Fight to wear the trousers

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
A lesbian teacher, forced to work in a skirt, now trains others on equality. Michael Shaw reports on the progress of gay rights

When Sue Sanders tells pupils she is a lesbian the reactions are mixed.

"A few say 'I knew it', and I get plenty of 'oohs' and 'aahs'," she said.

"The last time I told a class, one boy got up and moved to a desk further back."

Ms Sanders can be certain of a warmer reception at the Flame night club in Luton tomorrow where she will be chairing the annual meeting of School's Out!, the association for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers in education.

The 56-year-old former drama teacher is little short of legendary among gay-rights campaigners and a perennial sight on marches and rallies.

Paul Patrick, one of Britain's first openly gay teachers and the original secretary of School's Out!, said he is constantly surprised by her stamina.

"She sends me emails at 2am," he said. "And she has this amazing ability to be right all the time.

"When everyone is angry and wanting to storm the citadel, she is the one who says: 'Stop - this is what we can achieve; if we do that we will alienate people'."

Ms Sanders became involved in School's Out! - then the Gay Teachers Group - soon after it was founded in 1974.

Members recall instances then when they were spat at by other teachers during union meetings. Few revealed their sexuality to their colleagues for fear of dismissal - a threat underlined that year when a London teacher, John Warburton, was sacked after being "outed" by his students.

Ms Sanders said she decided to become a teacher to prevent others sharing her miserable experiences as a pupil.

She is the daughter of a south London primary teacher, failed both her 11-plus and A-levels and was expelled from a grammar and then a private girls' school.

She believes her dyslexia was partly the cause of her problems but says another reason for them was her frustration at the schools' attempts to make her fit sexist and academic stereotypes.

"I wasn't the 'young lady' they were trying to create," she said. "Even when I became a teacher I wasn't allowed to wear trousers - I had to make a kerfuffle about how it made no sense teaching drama in a skirt." Ms Sanders did not come out as a lesbian to her pupils until the late 1980s when she worked in a London secondary school.

Their responses were positive. However, one parent wrote to the headteacher demanding that her daughter be removed from Ms Sander's class because she was "thumbing her nose at society".

When the head complied, Ms Sanders realised her position was untenable.

For the past three years her work has consisted mainly of training teachers and pupils in London on equality issues, through the training company Chrysalis which she set up with Mr Patrick. In one session with teachers, she asks them to imagine themselves as teenagers in a world where heterosexuals are the invisible minority and whether, under those circumstances, they would dare visit a heterosexual youth club.

"I tell them my story, but that can just reinforce the idea that it is someone else's issue," she said. "They need to put themselves in that situation.

"This year, for the first time in my life, there will be legislation protecting me as a lesbian. When I think that I've had to wait until 2003 for that, it's frightening."

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