The Blog

Why Teachers Must Come Out

In keeping with the mantra of gay rights activist Harvey Milk - visibility is key. It is the most powerful tool for social change. Visibility changes perceptions. Visibility saves lives.

When searching for a quote to create a powerful opening for my PhD thesis, I came across the following from Sydney. J Harris: "The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows".

I felt a connection to this quote for two reasons. Firstly because I felt it captured the message of my thesis - to see beyond the one dimensional constructions of gender fed to us by the media. Secondly and most pertinently, I felt it explained what the education system should exist to do. This being to encourage students to see beyond the 'obvious' and teach them that there is more than meets the eye to the everyday social structures that form our normality.

But what happens when this very theory of teaching becomes a lesson that the teacher themselves has to embody? When faced with difficult questions about one's personal life, it is often easier to become a mirror and reflect back to students what you think they want to see. And, irrelevant of the age gap between you and them, human instinct veers towards a dire need to simply be liked.

Now clearly, the personal lives of teachers isn't something for classroom debate and disclosing information about life outside the classroom to pupils always puts a teacher in a compromising position. The thin line between remaining professional and connecting on a personal level with pupils is often blurred and, for many teachers, pupils tend to know whether she/he is married or has children.

The power teachers have should not be undermined. All of us spend a significant amount of our lives being taught, be this in school, college or university. For many of us, there has been a teacher who has changed our lives for the better - someone who bothered to see something in us when nobody else did. Teachers are centre stage in the learning theatre every day and are thus in positions of great moral responsibility.

In light of this, many gay teachers are continuing to shun their positions of authority to influence others through fear of judgement. Research has shown that only 20% of teachers are 'out' to their pupils, with two thirds of these experiencing harassment or discrimination in their workplace because of their sexual orientation.

A brilliant article by deputy head of Bridgwater College Academy, Lindsay Skinner, bought this problem to light for me. In the article she discusses how being an 'out' lesbian teacher has served to normalise homosexuality for her pupils which, in turn, has made people feel safer and more accepted. She also draws attention to the responsibility of heterosexual staff to "shout the loudest" in order to "remove the stigma of discussing sexuality".

It is difficult for any gay person to 'come out' in a work environment but taking that brave step towards doing so will encourage more to follow. If I had been taught by an openly gay teacher who I could relate to in some way, I could have saved myself a lot of pain during my adolescence. Gay role models are still so desperately needed - try naming five 'out' female public figures. It's a struggle to name two.

In keeping with the mantra of gay rights activist Harvey Milk - visibility is key. It is the most powerful tool for social change. Visibility changes perceptions. Visibility saves lives.

As a lecturer who teaches both young adults and mature students, I am proud to say that I often bring LGBT rights into the classroom for discussion. This can result in me hearing upsetting views which I find offensive, but facing this language head on is much more productive than barricading out of both my world and the classroom.

I once had a young teacher write to me via my LGBT YouTube Channel telling me that she had resorted to making up a husband and children in the hopes that she wouldn't be 'outed' at the school she worked at. This deeply saddened me: no one should ever have to go to such measures to feel safe and accepted in a work environment.

Further to this disheartening reality, there continues to be an unfair contextual element to discrimination. If a student were to make a racist comment in the classroom, serious measures would be put in place to discipline them and ensure that it didn't happen again. However, if a student makes a homophobic comment, it is generally accepted that they are 'entitled to their view', especially if it is under the safeguard of religion.

So things need to change. They need to change for both gay teachers and students - and the vast amount of heterosexual teachers and students who have gay family members and friends.

I know I need to do a better job at being a visible lesbian teacher. In my defence, any students who Google me (and believe me, they do) find out pretty fast that I am gay due to my LGBT YouTube channel and my varying forms of online activism. However, this form of visibility is not enough.

I need to stop cutting off conversations when students and staff ask me if I have a boyfriend. I need to be open and honest so that when I come home to my girlfriend I don't feel guilty. I need to speak up because a gay student out there will be watching me and learning from how I interact and, in turn, how the world responds to me.

And finally, for those who have warned against me bringing my 'personal life' into the classroom - I would never do this by choice or by force. It's not about me randomly declaring my homosexuality to a class full of bemused faces. It's about me speaking as casually about it as I do about the car I drive or the town in which I live.

The personal has and always will be political. Teachers are more than the topics they teach; they are also the sleep they lose by not being true to themselves. If you are a gay or straight teacher, I urge you to discuss homosexuality in a normal and encouraging way. I know my children will be immensely happier in their lives through you doing so.