Can you remember the moment when you declared to your colleagues, pupils and parents your sexual orientation? If you’re straight, married or in a relationship, the chances are you’ve probably “outed” yourself countless times without giving it a second thought. You know, those ordinary mentions of the husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend, as you’re queuing for the staffroom hot-water boiler thingy (does it have a proper name?)
Maybe it was an aside when talking to the children in your class about something you did recently with your family. It’s the same with colleagues: who could forget the latest collection for the forthcoming baby?
I mention this because so many articles on gay teachers focus on whether an individual should be “out” at school. Nowadays, that decision would hopefully be a much easier one than at any other time in history. A bigger issue, in my view, arises once you’ve come out: how out actually are you?
I have never attempted to hide my sexual orientation from colleagues. I prefer to adopt the view that people need to see the real me. When I first started as a headteacher, I brought my husband along to a community event, not to make a point, but because we happened to be together that day. It was lovely to meet my prospective colleagues and there was no sense of attracting funny looks or surprise. Fantastic.
Ever since then, as head, I’ve found it perfectly comfortable being able to talk about my husband and I with everyone at work. For me, that’s just a much better position to be in, so I can be authentic. And for colleagues, it puts them at ease to see that I am relaxed about it.
I also think it’s useful to be out to the governors. After all, if I were ever subject to any form of abuse or discrimination, I would need them to support me. Another benefit of this can be seen in the following: a governor brought up the importance of making sure children were made aware of different family settings, including same-sex couples. I was then able to mention that I was already putting together some ideas to support staff, as part of sex and relationship education lessons, and that because I was married to a man, I felt well placed to offer some advice.
It was reassuring that this push came from the governors, not from me.
I am aware, however, that not all teachers feel comfortable enough to do as I do. After the initial “out” declaration, some can refrain from speaking openly about their home life or referencing anything that “gives away” their sexuality. Some feel that they can never mention being gay again. Clearly, this is very much an individual’s choice. But as a school leader, I am keenly aware that this might not always be their own choice.
As heads, we need to make sure we do all we can to enable teachers to be as out as they feel comfortable being. This can be made difficult in schools with a strongly religious character or if the school serves a particular community, but we have to get over those barriers – legally, we obviously have to, but we also have a moral duty, too.
We have the opportunity to create a safe space. This has to be communicated not just from those of us at the top, but through every leadership role in the school. Teachers and support staff often feel like they have the least amount of control and they need to know that they would be supported if they spoke freely about their sexuality. If you’re a headteacher, do you think your staff know that they would receive such support?
If there is an indication that someone feels uncomfortable, and you find that they have reason to feel that way, you must act decisively. By leading on inclusivity, we have to be seen to deal with any barriers that are in place.
As heads, it’s important to be approachable. If someone is thinking of coming out, or if they are having issues with how out they feel comfortable being, our door should be open to that conversation, and we should be prepared to seek out and remove any barriers that the person may believe are in place. And if you’re a head with those thoughts and feelings yourself, then the chair of governors might be worth talking to. They have a duty of care to us, after all.
This issue is important not just for the teachers in question, nor the staff as a whole. It is important that the pupils also feel they are part of an inclusive environment in which being out is not just “normal”, but is – in a way – a non-issue.
So let’s shift the debate from “coming out” to being comfortable “being out”. Being completely out still isn’t quite the norm, so the only way to normalise things is to become part of the change.
Jason Gilman-Hughes is headteacher of Oxley Primary School in Shepshed, Leicestershire
A version of this article originally appeared in a 2017 edition of Tes. It has been republished for National Coming Out Day.