Perspectives #16 - "Miss, are you a Lesbian?"
"Perspectives" is a series of blog posts written by people different to James, the usual writer of this blog: a white heterosexual non-disabled male. Through this series, we will hear from people from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic, LGBT+, and faith communities, as well as women, people with disabilities, and people from a low socio-economic background. Each individual is speaking from their own experiences alone, not speaking on behalf of a group of people. The aim is for all of us to hear voices of those who are different to us, so we can understand and build a culture in our schools and organisations where the wellbeing of all is at the centre, not just the wellbeing of those who are the same as us.
Emily Dixon was a Head of Music for 11 years and recently worked as an Associate Leader. After being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder two years ago (and experiencing a subsequent breakdown), she stepped out of the classroom and into a new focus to raise more awareness in schools about teachers living with mental health disorders and how schools could do better at ensuring a school environment is somewhere where all teachers thrive, not 'just about' survive. Emily will always stand up for injustice, shout louder for those who feel they are voiceless and challenge everyone to act with compassion first, at all times.
"Miss, are you a lesbian?"
This is a question I get asked a lot. It’s a question I’ve learned to answer perfectly, but it’s a question, I believe, I shouldn’t be asked at all, never mind repeatedly on a regular basis. It’s one of many questions that students have asked me, including “Miss, are you a girl or a boy?” and “Miss, why don’t you have kids?”. And it wasn’t like these questions were asked in private! I have been in full flow lesson-mode when a student has decided that moment was exactly the right time to get the answer to their burning question, in front of the entire class.
Like I say, I’ve learned how to manage these situations (I use them as a lesson for the student), but I question why I should have to be put in that situation in the first place. How many heterosexual teachers have ever been asked in the middle of the lesson: “Miss, is it true you’re straight?”.
To be asked to write about my perspective on this matter is particularly important to me to share, as I have experienced life as a teacher from two perspectives, I suppose. When I began my teaching career, I was married and known in school as ‘Mrs Wilson, Head of Music’. She was a character I had subconsciously created over a number of years of living in fear, being consistently told by the Church in my teenage years that being gay was definitely not okay. The mental impact of the pressure I lived with is worth another separate blog post alone, but safe to say, it’s taken its toll at times. I have recently been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and experienced two mental breakdowns. When I finally stepped into my authentic self, I was 31. My parents didn’t react well, friends disappeared, and I was leaving a marriage of eight years. Every day throughout it all, however, I got up and went to work.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t leave work as Mrs Wilson one day and return the next, bursting through the doors to the sound of Diana Ross singing ‘I’m Coming Out’, draped in a Pride flag! It was a slow, personal process, but it meant that, over time, I changed many things about my life, including my name and how I dressed, and my hair style, for example. Don’t forget, I had conformed to the expectations of others for the majority of my life up to that point. I had lived in fear and was told to never question anything. The anxiety this created for me is difficult to explain in this post, without going into an incredible amount of backstory and context, but I trust this is being read with a sense of sympathy and understanding that not every decision I made for my life was what was right for me, but was what I thought I had to do. I eventually realised that as long as I was living for everyone other than myself, I would never be truly happy.
And so, I came out.
Side note: I have a very real problem with the expectation that gay people have to ‘come out’ at all. Again, I turn this around and question if there has ever been a time in a heterosexual person’s life where they have ever felt the need to declare to the world that they are straight? In sex education lessons in schools, LGBT+ content often includes information and statistics about how difficult it is for people to ‘come out’ and will draw on data showing the shocking suicide rates of teenagers who are so frightened to tell the world they are attracted to someone of the same gender that they end their own lives. This is really important information for people to know about, of course, but what message are we sending to people about what it means to be gay? That you have to potentially face rejection? Live in fear? Feel inadequate and not ‘normal’?
I was that teenager, living in fear. I believed the only way I could ever feel ‘normal’ was to force myself to become straight, whatever it took.
Anyway, after coming out, I knew that cutting my hair would cause some kind of response from people I saw day-to-day, particularly the students and colleagues, who knew nothing about my situation until it became quite obvious something had changed. I didn’t realise I’d have to come out to another 1100 or so people all over again! I’d built up to it slowly over time, gradually reducing the length of my hair from long, elbow-length to eventually the short style I have now. I knew people would probably say something, but it caught me off guard every time. Despite what some people have suggested to me, I wasn’t “subscribing to the lesbian look” now that I had come out. I assumed they were referring to the fact I dressed in shirts and trousers and had short hair, as opposed to the long skirts and, let’s say, typically assumed ‘more feminine’ clothes I wore previously. I wasn’t “trying to be a man” and neither was I trying to be “the man in the relationship”, as someone asked me once. Another time, I was asked why I wore lipstick and many, many people have asked if my partner is my sister before I have even introduced her.
I was asked all of these questions by adults. In fact, I found mostly that the students were the ones I needed to worry about the least in all of this. They would often compliment my hairstyle or my choice of shoes – I even had one student shout “Miss you look like a rockstar!” down the corridor! If only we did that more to each other as adults. Imagine how our days would go if we cheered each other on, like that student did, instead of questioning each other, judging our colleagues and projecting our own insecurities onto each other?
In another instance, a few years after coming out, I had started work at a new school and after a few weeks was informed casually one day by a male ‘friend’ at work that the latest joke going around the staff was how similar my hair was to a male colleague’s. He took great pleasure in telling me, in front of other colleagues, that every time he saw the guy in the corridor, he would say “Hi, Ms Dixon!”. The group laughed. Apparently, it’s funny to compare me to a man. Actually, it was so funny that it meant this particular member of staff was so devastated about the comparison, he never spoke to me again. Not the jokers (adults, remember) who think it was funny to mock us both, but me, the one who’s just trying to live my life, just like anyone else. So, we both have good tastes in hairstyles?! What is the big deal? I have great hair. He should have taken it as a compliment! Instead of celebrating our awesome shared appreciation of a fine, sharp trim, I’m left out and ignored because my appearance makes him uncomfortable. There was no need for me to put in a complaint. My words taught him a lesson on the spot, but again, should I have to keep doing this?
So, whilst I have grown in confidence within myself and am now able to walk into a room finally feeling free of any reason to hide, whilst we see far more Pride flags in public and whilst we are supposedly progressing in our attitudes towards the LGBT+ community, I still wake up ready to face the comments, the looks, the judgement, the intimidation and the random questions that might be shouted out in class or asked in conversation to satisfy a colleague’s nosiness. Never once before I came out did I ever experience this and yet, I believed I was stepping into a much more open and accepting society. Never once did I have to prepare myself with an arsenal of quick responses to the influx of queries each day which refer to me, my life, my sexuality or my appearance. It needs to stop.
How we create an environment of protection for the wellbeing of LGBT+ educators is the responsibility of every person but it is of particular importance that the leadership of a school consider how this is achieved properly and not just a tick box exercise. Handing out Pride coloured pin badges for staff is one thing, but it’s so much more than that, as I have outlined here:
1. Consider the curriculum content being taught in your school/subject, particularly in Sex & Relationships Education. Don’t just focus on the difficulties LGBT+ people face when teaching about different relationships. Equally, in a subject like MFL, make sure we are represented in your lessons about families, for example. Watch your language in and don’t presume heterosexuality first. Representation matters. 2. LGBT+ educators are not tokens to use conveniently to be the face of LGBT+ Awareness Month. We should be all be aware every month, every day and aware of our conversations, attitudes and chats behind closed doors. We are usually happy to stand up and encourage participation in the celebration, but we’d like it much more if you were stood by our sides every day and maybe even volunteer to work alongside us as collective effort, every day. We don’t exist for just one month a year. 3. Consider dress codes carefully – not all girls wear skirts, in fact, some boys like to wear them. I would love to live in a society where, if a boy chooses to wear a skirt to school, he’d be welcomed, loved and encouraged. I know most schools are quite flexible with staff dress code expectations, but there are still some very restrictive, presumed standards that schools set, without consideration. I should be able to walk into any workplace dressed professionally and not be questioned about it. 4. Representation - The reason why students ask the questions they have asked me is because I am, still, unusual to them. They haven’t seen many women who look like me in their lives and that is not necessarily their fault. There are young people and maybe adults in your schools who are struggling to come out and the only understanding they have is what they are told by the closest around them. So, our responsibility goes back to my first point: representation matters.
Represent me, please?
* * *