When a cause for celebration gives rise to trepidation

2nd May 2014 at 01:00
Gay teachers fear being outed over wedding plans, poll reveals

Well-meaning, liberal teachers who want to celebrate their gay colleagues' marriages are accidentally outing them to staff members and parents, gay rights organisations have said. Staff are also outing students to their parents or classmates, mistakenly believing that this is the right thing to do.

A new survey, conducted by the Teacher Support Network, has found that 37 per cent of gay or lesbian school staff are reluctant to be open about their sexuality at work.

The poll of 421 UK teachers and support staff also shows that 19 per cent would not feel comfortable telling colleagues if they were planning a wedding or civil partnership. The vast majority - 84 per cent - said they would not feel comfortable telling students about their forthcoming nuptials.

Separate research, conducted by Aoife Neary of the University of Limerick in Ireland, reveals that even those teachers whose impending marriage meets with a positive response from colleagues cannot be guaranteed discretion.

One teacher, for example, told a colleague that she was planning a civil partnership. She believed that this was a confidential conversation between friends; her colleague saw it differently.

"I was greeted by someone in the staffroom with, `Congratulations!'" she said. "I felt vulnerable in the whole thing, very vulnerable. I thought, no, no, no, this is my private story, this is the story I'd like to keep to myself."

Ms Neary interviewed 15 gay and lesbian teachers working at Catholic schools in Ireland. Although most were pleased at the positive responses they received from colleagues, some struggled with the assumption that they would want to celebrate their weddings publicly.

One teacher was asked to give a speech in the staffroom. "I said: under no circumstances," she recalled. "I didn't want it, because I really was conscious that it's a Catholic school."

Luke Tryl, head of education at gay rights charity Stonewall, said the examples highlighted a worrying trend. "We've heard of cases where well-meaning teachers who want to celebrate their colleagues' civil partnerships or adoptions have led to them being outed," he explained.

A gay teacher's colleagues will often default to public celebration, Mr Tryl said, in order to emphasise the fact that they are not homophobic. "To be fair, we would want to see schools celebrating the relationships - weddings, births, engagements - of their gay staff in the same way as they would their straight staff," he said. "But, equally, some people will want it to be a big celebration and some will want it to be a very private affair. The advice is: treat them exactly the same as you would a straight member of staff."

But it is not only teachers who are being unwillingly outed. Tony Fenwick, co-chair of gay and lesbian teachers' association Schools Out, cites a case of a gay student who came out to his teacher. The teacher was sympathetic. However, assuming that students would be similarly supportive, she outed the boy to his classmates. He was then stabbed on the bus home from school.

Indeed, the Teacher Support Network survey shows that 68 per cent of respondents have witnessed homophobic bullying at school, and 48 per cent have been discriminated against by colleagues or students because of their sexual orientation.

According to Luke Tryl, some teachers have even outed students to parents, mistakenly believing that safeguarding regulations require them to do so. "It's not a safeguarding issue," he said. "You don't have to tell their parents, or indeed report it more widely.

"Some students will want to be very open, to campaign in school and tackle homophobic bullying. But that's not going to be the case for all young people."

Similarly, Mr Fenwick said that many teachers chose to come out in order to act as role models for gay students. "We want more teachers to come out," he said. "But we also need to be sure that schools are safe places for them to come out. And we know they're not."

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