Meet Jo, the LGBT teacher who still faces homophobia

She's been told she 'doesn't look gay' and has suffered prejudice in school – but she's a great role model for teenagers

Emma Kell

Homophobia in schools

Jo is fictitious. I wrote this article as the result of many conversations I’ve had with my LGBT+ friends and colleagues in recent years.

My aim is to use this platform to raise the kinds of issues that I know are really important. I write in the desire to be a true ally. Confidentiality means I can’t report people's experiences and conversations directly, but Jo is based on real experiences.

You don’t look gay.” 

Jo gets this quite regularly. She’s not sure what “gay” is supposed to look like, but generally takes it with good humour and a raised eyebrow. 

Unless, of course, it’s accompanied by the barely concealed disapproval of a handful of colleagues: the suspicious glances (as if she might perhaps lunge at one of them in a fit of lust) or that time when she was declared an “inappropriate” choice for the residential trip to France (and given a series of nonsensical excuses about her commitment to numeracy). 

On these occasions, Jo has no qualms about showing her teeth: calling out prejudice and injustice, reminding others of the meaning of the school’s inclusive ethos. 

Does this make her popular? Not always. Does she care? Not really. Is it sometimes utterly, mind-numbingly exhausting? 

Does she sometimes want to scream from the rooftops that it’s actually 2020 and, if we can’t accept the very basic fact that not everybody fits into a comfortable, heteronormative box, then what chance do we have of being remotely decent roles models to young people? Well, yes.

Not just gay

Jo’s not just gay, by the way. (Though some days it’s hard to remember this. She sometimes wonders whether somebody else might just volunteer to head up the LGBT+ community at school, so she has time to grapple with the growing pile of marking, or whether she might not be the only person to lead the upcoming Pride Week assembly.) 

Jo’s a singer in the local choir and a volunteer at a homeless shelter. She has a penchant for fondue, zebras and Star Wars, and an innate aversion to snakes and people who can’t tell the difference between “less” and “fewer”.

Jo’s a sociable introvert, an amateur runner, a cyclist and a mum to a boy and a girl. Jo and her partner bicker over Netflix preferences, prefer a night in slippers to a night on the town, and plan to travel Europe in their campervan this summer. 

When she secured her middle-leadership post, her partner, Ciara, was discussed, alongside the new marking policy, staff politics and a mutual penchant for sparkly stationery. No biggy. 

The Year 8s’ reference to "scissoring" (don’t Google it) and the various misconceptions and implications of online pornography were dealt with firmly and sensitively, with a clear resolution and a revision of the PSHE curriculum.

LGBT rights

It hasn’t always been like this. Jo was already teaching when Section 28 was still A Thing.

For teachers blessedly young enough not to be familiar with Section 28 – goodness, she envies them some days – it went as follows: 

A local authority "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

This law – yes, law – was enacted in 1988. It was repealed in Scotland in 2000, but not until 2003 did England follow suit. 

At the time, Jo was still going through the complex process of coming out to friends and family (some confused, most entirely unsurprised and perhaps a little offended that she hadn’t mentioned it sooner).

So the words in this law contorted her inside. Like thousands at the time, she chose to stay in the closet with everyone at work. She suspects she’s still paying the price for this emotionally. 

And let’s look at that language for a second. What does “promote” mean? Prancing around with a loudspeaker and a banner – or saying it’s fine to be gay or transgender?

And the words "pretended family" give rise to rage and nausea when she thinks of the people dearest to her (who she might actually see awake tonight, if she can get this bloody marking done).

Secrecy and shame

Jo’s under no illusions that she’s lucky to work where she does. She’s observed the anti-LGBT+ teaching demonstrations in Birmingham with a sense of sickening dismay. 

Closer to home, she knows teachers at her own school who happen to be gay but have sworn her to secrecy.

Everyone’s entitled to their privacy, and some discuss their lives more at school than others, but the furtive air with which they have confided in her leaves her worried. 

Colleagues in other schools have had transphobic graffiti scrawled across desks, with no recourse from school leaders. Others are still convinced that any disclosure around their sexual or gender identity is liable to be at odds with the ethos of the school, and may even put their jobs at risk.

“There’s no one way to be a girl. There’s no one way to be a boy,” says a poster on entry to the school. 

The rainbow flag flaps in the foyer, among the flags representing the 30-plus different nationalities represented in the school. 

Students come to her, as a role model, to share their own questions about their sexual and gender identity.

None of them batted an eyelid when she came out to them, for the record. She did talk about her upcoming marriage, and the fact that this was forbidden for same-sex couples until 2014 in the UK.

"That’s deep, man," said one Year 9. Young people can sniff authenticity. To be able to talk about her family in the classroom – as well her fondness for zebras – makes for strong relationships.

Lone crusader

But there’s work to do. So much work to do. For her colleagues who still can’t speak out, and for colleagues in other schools facing discrimination. 

There’s work to do for the young man and the thousands others like him whose parents planned to send him to be “cured” after he came out last month. 

There’s work to do about the pronouns that are used thoughtlessly, and have 10-years-olds publicly challenged on their right to go into gendered public toilets because they don’t “look” male or female. 

There’s work to do around the illogical assumption that every child has a mum and a dad at home.

There’s work to do when raising money for The Terrence Higgins Trust is vetoed in schools.

And there’s work to be done, having conversations to bust myths among some groups of parents that seven-year-old pupils are receiving lessons in how to touch themselves.

Jo’s proud of the work she is doing. But, in all too many schools, there are lone crusaders like Jo, banging their heads against walls for the most basic levels of acceptance.

Special credit to Nick Bentley, ambassador of #LGBTed 

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching. She tweets at @thosethatcan

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