The education section of Irish Times includes this article on LGBT teachers in Ireland. As Eoin has previously noted, Senator Averil Power has recently proposed amending legislation to remove the ‘religious ethos’ exemption from s. 37 of the Employment Equality Act 1998; a move that, if supported, would do a huge amount to make teachers whose lifestyles are in contradiction to some doctrinal positions of a religious institution that happens to provide the patronage for the school in question (usually but not exclusively Roman Catholic) feel less vulnerable about being out in their workplaces. Two things in particular struck me about the article. The first was the fact that some teachers whose perspectives were included experienced a positive and supportive workplace, even if it did have a religious ethos, and as a result were comfortable with being out among their colleagues. Others, as is to be expected, felt stymied in being open about themselves and their lives—including their family lives—because of the legal regime. The second thing that I found interesting was the comment by one teacher that he might be comfortable being out among colleagues, but would not be comfortable being out to his students because of possible reactions by parents and also because of the potential for himself or his property to be vulnerable from the student body. Both of these things made me reflect on how important it is to be able to visible as an openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans-person in an educational context from a human rights perspective.
The first part of this relates to the basic principle of non-discrimination relative to teachers and other educational professionals themselves. The reality, in a country where education at primary and secondary level is dominated by religious patronage, is that teachers are among the very small number of professionals for whom an ascribed characteristic (in this case sexual orientation and/or gender identity) seems capable of resulting in perfectly lawful employment discrimination. Of course this implicates their right to equality; can there be an objective justification for this given the dominance of religious institutions in the education system? If we had a predominantly non-denominational education system, then I can see some justification for a religious ethos exemption; as it stands I cannot.
The absolute importance of being able to express one’s sexual orientation is not always fully appreciated by people who identify as heterosexual. If straight, one can refer, without very much fear of any kind of adverse reaction, to one’s spouse or partner; to ‘home’; to what ‘we’ did at the weekend. One can invite colleagues over without worrying about ‘de-gaying’ the house or banishing the partner. One can avoid arguments at home about ‘gay hair’ or ‘camp clothes’. One can go out to the pub or for a walk or to have a meal without worrying about who will see, and what they will suppose. Living ‘in the closet’ can be a truly suffocating experience. Some people do not find it suffocating; they choose for whatever reason to just say their private life is their own business and come to some kind of accommodation with a partner, if they have one, to that effect. However, where someone is closeted because of the possible implications of being anything else for their job it is an entirely different story. It can and sometimes does have serious implications for one’s mental and sometimes physical health; it very often puts extreme strain on one’s home life, especially if one’s partner is out and wants (understandably) to live and full and open life; and it denies one the capacity to express oneself; to express one’s identity. It is perhaps easy to dismiss these concerns by saying ‘your sexual orientation has nothing to do with work’, but we ought not to forget how important staff room coffee, socialising, friendships, networks and so on are to almost everyone in their working environment. This is no different for teachers, and we ought not to expect it to be.
There is also an important point to bear in mind for students in this context. Young people often (although not always) know or suspect that they may not be straight from a relatively early stage and are often almost entirely isolated in that identity. Certainly, things are changing. There are claims that younger people more readily accept expressions of ‘diverse’ sexual orientation now than was previously the case, but we should not forget that homophobic bullying remains a very widely experienced phenomenon by younger people who either identify or are perceived as identifying as other than straight. We do a huge amount of living in school. It is a place where a large part of our identity—intellectual and otherwise—is developed. Students who are straight see role models (either positive or negative) all around them; what do pupils who are gay see? Most commonly either people they assume are straight or people who they suspect are ‘closet cases’. Certainly, they may know LGBT people outside of school, they may have role models in the broader community, and there is a much greater degree of visibility on television and in popular culture now than was previously the case, but who do they know? As a teenager growing up in rural Ireland the answer for me was nobody. Absolutely nobody. Or so I thought. As I got older, it so happened, I realised that the majority of my small group of close friends identified as gay, but none of us dared to whisper that at the time. After all, who would we whisper it to?
This is partially what is and was so liberating about going to university. In university, usually, one sees lecturers and professors who are gay. One can almost always join a LGBT(Q)(W) society. One can take courses in queer theory. One comes alive with an awareness of what exists in one’s world. As a university lecturer I have never had any anxiety about being open about my sexuality. This is a university, after all. Even more it is a law school; if students are going to be uncomfortable with someone who is gay how will they cope with clients who might have actually done bad things? It strikes me as quite perverse to the nature of a university for someone not to be out; in fact, it seems in contrast with the nature of an educational institution generally.
The ability for educators who identify as LGBT to be out if they wish, and to whatever degree they wish, seems to me to clearly be a matter of rights: the rights of the educator, the rights of her partner where relevant, and the rights of her students. Time will tell whether the legislation will reflect this.