School's out - for some

10th December 2004 at 00:00
Gay teachers are often overlooked for promotion and bullied by pupils and colleagues, according to fresh DfES research. So they - and their gay pupils -tread a fine line when it comes to being open about their sexuality. Two women tell their stories

Rachel, 38, headteacher of a Church of England primary school

I would be burned on a cross if some of the parents knew about my private life. I came out three years ago to all the governors and teachers, though, so that makes things a little easier. Before that, the staff I'm close to had guessed. Five years ago, when I was deputy, one parent governor made a comment to two parents at the school gate that I should be sacked because I was "the biggest fucking dyke in the world". Thankfully, those parents made a complaint against him to the then head. They were upset with what he'd said, and told the head that as long as I was doing a good job in the classroom that's what mattered. My private life should be separate from my working life.

When the headteacher, who didn't know I was gay, came to discuss the governor's outburst, I panicked; I got frightened, and that fear has never left me. Some of our parents are the Old Testament hell-and-damnation types; If they found out I was gay, my relationship with them would be destroyed overnight. We're a nice, small school; the little ones hug my knees, we hug the kids if they cry, and certain parents might construe my sexuality as paedophiliac. You have to be so wary; the school chaplain knows I'm gay and lots of the governors know my partner, yet my world at work could be turned upside down because of my sexuality. If any parents made a formal complaint against me, I'd get the full backing of the local education authority, but they're not there every day.

Children become aware quite early that they might be gay; for me, it was at 10. A few years ago, there was a child at the school who I thought might be gay, and her mum and I chatted about how she might suffer homophobia. I hope I helped her - yet I also felt supported by her. The staff are fine, apart from one woman, who's sexually harassing me. It's made our working relationship difficult, but I don't feel intimidated and my staff think it's funny. We're not allowed to promote homosexuality as a positive sexuality in our sex education classes. I won't tolerate children saying "you're so gay", but I deal with it as if it were a racist incident, and remind the children that we don't put anyone down for anything; you can't help being black or gay. It's sad that they associate gay and lesbian with something bad, even though they don't know what the words mean.

I'm protected by law, and I can ban people from the playground if they're aggressive, but I'd prefer not to have the hassle. So, I keep my sexuality secret from the parent body. Some parents ask about my partner, and always assume it's a male; I never correct them. It's a cop-out, but I'm proud in some respects. I still don't feel safe being totally out; it's sad, at my age, to have to say I'm afraid.

Luisa, 16, pupil in Hertfordshire (name of school withheld) I attend an all-girls school. Some people assume that's why I'm gay. None of the other pupils uses my sexuality to manipulate or bully me.

It's amusing how many people assume that, because I'm gay, I fancy them.

Not so, though it's always useful to have gentle let-downs planned for adolescent 16-year-old girls. I like women - not all, just some.

Friends often ask if people "support" me. I came out when I was about 12 - why would I need support? Sexuality's only a part of a person. My sexual preferences aren't that important to me, or those who know me best. There are shallow, ignorant people - none at school - who hold my sexuality against me. I'm sensitive and emotional, but it doesn't bother me when people say abusive things. After having to explain "gayness" to numerous girls and boys, I'm not bothered if they don't want to know gay people; that's their loss.

I've been targeted by a couple of teachers. One of them told a pupil that I was "open and influencing with her sexuality" - not the sort of behaviour you'd expect. I thought teachers couldn't disclose information to anyone, especially another student. The other is one of those teachers you love to hate. He gave nicknames to some of our class: "Posh Bird", "Big Bird"; I was "Small Boy". A lot of people ask how it feels to be gay. The same as it feels to be straight, is the answer. Another common question is: "Why don't you like blokes?" Replying to 16-year-old girls can be challenging, but when my reply is: "Why do you like blokes?", they're often speechless.

People frequently use "gay" as a derogatory word: "how gay is this book".

I've perfected my "shut it, you ignorant prat" look.

I often get mistaken for a bloke. Last week on the bus, a girl sat on my lap and asked for my number. When her hand was getting too close to my chest for comfort, I explained that I wasn't the man of her dreams. She, her friends, and, most of all, I, found this extremely amusing, and we spent the rest of the journey laughing at her mistake.

A lot of people associate gay women with sport, so when they hear I play rounders, football, hockey and athletics, all at club level or higher, they assume it's because I'm gay. I do sport because, a: I love it, and, b: because it keeps me in good shape and happy and optimistic.

One of my friends met me in the corridor a few weeks ago, and said: "Lu, did you know you're like the Leonardo DiCaprio of the school? Many of the gay and bi girls fancy you." Apart from laughing and telling her to get real, I realised that young people look up to older people. Next year is my last at school, so there are quite a few gay pupils younger than me. If I can be there to talk to them, cheer them up and give them a hug when they're down, I can't think of anything more rewarding.

Being gay is hard, a challenge and scary. Whatever, I love it.

A longer version of this article appears in the December issue of Diva magazine.Homophobia, Sexual Orientation and Schools: a review and implications for action by Ian Warwick, Elaine Chase and Peter Aggleton of London University's Institute of Education is available at

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