Empowering teachers who are LGBTQ+ | Education Support

Empowering teachers who are LGBTQ+

Parental protests against teaching children about same-sex relationships have had an impact on teachers who identify as LGBTQ+. Jonathan Glazzard and Samuel Stones look at teachers' experiences in an increasingly hostile climate.

Before exploring the experiences of teachers who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer /Questioning or Other (LGBTQ+) it is important to acknowledge the historical context.

An important development was the introduction of a piece of notorious legislation in 1988 by the Thatcher government which restricted the agency of teachers. Section 28 prohibited schools from promoting homosexuality or its acceptability as a ‘pretended family relationship’ (Local Government Act, 1988). It instilled a climate of fear among teachers, particularly those who identified as LGBTQ+. Many were forced further into the closet. They were unwilling to disclose their personal identities in schools, fearing that they might lose their jobs. Teachers were afraid to address homophobic bullying or open up discussions about sexuality in their classrooms in case they were accused of promoting homosexuality. Research demonstrates that this legislation continued to impact and influence teachers’ practice for many years after its repeal in 2003.

Although the rights of individuals with LGBTQ+ identities have been strengthened across Europe, international research continues to demonstrate that heteronormative and heterosexist cultures are entrenched within schools. These factors restrict the willingness and ability of teachers to declare their identities in schools. Schools are largely conservative and  teachers who identify as LGBTQ+ negotiate complex personal and professional boundaries. Although many choose to disclose their personal identities and ‘mesh’ these with their professional identities, others will choose to completely separate their personal and professional identities. Sometimes teachers who are LGBTQ+ are viewed with suspicion by parents and other adults or accused of seeking to promote or own ‘gay agenda’.

Our research into the experiences of teachers who identify as LGBTQ+ demonstrates that although some are able to disclose their personal identities and utilise these to their advantage in promoting whole school approaches to LGBTQ+ inclusion, others are restricted from doing so.

Some teachers that were interviewed demonstrated resilience, had high levels of self-efficacy and were assigned agency which enabled them to implement positive changes in their schools in relation to LGBTQ+ inclusion. However, the accounts were not all positive. Agency can be restricted when teachers who identify as LGBTQ+ work in faith schools or in schools located in strong faith communities. We listened to accounts from teachers whose appointments to teaching posts were challenged on the basis of assumed sexuality. One head teacher warned a teacher by stating “I noticed on the form that you are gay, don’t go flaunting it around”. Another teacher reported:

"When I got the job a small group of evangelical Christians had spoken to the Head about my appointment. They said to the Head  “We think you have just appointed a gay and we are not happy about it”. The Head was horrified and ordered them out of the office. When I arrived, I treated them kindly. I wanted to watch the fear behind their eyes."

School leaders have a legal duty to protect all members of the school community from discrimination, either direct or indirect. They also have a legal duty to foster good relations between different groups of people (Section 149, Equality Act, 2010). In addition, they have a legal duty to educate young people about the rule of law (same-sex marriage) as this is part of Fundamental British Values. Finally, in 2020 they will need to implement the statutory guidance on Relationships and Sex Education in the secondary phase and Relationships Education in the primary phase. In the new guidance it is clear that young people must be taught about different kinds of relationships.

In 2019 we have witnessed the tensions between sexuality and religion. Parental protests outside Parkfield Community School in Birmingham in response to the LGBTQ+ curriculum have been replicated in other cities. It seems that teaching young people about different types of identities and relationships is creating a moral panic among some sectors of society. Given this context, the experiences of teachers who identify as LGBTQ+ give cause for concern, particularly if they are working in faith schools or in communities where there is a strong religious connection.

In a potentially hostile climate, it is vital that school leaders stay resilient to parental protests. They deserve support from local authorities, the Department for Education and from Ofsted for carrying out this crucial work.

Schools play a fundamental role in educating children that prejudice is wrong and LGBTQ+ teachers have a right to feel safe and respected at work. A diverse staff team will always be far more effective than one which is homogenous because diversity will bring with it a variety of perspectives which otherwise might not be considered.

Young people also need LGBTQ+ teachers as role models. School leaders can provide positive, enabling environments for teachers who identify as LGBTQ+ through stating clearly their commitment to recruiting a diverse team, including staff with non-normative gender identities and sexualities. This commitment should be reiterated during recruitment and selection events and during staff training. Leaders should provide staff with guidance on how to respond if they are asked about their personal identity by parents, children and other colleagues. The physical environment and the curriculum should reflect a commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion and staff should be supported if their sense of belonging is compromised in any way.

Jonathan Glazzard is Professor of Inclusive Education, Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University. Samuel Stones is Associate Researcher, Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University and author of Tales from the chalkface: using stories to explore the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ teachers, unpublished dissertation, Leeds Trinity University.

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