Pride and prejudice: how LGBT teachers suffer in our schools

20th July 2018 at 00:00
Over the past two decades, LGBT campaigners have achieved monumental legislative reforms. But bigotry still persists in society – and schools, it seems, are no exception. Martin George reveals how bullying, harassment and abuse are damaging LGBT teachers’ mental health, and asks: how can we drive discrimination out of education?

It is the season of Pride marches, when rainbow flags are waved jubilantly in parades through our city centres, to a cacophony of whistles and cheers, and hundreds of thousands of people celebrate diversity, equality and inclusion in the sunshine.

When it comes to LGBT issues, the past two decades have seen the legal and social environments in England change at an unprecedented rate: equalising the age of consent, abolishing Section 28, outlawing discrimination at work, introducing civil partnerships, and, most symbolically of all, legalising same-sex marriage.

But new research suggests that, while legal equality is now a settled fact, and society may be more tolerant than ever, there is still a long way to go before gay people feel safe and welcome in our school staffrooms and classrooms. In a major survey, two-fifths of LGBT teachers said they experienced bullying, harassment, discrimination or prejudice in their teaching career because of their sexuality, while the same proportion did not feel able to be open about their identity as an LGBT person in their school.

Continued discrimination

Behind each negative statistic lie many individual teachers and school leaders with their own stories of sadness, hurt, harassment or mental health issues.

“I have had three breakdowns. I found myself in Accident and Emergency on numerous occasions. I attempted suicide more than once,” one gay classroom teacher told Tes (see box, page 14). Her traumatic experiences of bullying, violence and denigration from pupils, fellow teachers and school leaders may be extreme, but they are not unique.

Jonathan Glazzard, who leads the Centre for LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Education at Leeds Beckett University’s Carnegie School of Education, began studying the issue because there was only limited research on LGBT teachers and school leaders.

The comments he received from some of the 900 teachers and school leaders he surveyed revealed issues that many people will have assumed no longer existed in schools in 2018:

 

•  “In a previous school, staff actively distanced themselves from me when I came out.”

•  “I have twice been denied promotion and once bullied out of a job.”

•  “Governors found out about my sexuality and made it very clear that they did not support me and wanted me to leave. The deputy headteacher, now the head, attempted to bully me and worked with governors to encourage me to leave.”

•  “A former headteacher tried to treat me differently to a straight colleague with reference to personal photos I wanted to display on my wall – both of which were in non-public/non-student areas.”

 

Glazzard used social media to collect the views of 650 teachers and 250 leaders in UK schools who identify as LGBTQ, which he complemented with a number of in-depth interviews.

“I think what concerns me is that we know that being a school leader and a teacher is very stressful anyway,” Glazzard says.

“There are a whole range of issues that can result in mental health issues: workload, lack of work-life balance, and also the challenges of leadership anyway, but then this is another layer on top of that. If somebody is actually coping with the stresses of being a teacher or leader and yet they have got another layer to deal with on top of that, that’s worrying.

“You don’t expect these issues to still be evident within current society.”

Glazzard’s concerns about the mental health of teachers and leaders experiencing difficulties at work because of issues connected to their sexuality are reinforced by numerous comments he received:

 

•  “When my now ex-colleague made offensive comments, I wasn’t ready to be out at work (new job, etc) and it made me reluctant to come out at all.”

•  “There was only one job where I was closeted – an experience that led to depression and anxiety.”

•  “I did not take time off work but suffered very badly with depression and anxiety.”

 

His findings come as no surprise to teaching unions, whose LGBT networks discuss the everyday challenges that their members face in the classroom. Even the choice of which personal pronoun to use – “he”, “she”, “them”, “they” – when answering a pupil’s questions about their partner can be a minefield.

John Shortell, equalities officer at the NEU teaching union, believes that these challenges are a “hangover” from Section 28, the law passed three decades ago that said local authorities could not “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

In Scotland, Section 28 was repealed in 2000. England followed three years later. Draft new statutory guidance on sex and relationships education was published this week. But the current version has been in place since 2000, when Section 28 was still in force.

“What we are finding is that some teachers are being told not to come out or not to discuss their private lives, and that is generally directed at LGBT teachers, rather than heterosexual teachers,” Shortell says.

“It feels like it is a hangover from those days. I know it has been a while since that piece of legislation [Section 28] was removed, but there is no real solid guidance on what that meant for schools, or what could be discussed.”

He says there is ambiguity, and gay teachers have been left wondering if it is OK for them to discuss their private lives in school.

‘Horrendous stories’ of harassment

The government’s own research has highlighted the problems facing LGBT people in the education sector.

Earlier this month, the Government Equalities Office published research revealing how some LGBT teachers had been “forced” to leave jobs because of their sexual orientation (bit.ly/GEOreportLGBT).

At the same time as it released these stark findings, the government also announced a £4.5 million funding pot to deliver a 75-point action plan that includes more schemes to tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools.

Sue Sanders, chair of the charity Schools Out UK, describes a fragmented school system where the treatment of LGBT issues is “very patchy”.

“Local authorities have far fewer powers, so where local authorities were very committed to looking at diversity and LGBT issues, they have less effect on schools now,” she says.

“You have academy trusts running [schools] now, often not allowing unions to be involved and generally not thinking about equalities or LGBT issues – so it has become very patchy.”

At this month’s Trades Union Congress LGBT conference, Sanders heard “some wonderful stories of schools doing amazingly exciting stuff about LGBT History Month and doing inclusive work”.

But the converse was equally true: “We are also hearing horrendous stories of teachers being harassed, or being told they can’t be out in their school – which is, of course, illegal – and schools giving them very clear information that they would not support them if they were to come out.”

For some teachers who took part in Glazzard’s research, being employed by a faith school presented a particular challenge. They felt uncomfortable being out, or having conversations about LGBT issues with pupils (see story, page 19). But it is also a sector in which Sanders has seen some exemplary action.

“Some faith schools have done some brilliant work because they recognise they have a basic Christian concept of not being prejudiced against people,” she says.

Given what Sanders describes as a “patchy” situation across England’s schools, whether or not they are faith schools, what can be done to improve the situation for LGBT staff?

Reflecting changes in society

One thing that many believe will help to create more inclusive cultures for both pupils and staff is the introduction of mandatory relationships education in all primary schools, and relationships and sex education (RSE) in secondary schools, from September.

Draft new guidance to accompany the change was due to be published this week. It will cover “LGBT issues” and was expected to reflect changes in society over the past two decades, such as same-sex marriage.

Shortell hopes that, with the new guidance, “LGBT issues will become usualised”.

“We will stop having conversations around ‘gay sex’. It will become about ‘sex’, without categorising it, so teachers who are LGBT will be able to speak more comfortably, rather than just focusing on ‘this is what happens in a gay relationship’, which we know is nonsense,” he says.

“Especially if PSHE is a statutory subject, I think that will go a long way to making a culture where teachers can be out if they choose to do so.”

When Glazzard asked LGBT teachers what would help to promote a culture of inclusiveness for teachers in schools, a host of other suggestions emerged, with school leaders often seen as having a key role:

 

•  “Senior leadership promoting openness and equality will filter not only through staff but down through into the pupils.”

•  “Tackling homophobic language in the classroom. Having proactive and honest conversations with students and staff about LGBT issues and life.”

•  “Supportive SLT who are straight but demonstrate they are allies and expect all staff to do the same, regardless of their own thoughts on the matter, because that’s the school’s policy.”

•  “Support from SLT. Positive attitudes being promoted.”

•  “Good training of staff and pupils in understanding diversity. A forum in which to be able to discuss issues.”

 

When teachers do make the decision to come out at school, they have often found it to be a transformative experience.

Glazzard says: “They do it to be role models. Some of them talked about the fact they had come out in assembly in front of the whole school because they wanted to be the role model for that pupil who might be LGBT.

“Some of them talked about pupils who came up to them at the end of the assembly and said, ‘You’ve transformed my life, you have changed my life because you have done that.’

“I think it is about being the role model for the pupils who maybe they did not have when they were at school.”

 

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