Gay teachers can’t come out because of ‘endless battle’ against homophobia

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Teachers in UK schools are hesitating to come out because of worries around the reaction from their pupils, as well as other faculty members, and a lack of support from school management could be part of the problem.

Speaking to the Guardian, teacher Jonathan, who declined to give a surname in order to protect his identity, said that he wanted to support his students, but felt that he couldn’t if he was not able to come out himself.

He did come out a year into his teaching career, but found homophobic language commonplace in classrooms, and that it was often directed at him personally. He said:

“It was an endless battle, and it ground me down,” he said. “I felt very anxious – sometimes it brought me to tears outside the classroom, and there were times I dreaded going to work.”

He finally addressed the situation with a line manager, but said that she did not react in the supportive way he thought she would:

“She laughed, and told me teachers couldn’t be bullied. I think other members of staff didn’t understand why I was fussing. But if I’d been a black teacher challenging racism, no one would have questioned it.”

Jonathan left that school a year later, blaming the homophobia he had experienced, and has now started a new job, in which he thinks he could come out comfortably, but has not.

The School Report, by Stonewall, found that 96% of gay school pupils had heard homophobic language such as the words “poof” or “lezza”, and that such behaviour is often unacknowledged by teachers. 

A survey by the Teacher Support Network in 2006, reported that two-thirds of LGBT teachers were subject to harrassment or discrimination at work because of their sexual orientation.

It went on to say that 81% of teachers who had received discrimination did so from pupils, and 46% from colleagues. 33% of teachers facing discrimination said it came from their managers.

An employee of a Church of England primary school, Felix, said the reaction of his headteacher was not what he expected, when he suggested he might come out to his year four class. Felix said:

“He said I needed to ask the governors’ permission. I had to tell him I had the right to come out.”

He came out, and was happy but said that problems arose several months later after complaints from a parent. He said:

“The head and deputy head told me a parent had approached them saying lots of parents had said I was having a destabilising effect on the school and was undermining the Christian ethos.

“They then said they thought coming out at a primary school wasn’t age-appropriate. It has been devastating to realise I don’t have my management’s full support.”

Suran Dickinson, of Diversity Role Models, which works with schools with a view to remove negative stereotypes said leadership needs to support gay teachers:

“You need senior leadership on your side; you need to know they have said there’s no place for homophobia in the school. And you’ve got to be in a good place yourself.”

Wes Streeting of Stonewall commented on the problems faced by gay teachers. He said:

“With schools there is sometimes this expectation that teachers maintain a distance from pupils in terms of their private lives. There are lots of good reasons why that should be the case, but it’s really important that pupils have positive role models. And people perform better when they can be themselves. ”

Mr Streeting cited Section 28, legislation which was removed nine years ago, which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools, and which a large proportion of teachers trained under.

Sue Sanders, a spokesperson from Schools Out, a charity supporting LGBT people in the education system, estimated that only around 20% of gay teachers are out to their pupils. She said:

“There’s nowhere near enough support for them,” she says. “I’ve had teachers tell me their heads won’t let them come out. They should fight it, but people are frightened.”

Shaun Dellenty, deputy head of Alfred Salter primary school in London, which has a successful anti-homophobic bullying programme, said that dated misconceptions linking gay teachers to paedophilia were partly to blame, as well as general prejudices. He said:

“Heads are worried that parents and governors will think they are promoting homosexuality. One teacher got in touch with me and said his head had told him not to come out as he ‘couldn’t support him if things went wrong'”.

A spokesperson from the National College for School Leadership said that it had already moved towards fixing the problem, with content being introduced into the National Professional Qualification for Headship, to help school leaders eliminate prejudice-based bullying.