Article for g3 Magazine‘s May issue.
Imagine the first PE lesson of the new school year, autumn term, 1998. The changing room is bubbling with summer holiday gossip, and is as fresh as the crisply pressed games skirts though it would soon succumb to the smells of armpits and the detritus of corn plasters and crisp packets. B*Witched’s zest for life chirps from the headphones of someone’s Discman but I sit near the lockers, distraught. My PE teacher has come back from the break with a different surname and the prefix Mrs. My 15 year-old self is even more confused than usual; all PE teachers are gay aren’t they?
Everyone’s had suspicions about their teachers at some time, but what’s the basis for them? Whilst I assumed my teacher was gay because she was just more masculine than the other staff, other people I’ve spoken to have made similar assumptions based on short hair, sports wear and even extremes such as “she had a Mel Gibson calendar (obvious distraction tactics – no one fancies Mel Gibson)”. Male teachers who were effeminate also came under question; “we knew by his tight pink knit jumpers and the flamboyant arm flapping accompanied by a high pitched squeal when he laughed”.
But all these descriptions of teachers past inevitably began with “he never actually said anything but we assumed” or “this was never confirmed to me, but I’m pretty sure she was a complete dyke”. The closest thing to actual proof was the occasional out of school sighting: “she was once spotted her in the supermarket with another lady teacher. They were pushing the same trolley. We drew our own scandalous conclusions”. Only one person I spoke to had an openly out teacher: “we went on a school trip with her life-partner, a militant feminist with a rainbow cast on her arm who kept speaking of the dangers of men. She was terrifying. This delayed my coming-out process by years”. School’s Out, an organisation that campaigns for LGBT equality in education, estimates that there are over 25,000 LGBT teachers in the UK. So why aren’t more teachers openly out in the classroom?
Most are worried it would undermine their authority and essentially make their working lives more difficult. As adults we often forget how cruel children can be. Melanie McKay, 25, who is due to start teacher training in September, explains “being gay is something that did put me off teaching a bit, now that I’m going into it I’ve thought about it a few times, what if I’m asked? If I lie and say no but somehow it’s found out then it seems like I’m embarrassed. I would hope that being out when I teach will be helpful to students that might be struggling. I read a few stories last year of teachers that were leaving the profession because them being gay was causing problems, I hope if I do have any issues because of it that they’re bearable.”
Others believe that speaking about their private life to their students is simply unprofessional. Jo French, 25, who is applying for a PGCE in PE states “teachers are under no obligation to talk about any aspect of their private life with their pupils, whether they’re gay or straight. Having said that, I can’t imagine I would go out of my way to lie. You never know, it might help a pupil to come out”. Stonewall has commissioned a series of surveys into homophobic bullying in schools and indeed found that children who did know a gay teacher were 70% more likely to talk about being gay to an adult. But more interestingly their findings showed that the vast majority of homophobia was directed at children who were perceived to be gay regardless of their actual orientation. Likely targets were boys who behaved like girls, weren’t into sports or were academic, and similarly girls who acted like boys or were sporty. And if we couple this with the earlier assumptions about teachers with masculine and feminine attributes it would seem it’s transcending rigid gender boundaries that’s the big taboo. One Primary school teacher described wearing pink in class when one of his pupils approached him and called him a girl. He pointed out that a) girls can wear blue so does that make them boys and b) what’s wrong with being a girl anyway? The kid was speechless.
But it shouldn’t just be the responsibility of gay teachers to question these prejudices. To date the word “gay” is the most used insult amongst school children, even if it’s used as a blanket term use to describe something rubbish. Emma Jones 28, who teaches drama at secondary school explains: “they often say, ‘na, that’s gay bruv’, but can’t explain why it’s gay. They’ve started dubbing things ‘racist’ in the same way. Yesterday I heard, ‘this computer’s so racist’. But I pull up homophobia in the classroom in the same way as racism and get them to look at where the negative connotations come from. Recently one of my kids called someone a spaz in front of me, which I also bring up as negative. He quickly added, ‘sorry miss, I know you don’t like us using that word as it’s homophobic’. We all laughed about it, but it shows they often don’t know the meaning of the words they use as insults. I challenge all these things as a matter of principle rather than something personal, I’d expect my straight colleagues to do the same.”
But many teachers don’t feel confident about raising issues of sexuality. Stonewall’s Teacher Report found that 9 in 10 have never received any training on how to prevent and respond to homophobia and over a quarter wouldn’t feel comfortable supporting a pupil who was coming out. Liz Netherwood, 27, who works in a faith-centred primary school states “some schools get in an uproar about racism but dismiss homophobia, telling children not to be silly. The fact it’s pretty much ignored seems a bigger problem, Catholic schools seem particularly funny about it because they can’t say being gay is ok”. Similarly my sister, Zoe, 17, explains “our school never teaches about other sexualities. We are simply told the religious way of marriage between a man and a woman. We’ve probably asked questions in class, but never got a proper response.”
As a pupil at a Convent school myself, I’m pretty certain my school also ignored the issue entirely. But the fact I can’t think of a single gay teacher that taught me until university probably has a lot to do with the fact I was too busy mooning over tomboyish heterosexuals to realise I was being taught by one. And if in 1998 you’d told me a decade later Sporty Spice would be married and with child, I think I’d have eaten my hockey stick. It’s important to challenge this kind of gender stereotyping, not just because it’s often untrue, but because it’s also a major cause of homophobic bullying. Teachers that do decide to come out at school certainly need to be supported, but they’re also heaped with unfair pressure to do so as they’re more crucially placed to nip homophobia in the bud than most of us. Truth is we could probably all do more to challenge these assumptions in everyday life, not just inside the classroom and not just because we’ve got a vested interest in tackling them.
(due to be published in G3’s June Issue)