confident to deal with bullying motivated by other kinds of prejudice, such as racist bullying, few have specific measures in place or the confidence to deal with homophobic bullying.”
This lack of confidence that schools have in dealing with homophobic bullying, that is possibly a remnant of Section 28, could also contribute to the internal struggle LGB teachers have with how they choose to handle their sexuality in school, as there is a distinct lack of specific training tailored towards handling LGB issues and homophobia in school. Both P1 and P3 explain their tolerance towards homophobia in lessons, and not allowing the derogatory or incorrect use of LGBT terminology to be passed around by students, (Transcript 1, Lines 71-76) or heteronormativity being accidently upheld in lessons (Transcript 3, Lines 78-85). However this is something all teachers should, and may well be, doing – not just those that sit in the LGBT demographic.
To summarise; All 3 participants in this study, and myself, admit to fears of damage to their personal and professional lives with regards to their LGB status, within the workplace. However, P1, P2 and myself all agree that when students know your sexuality, we have all been surprised with how little blowback there was from the revelation. All participants agree that there are certainly benefits in revealing your sexuality to your students, but those who have done so, did so only when the students felt comfortable enough to ask the teacher outright. This is when, as an LGB teacher, you can make a choice on revealing your sexuality. The choice is entirely yours, and it depends solely on how confident you feel in the amount of damage you would take, both professionally, and personally. Times are changing even more so than when Cole did his writings in 2000, and equality for the LGBTQI community has come on leaps and bounds since then. However, the fears that were potentially created in the twelve years that Section 28 was in place, are still very real; not as highly as they were for the students back then, but more for the teachers who experienced the complete lack of education surrounding homosexuality when they were growing up. It is agreed by all participants that the need for LGB role models in school is necessary, and in revealing your LGB status to a students or group of students, your relationship with those students would definitely deepen, in particular with LGB students and helping to alleviate that feeling of isolation and loneliness that might be felt. As a response to this study, I have spoken to the safeguarding, inclusion and student support teams at my place of work and have put myself forward to be there for any student that may be struggling with LGBTQI related issues in school. This was something these teams were very grateful for, explaining that “It is something we feel schools need, but it’s not something you can just go up and ask someone to do.”
In disseminating this information back to participants and other interested parties, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly from teachers in the LGBTQI demographic, explaining that there is a real need for research in this area to help alleviate some of the stresses that LGBTQI teachers may feel, particularly when initially becoming a teacher. Moving forward, I have a very firm belief that is actually mirrored in Claire, Maybin & Swann’s work, 24 years ago, in that it will be some time before the damage done by Section 28 is reversed, and the whole education system needs to work together to overcome the fears and anxieties that that damage presents.
“If equal opportunities in education is to mean anything, if we’re not actively to deceive children, if lesbian and gay people are not to continue to suffer and heterosexuals to remain in ignorance of the range and validity of human sexuality, then everyone involved in education must commit themselves fully to the real equal opportunities for all.”
(Claire, Maybin & Swann, 1993, p208-9)
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