When it comes to sexuality we're all liberals these days - or so the opinion polls say. We don't care if our MP is gay, for example. But what about our teachers? Reva Klein asks how much attitudes have really changed
For 20 years, George Evans lived a lie. As far as his teaching colleagues were concerned, he was the archetypal family man who at weekends would take his wife and two children to the zoo or for long walks in the country.
What they didn't know was that he studiously had to keep track of his children's ages and constantly remind himself of their names so that when someone in the staffroom said: "So, your Amy must be nine now?" he wouldn't be caught out.
Whenever there were Christmas parties and other social events that demanded wifely public appearances, George had to think of a new excuse. Sick children, family celebrations, visiting relatives, prior arrangements: you name it, he used it. Not once in 20 years did he have a colleague round for supper, or go out with one for a drink.
George wasn't hiding a seedy past, and he wasn't a social phobic. But, instead of a wife and kids, for the past 25 years he has been in a relationship with another male teacher.
Unlike Ron Davies, Nick Brown and Peter Mandelson, George and his partner aren't politicians or public figures. The tabloids aren't drooling in anticipation of outing them. They try to live quiet lives and keep themselves to themselves in the small town that has been their home for the past nine years. But, like Nick Brown and Mandelson, some people seem to have a problem with the fact that they are gay - and particularly that they are gay teachers.
Although the overwhelming majority of convicted paedophiles and child sexual abusers are heterosexual, the myth persists that gay and lesbian teachers are sexual predators of children.
Perhaps that's why George and his partner have had bricks thrown through their windows, why their car is vandalised nightly, and why fireworks are pushed through their letterbox by local teenagers.
Things weren't always much better when George arrived at school. He has endured a working lifetime of name-calling and anti-gay graffiti scribbled on walls and noticeboards by students. He's been teased and ostracised by male colleagues who have guessed he was gay. At one school fellow teachers made his life hell with wolf-whistles and camp remarks whenever he entered the staffroom.
The psychological toll of living for so long with harassment and the fear of being found out has been profound. "I feel constantly intimidated, even outside school," George says. "And at school there's always the feeling of isolation, as if I'm an outsider." He developed stress-related ailments (ulcers, migraines, high blood pressure) which became so acute that two years ago he took early retirement. "At the end of the day, it's quite a price to pay to conform to an alien culture, to pretend to be something that you're not," he says.
George is now studying for a PhD on homophobia against teachers. "When I applied to do this research, it was the first time I had come out as a gay man. At the age of 49 I realised that I was still living this facade, and I reached a point where I couldn't take living a lie anymore. I felt that the time was right to come out."
Certainly the social climate has never been more sympathetic towards gays. According to a survey carried out by The Guardian last week, the majority of people in this country feel that homosexuality is morally acceptable and have no problem with gay people holding government posts. At a legislative level, despite being thrown out by the House of Lords in the summer, a Bill to lower the age of consent for homosexuals to 16 is likely to succeed the second time around. And the Government has pledged to repeal the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act that prohibits local authorities from "promoting homosexuality". But there are still thousands of gay, lesbian and bisexual teachers who hide their sexuality for fear of being victimised, abused or sacked.
George is convinced that if he had come out in the kinds of communities he has taught in he would have lost his job. But it's not only older teachers who are frightened to come out. Sue Sanders, a former teacher and activist in School's Out, the organisation for gay, lesbian and bisexual teachers, recently received a call from a young student teacher who was planning to write a thesis on homophobia in schools in southern England.
"She was advised by her tutor to choose a different topic," says Ms Sanders, "because when she goes for a job interview the odds would be stacked against her if they thought she was a lesbian."
Although there is no way of quantifying homophobia against teachers, Sue Sanders and other activists believe that for every gay, lesbian and bisexual teacher who is "out" at work and accepted by their school community, there are many, many more who are still firmly in the closet. Paul Patrick, founder member of School's Out and currently teaching at an FE college in east Lancashire, reckons that less than 1 per cent of gay teachers have revealed their sexual orientation at work, although there are big geographical variations.
"At the college where I work, there are eight gay staff that I know of personally," says Mr Patrick. "All are out to some of the friends they work with, but I'm the only one completely out at college. They've all got happy lives and are comfortable with themselves, but they've chosen not to come out."
Their position, and George's, begs the question of why a gay, lesbian or bisexual teacher would choose to come out at school. Is it anybody's business whom they choose to have relationships with outside working hours?
Paul Patrick is adamant that "it is the kids' business. The culture of a school depends on the diversity of staff and the staff sharing that diversity with pupils. How can young people learn that bisexuality and homosexuality are okay if they don't have it shown to be valid by teachers?" George Evans would attest to the dreadful consequences for teachers of pupils thinking it's "not okay". But homophobia against children is an equally pressing problem. In a London Institute of Education survey commissioned by the gay campaign groups Stonewall and the Terrence Higgins Trust last spring, more than 80 per cent of schools reported verbal homophobic bullying and over a quarter reported physical assaults on pupils who were perceived as gay. Only 6 per cent of schools said they had policies on homophobic bullying.
In such an atmosphere, coming out - whether by pupils or teachers - takes great courage. When she was supply teaching at a comprehensive in south-east London, Sue Sanders knew that because of the way she looked, and particularly as she has always worn a pink or black triangle, she would face the inevitable questions. "They'd start with, 'Are you married?' Then they go on to, 'Are you in a relationship?' Then they'd finally come out with what they wanted to know all along: 'Are you a lesbian, miss?' And I'd say, 'Yes'."
Being out as a teacher has had its ups and downs for Sue. But she was fuelled by the belief that, in her words, "it's hypocrisy for teachers not to be as open as they expect kids to be. Not everyone will be comfortable with that. But when I'm out as a lesbian in school I'm not talking about what I do in bed but about stereotypes and discrimination and what we do to each other as people."
But the vast majority of gay, lesbian and bisexual teachers are, unlike Sue Sanders, saying nothing at all, in the hope that they'll be left alone. And it is they who are most at risk of being victimised, according to Paul Patrick. "The people who tend to lose their jobs are generally isolated and unsupported in their schools and tend to be outed by pupils who've seen them entering a gay club or something like that," he says. "Their headteachers tell them it's 'best go along quietly - you don't want everyone to know, do you?' But once you're out and have connections with the union and with staff at your school, nobody's going to try to fire you."
Each of the major teaching unions, including the National Association of Headteachers and Unison, has an officer or working group devoted to gay, lesbian and bisexual issues, and legal departments that will support teachers facing discrimination at work.
John Burns is national secretary of School's Out and is on the NUT's Task Force for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Teachers. Tel: 0181 685 9429.
Sue Sanders of School's Out gives telephone support to gay and lesbian teachers. Tel: 0171 635 0476