Homophobia still exists

15th July 2005 at 01:00
Section 28 may be history, but schools remain difficult places for gay people to work in, writes Gordon Cairns

Five years after the repeal of Section 28, homosexuality and education still seem to be uneasy bedfellows, in the eyes of a few anyway.

A couple of months ago, Bishop Joseph Devine told a Sunday newspaper that he didn't think homosexuals should be teaching in Catholic schools. This view was quickly denied by others within the Church, but the comment probably had the desired effect.

Whether it was the bishop's intention or not, when his opinion became public, it must have made any homosexuals considering applying for teaching think carefully about their chosen career path. I am sure some would have felt sufficiently excluded to choose a more straightforward profession where a person's sexual preferences do not make a difference, which of course is a loss to the teaching profession.

The arguments used by the anti-homosexual brigade seem more to do with prejudice than protecting children from gay predators. On The TES Scotland website, someone has written that children need to be protected from the gaze of gay PE teachers as they get changed. Even if you can get beyond the implied notion that homosexuals are automatically paedophiles, it doesn't address the reality of what happens in schools. Although not a PE teacher, I don't think PE teachers actually "watch" children getting changed, whatever their sexual preference: it's just that they are required to be in the same room as them.

Can you imagine the typical teenager's reaction if a teacher even looked in their direction in a changing room? "Oh my God, he's staring at me, he's a gay boy!" Among the teacherpupil relationships that have recently reached the press, I can recall only one which was a same- sex relationship. While this may not be an accurate reflection of what is happening, I think it could be taken as a useful barometer.

Generally, male teachers and impressionable female pupils generate most cases of illicit teacher-pupil relationships.

In my experience as a teacher, I have only ever met one openly gay teacher, although I have come across many bachelors and spinsters. I wonder how many of these singletons keep quiet about their relationships or have repressed their true feelings, as it would make their daily working life too difficult. It must be difficult to be always on your guard when talking about your relationships, when even questions about what you did at the weekend must be deflected.

But it is the children who miss out the most. Teachers are the first adults outside the family with whom children have a meaningful relationship, and if everyone is presenting the supposed "norm" to the children, how can they learn about diversity? For many kids, their notion of homosexuality will be reduced to Elton John wigs and "I'm the only gay in the village", instead of the boring guy with a bad jacket who teaches us maths.

Teenage boys are probably the most homophobic members of society - for them to be accused of being gay is social death. This is not surprising, since they are also probably the most sexually confused group as they try to make sense of puberty. Actually seeing a living, breathing homosexual up close could allay their fears of not being "normal" and, if they do turn out to be gay, this would reassure them that they would not automatically be a flamboyant lover of show tunes, as often portrayed in the media.

Section 28 argued against this positive gay role model because the pupils who liked their gay or lesbian teacher would be "turned" away from the straight and narrow, as if sexual choices were like choosing a soccer team or a new shirt.

In our increasingly secular society, the attacks on homosexual teachers are perhaps the last gasps of the religious Right, as its adherents try to maintain a foothold on decision-making, while illustrating the contradiction of liberalism which gives people the freedom to be illiberal.

Maybe, in a few years' time, being prejudiced about a teacher's sexual preferences will seem as ridiculous as being prejudiced against someone because they prefer something more adventurous than the missionary position.

Gordon Cairns is a supply teacher.

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