Lords throw out gay bullying case

27th June 2003 at 01:00
Lesbian teacher vows to keep fighting discrimination, reports William Stewart

A LESBIAN teacher has pledged to fight on in her marathon legal battle against homophobic bullying after a setback in the House of Lords.

Shirley Pearce says she was forced to take early retirement in 1996 following five years of harassment from pupils at Mayfield school, Portsmouth. They had called her "lezzie shit" and "nasty dyke" and placed an open can of cat food in her coat pocket.

The 55-year-old former science teacher took her case for compensation against the school, which she claims failed to tackle the abuse, to the highest court in the land.

But last week law lords backed the view of the Court of Appeal and two employment tribunals that her case was not covered by the Sex Discrimination Act because the abuse was motivated by her sexual orientation rather than her gender.

Ms Pearce told The TES she was disappointed by her latest defeat but was already talking to her legal team about taking the case to Europe or mounting a personal injury claim against the school.

"I don't feel beaten," she said. "I want to continue because the fact that we have come this far means the issue has been brought out into the open and to public attention."

She said the case had cost her about pound;20,000 in legal fees so far - she has not always had financial backing from her union - and even more in wages and pension since leaving the school where she had taught since 1975.

However, she said that she wanted to continue the case, first heard in 1999, because a principle was at stake, not just for staff but also for pupils who are gay or lesbian or from gay or lesbian families.

"What sort of message does this send out to them?" she said.

Reading out the unanimous Lords' ruling Lord Nicholls said: "The disgraceful way she was treated by some of the pupils at the school was because of her sexual orientation, not her sex.

"Ms Pearce accepted that the children would have pursued a comparable campaign of harassment against a homosexual man."

Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of her union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "Today's judgment is a clear loss for Shirley, and for all school staff, after her 12-year battle against homophobic abuse.

"A victory would have sent a clear message to schools that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation must not be tolerated."

Anne Johnson, Mayfield's chair of governors, said the board was pleased by the Lords' ruling.

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