Is honesty the best policy?

21st September 2007 at 01:00
Come out to your colleagues and a class full of teenagers, or hide an important part of yourself and feel guilty. It's a tough decision and it isn't helped by some schools failing to tackle homophobic insults, lesbian teachers tell Madeleine Brettingham

Alison Murphy, 46, has always been open with her pupils about her sexuality. An English and religious education teacher at Coopers' Company and Coborn School, a Church of England comprehensive in Essex, she says she has always regarded her personal life as "private but not secret". Pupils know she lives with her girlfriend and two children.

As a lesbian teacher, the decision you take about whether or not you are open about your sexuality with pupils is a significant one. Whether it's coming out, deciding how to answer questions about your sexual orientation, or simply being honest about what you did at the weekend, there are a thousand little incidents that can give you pause for thought.

For Alison, the turning point came when she was teaching a lesson on ethics. "I was reading from a book that described homosexuals as 'they' and I said: 'I'm sorry I can't talk about gay people as 'they' when I'm gay.' My hand was shaking. Then one pupil looked up and said: 'It's all right, Miss. We're not all going to run out the room'."

Since then, she has led work on gay and lesbian history month, inspiring a group of sixth-formers to give an assembly about it (it provoked a round of applause and one complaint). She says one or two pupils appear to be uncomfortable, but most are polite. "One girl called something 'gay' then turned round and said 'oh sorry Miss'," she says. The few disputes she has had have been with colleagues: a civilised argument with a Christian teacher about whether homosexuality was a sin ("she saw it as a weakness like alcoholism that could be helped") and an encounter with a PGCE student who informed her, during a discussion on homosexuality in RE, that he thought lesbian and gay people should be executed ("although he did say it was nothing personal").

Despite this, she has received a great deal of support from management. "It is great for pupils, particularly those who might be questioning their sexuality, to see that being openly gay in a school like ours is not an issue," says David Parry, deputy head. "ThTHE FACTS

* There are an estimated 25,000 lesbian and gay teachers in UK schools. * An estimated 99 per cent have not come out at work. * 73 per cent of parents say they would have no problem with their child being taught by a lesbian or gay teacher. * Over two thirds of lesbian and gay pupils have suffered homophobic bullying at school. * Half say their teachers don't crack down on homophobic language.

Source: Schools OutStonewalle

most exciting thing is when pupils feel they can come out to you," says Alison. "It has happened to me quite a lot."

Lucy Cuthbertson, a 40-year-old head of drama at Kidbrooke School, a comprehensive in south-east London, feels strongly that teachers have a duty to be frank about their sexuality. "I would have felt like a hypocrite moaning about homophobia then being secretive about it," she says. "It's a matter of principal. If you're not open about being lesbian or gay, pupils won't know people like you exist."

Other than the odd bit of homophobic name-calling during a classroom argument, Lucy reports very few problems as a result of her stance. "My experience is if you're honest and seem unfazed then so are they. Some kids will even fall over themselves to be cool about it. If someone shouts out 'lesbian' in the playground, my reaction is, 'Yeah, so what? I told you'."

Lucy runs a thriving drama department, which has staged plays featuring lesbian and gay characters including Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing and Ali Smith's Hotel World, helped by the school's technician, Holly Cook, a lesbian and former pupil. "The plays provide a balance and allows gay pupils to see characters close to themselves," says Lucy.

For the estimated 25,000 gay and lesbian teachers in the UK, Lucy is an inspiring figure. But according to campaigners, she is by no means typical. Despite the repeal of Section 28 the controversial law that banned the "promotion" of homosexuality Sue Sanders, co-chair of gay and lesbian teachers' group Schools Out, says homosexual teachers are "virtually invisible" in British schools. It's partly down to fear. "Name-calling and abuse are still frighteningly common," she says. Although 73 per cent of parents say they would have no problem if their child was taught by a lesbian or gay teacher, according to the group's most recent survey, an estimated 99 per cent of gay teachers are too scared to come out.

The Equality Act, which came into force last year, means teachers can no longer be sacked for being gay. The exception may be RE teachers in faith schools, although the Government's position is that this should not happen and this has yet to be tested in law.

The "What will parents think?" attitude persists. One teacher who volunteered to speak to The TES backed out after her Home Counties independent school refused permission, citing timing issues. The situation is not helped by the high profile given to cases where it all goes wrong. Last year, an east London teacher was told her lifestyle was unacceptable after asking her Catholic school for paternity leave to assist at the birth of her partner's child, and was asked to leave. In 2003, Shirley Pearce, 55, fought for compensation in the House of Lords after allegedly being driven out of work by a pupil-led campaign that included references to "pussy" and cat food being hidden in her pockets, a case she ultimately lost.

Jenny Latham, 52, sympathises with teachers who wish to hide their sexuality for this reason. A sixth form teacher at Pitcheroak, a special school in Worcestershire, she is out to staff but not to children. At her previous home in Telford, Shropshire, local children, aged from five to 10, vandalised her partner's car, burst the tyres, shot airgun pellets at it, posted a firework through her letterbox, and followed her two young teenage girls around the streets goading them because of their mother's sexuality.

After police involvement failed to put an end to the harassment, Jenny and her partner moved. "It made me very wary indeed. I know what can happen if it all goes wrong," she says. Jenny mentions her partner's name in class and has been seen with her by pupils, but hasn't broached the subject directly. "It is tough. It's still pretty courageous to come out, but by not doing so, you feel cowardly and dishonest," she says.

While most of the teachers The TES spoke to agreed the situation for lesbian teachers had got easier in recent years, many were reluctant to be honest about their sexuality with pupils, particularly considering homophobic bullying between children is rife.

"If you show any weakness there are children who will go straight for it," says Sharon, 38, who works in a pupil referral unit in Bristol and asked for her surname to be withheld. She was victimised by a group of Year 10 girls in a previous job after one spotted her at a gay concert (it later transpired that the child's mother was gay).

Younger teachers were particularly nervous of the topic. Annette, a 29-year old PE teacher in rural Buckinghamshire, says she would never consider coming out to pupils, and this was a source of regret. She was even unwilling to enter the changing rooms at her school, because, "you never know what pupils might say or what you might be accused of". After being spotted leaving a gay pub by a pupil recently, she went to the head in tears. "The child shouted about it in a crowded corridor afterwards. Thankfully it was dealt with pretty quickly," she says.

Louise, a 24-year-old art teacher from Devon, experienced a similar incident. After a pupil saw her in town with her girlfriend, "she got paint on her back during an art class, lifted her top up and asked me to wash it off. I knew it was aimed at the fact I was a lesbian." She now limits contact with her girlfriend in public places.

As more teachers who have been out at school and university come into the school system, the pressure will be on for heads to demonstrate their support. Government guidance to be released this autumn is expected to push schools to take a tougher stance on homophobic bullying. Several local authorities have already started monitoring the orientation of teachers, although this move has been criticised by some staff as intrusive. But teachers like Lucy Cuthbertson are already encouraging others to make the leap themselves. "The more honest you are the safer you are, in my opinion," she says. "And after all, if we're not dealing with this issue in schools, where are we dealing with it?"

LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) History Month promotes events in LGBT history and notable lesbian and gay figures. It runs in February. See www.lgbthistorymonth. for lesson ideas and events. The NASUWT teachers' union holds civil partnerships at its secluded Hills Court Conference Centre in Rednal, Birmingham. Call 0121 457 6100 for more details.


* There are an estimated 25,000 lesbian and gay teachers in UK schools.

* An estimated 99 per cent have not come out at work.

* 73 per cent of parents say they wuld have no problem with their child being taught by a lesbian or gay teacher.

* Over two thirds of lesbian and gay pupils have suffered homophobic bullying at school.

* Half say their teachers don't crack down on homophobic language.

Source: Schools OutStonewall

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