Why do we need LGBTQ teachers to be visible in our schools?
When Margaret Thatcher announced the introduction of Section 28 in 1988 it sent shock-waves across the LGBTQ community.
The piece of legislation was, according to the former Prime Minister, designed to “protect” children from LGBTQ people.
In reality, however, it made LGBTQ school students unable to report incidents of homophobia, limited access to information about same-sex relationships, and left some with the feeling of shame and isolation.
Decades after the introduction of Section 28, a new obstacle has been thrown into the path of LGBTQ teachers attempting to make a difference in their schools.
With ongoing debates and protests regarding the discussion of LGBTQ people in schools, it seems clear that some of those archaic arguments are resurfacing.
Inspired to become a teacher
When Claire Stewart-Hall attended school under the reign of Section 28, she describes a particularly hostile environment for LGBTQ students.
“It was totally forbidden to be associated with anything to do with LGBTQ people at my school, unless it was an insult,” she recalls.
Teachers were overtly homophobic, pushing conversations about LGBTQ people further under the carpet.
“People were very scared to talk about it in case people thought they were gay,” she says, “and it made students scared to discuss it.”
A turning point came for Claire when she met her Sixth Form English teacher, who was a lesbian and open with students about her sexuality.
“She taught me extracts from A Handmaid’s Tale in 1992,” explains Claire. “And when I began writing about the homoerotic overtones, she acknowledged that it was well spotted and was a good example of critical analysis.”
Claire remembers homophobic insults being flung across the classroom towards her teacher, but said they were never addressed.
That said, Claire recalls feeling inspired by her teacher, resulting in herself opting for a career in education.
“I remember feeling like I had a place,” she says of her English classes.
A positive role model for staff and students
Around the same time that Claire attended school, newly qualified teacher, Jason Todd, was embarking on his teaching career in London.
“It was here in Lewisham that I encountered Paul Patrick, Britain’s first teacher in the UK to come out to parents and pupils and retain their job,” he recalls.
Despite the constraints of the homophobic legislation at the time, Jason says that Paul “enabled new teachers like me to negotiate Sections 28, which had the potential to silence the discussion of LGBTQ issues, stories and representations.”
Jason believes that having a teacher that was open about their sexuality enabled students in his school to also feel comfortable to discuss their own sexuality and gender identity.
The school ethos, argues Jason, also played an important part in allowing students and staff to feel comfortable opening up these conversations.
“This experience has had a profound effect on the way I approached my teaching then, and continues to influence my approach in educating new teachers today,” he says.
Should LGBTQ teachers be ‘out’ at school?
Teachers often share aspects of their lives outside of the school gates with students, believes Claire, however for an LGBTQ teacher this is often questioned.
“All this was impossible for me as a lesbian teacher,” she shares. “It was viewed as a political act rather than just factual reference to my family.”
In fact, Claire was warned by her first head teacher in 1998 that he could not “protect” her if she came out to colleagues or her students.
“Whilst lots of people are outraged by this, I felt it was realistic and a genuine way to protect me and be realistic about the institutional homophobia,” she says.
Jason agrees that a supportive school environment is key when a teacher decides to come out to their students.
He says that schools should be “working and campaigning to create the circumstances where people felt able to come out” rather than assuming all LGBTQ teachers feel comfortable to come out.
Both agree that a lot has changed since their earlier experiences in education, but the recent protests outside a primary school in Birmingham has brought back memories from the past.
“The current ongoing protests in Birmingham indicate that this campaigning work is still necessary,” argues Jason.
“The attempts to shut down dialogue are redolent of the way that section 28 could serve to discourage people from talking,” he continues.
Claire thinks that “so many opportunities were missed” to have positive conversations about LGBTQ topics at school.
But says having these conversations can make such a difference to LGBTQ students: “It is a real privilege to support a young person to talk about their sexuality, especially in the context of Britain today.”
Where can LGBTQ teachers go for support?
Not all LGBTQ teachers are comfortable to discuss their sexuality or gender identity with their students or colleagues, without outside support.
Daniel Tomlinson-Gray is the co-founder of LGBTed, a collective of LGBTQ educators who seek to be “visible and authentic in school, for the benefit of LGBTQ students.”
“We know from our own experiences at school that we badly need visible role models; somebody to show us that they are different and they are OK with it,” says Daniel of the need for positive LGBTQ role models at school.
He believes that by having more open discussions about LGBTQ topics in the classroom, this can reduce the number of LGBTQ students who might be feeling isolated and alone.
“The more visible role models we can have in school, the more we can reduce the shocking amount of homophobic bullying children are subjected to, and the terrifying suicide rates of young trans people,” he explains.
More information about how to get involved with LGBTed can be found on their Twitter.