It seems inconceivable that even as recently as 1990, being gay would have meant curtains for a career.
When I left university in the 1980s and joined one of the Big Four accountancy firms, no one who valued their career prospects would have revealed their sexuality. Today, it gives me a great deal of pride to see my former employer, KPMG, in the top half of Stonewall’s latest chart of 100 leading employers.
In fact, lawyers and accountants now dominate this chart, which shows that a massive culture change has taken place in the professions in a relatively short period of time.
There are a fair few government departments in Stonewall’s top 100 and I’m no less proud of the fact that one of these is the Department for Education. Looking ahead, I would like to be able to see some of our larger multi-academy trusts making their mark on this list.
This week the government has published its LGBT Action Plan based on responses to the biggest survey of the LGBT community of any country in the world. The results, from over 108,000 respondents, show that although there has been a massive shift in outlook in the past 20 years, there are still many barriers facing people over sexuality and identity.
- The survey revealed, for instance, that two-thirds of LGBT people say they avoid holding hands with a same-sex partner in public spaces
- More than 9 in 10 of the most serious incidents in the previous 12 months went unreported, often because respondents thought ‘it happens all the time’.
As an education minister, I spend much of my working life visiting schools. One thing I’m constantly cheered by is how tolerant the young are for LGBT people. None of those I have met in my six years in the job have batted an eyelid about gay marriage, for instance.
Yet for many teachers, the situation has not moved on in any significant way from the 1990s. Those I speak to often admit that it is not possible to be openly gay at work. This is backed up by the survey’s education section, in which respondents said disclosing their LGBT status would be a huge professional risk.
Mostly this was down to a fear of what others would think but some teachers said that they had been ‘forced’ to leave a job because of their sexual orientation, at the head’s request. The anecdotal evidence for this is that it would upset parents.
Why should this be so? The same parents would not hesitate to appoint a gay lawyer or a trans accountant, so why should they feel that a gay teacher is professionally unacceptable?
LGBT teachers must feel comfortable and supported if they want to open up about their sexual status or gender. Much will depend on the head for establishing a school ethos in which this can happen naturally. To do this, heads must be prepared to stand up to those parents who resist a more diverse culture.
Changes to the curriculum such the introduction of compulsory relationships and sex education will give young people the knowledge and understanding they need to live confident, healthy and independent lives, whoever they want to be and whoever they want to love.
Schools can also take part in Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index. This is completely free and can help employers have a clearer understanding about their progress on LGBT equality.
Schools can obtain further support from LGBTEd, established by Daniel Gray and Hannah Jepson. This is a grassroots movement for LGBT teachers which provides a network of role models for teachers and students. It was launched in May and has the full support (and admiration) of all of us at the DfE.
The Department for Education is investing a further £2 million to establish regional hubs to support teachers from underrepresented groups, including those teachers who are LGBT, to progress into leadership.
With an increasing number of strong LGBT role models, it just remains for parents and school leaders to take a leaf out of their children’s books.
Nick Gibb is the schools' minister