Perspectives #2 - "My Wellbeing as an LGBT teacher"
Updated: Jun 20
"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.
Jared Cawley is a primary school teacher working in the international sector. He is passionate about making an inclusive and diverse school culture for everyone and bridging the gap between research and practice in the classroom.
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Being a teacher who identifies as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) has presented its challenges. I believe a fundamental link between identifying as LGBT and wellbeing is safety. At a basic, psychological level, safety plays an integral part in our wellbeing and ability to function as a human. To feel unsafe means that feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and fear are on loop in our everyday lives. If we do not feel safe in our environment, then our wellbeing will suffer. When we have good mental health and wellbeing, we can work productively and creatively, feel a sense of purpose and achievement, build strong relationships with friends and colleagues, and thrive personally and professionally. As a gay man, I am not part of the majority. I am marginalised. The working world is predominately heteronormative, where ‘straight’ is the preferred and encouraged sexuality.
By looking at our recent history, society has not been kind to us queer folk. LGBT people have been spat at, demonised by the press and public, punished and incarcerated by law makers, chemically castrated and driven to suicide (Jones, 2017). The LGBT community have a legitimate right to feel unsafe in today’s world. Across the planet, seventy-three jurisdictions still criminalise private, consensual sexual activity between adults of the same sex. Roughly half of these are Commonwealth countries. Terrifyingly, there are twelve countries which impose the death penalty for being gay (Human Dignity Trust). In a huge number of countries, LGBT victims of sexual or gender-based violence cannot access justice mechanisms or get proper support (Dolan, 2014).
A recent report shows that LGBT people are at a greater risk of being victim to hate crime compared to heterosexual people, where incidents are continuing to rise (Hudson-Sharp & Metcalf, 2016). Also, in the same report, if you identify as LGBT, you are more ‘susceptible to mental health problems than heterosexual people due to a range of factors, including discrimination and inequalities’.
I may have painted a bleak and depressing portrait of the world, but this is the reality for many LGBT people. Being a teacher, it is paramount to work in an environment that is supportive, inclusive and takes your mental health and wellbeing seriously and makes you feel safe being the person you are.
The concept of ‘coming out’ is a political act. It is a form of rebellion against the heteronormative agenda. We spend our entire lives continuously ‘coming out’ to each new person we meet. This can be exhausting and risky. Making the decision to share your sexuality can be liberating, but we just do not know how that person is going to react. Luckily, I work in a school where I feel accepted, safe, and privileged to share my identity as a gay man. However, being comfortable, accepted, and safe is not always the case for every LGBT person; some LGBT teachers may think it is too risky to ‘come out’, as this could lead to discrimination and hostility from colleagues, parents and students.
Over the years, I have had to navigate the difficulties of working in a heteronormative environment and tread carefully about how open I am about my sexuality. I work in an international school where difference, otherness and diversity are celebrated and encouraged. In my school, families and students come from all corners of the world, dozens of nationalities and languages are seen and heard in our corridors and playground. There is a real richness of diversity and cultures. Yet, there are still moments where I question my personal feeling of safety and fear whether I will be accepted or not when meeting new families, students, and colleagues.
Being open about your sexuality in the workplace is a personal choice. I know some LGBT teachers are comfortable to share their sexuality with everyone. On the other hand, I also know teachers who choose to not disclose their sexuality for many reasons. When meeting parents and families, or even colleagues, we do not know their opinions or beliefs about the LGBT community, or how they will react knowing we identify as LGBT. This feeling of uncertainty perpetuates a feeling of unsafety, having consequences for our wellbeing and mental health. This level of uncertainty may prevent LGBT teachers from applying for promotions or moving on to a different school (Lee, 2019). The anxiety and stress of having to ‘come out’ again to new people, or of having the school community take more interest in your personal life due to promotion, may be a risk that LGBT teachers are not willing to take. To question whether you will be accepted due to your sexuality is something heterosexual people do not experience.
Although the UK has made strong advancements in legislation for the protection of LGBT teachers, some teachers still feel fear in their school’s today. Catherine Lee, in her research, talks about the consequences Section 28 had on the education profession. From 1988 to 2003, LGBT teachers were silenced, and their wellbeing damaged by law. This piece of legislation stopped maintained schools from promoting the acceptability of homosexuality. Lee’s research shows that LGBT teachers who lived through Section 28 have a very different experience in their workplace, to those who joined the teaching profession after the repeal in 2003. Those teachers who lived through this persecution are less likely to see their personal and professional identities as compatible and less likely to bring their partner to a school social event (Lee, 2019). Not only should schools encourage and foster an inclusive culture for all but have whole-school practices that are uniquely in place to support LGBT teachers. I think when teachers feel valued and supported, they will feel safe having a positive impact on their individual wellbeing.
What can school leaders do to support LGBT staff’s wellbeing?
Most LGBT school staff will have experienced some sort of battle with their mental health. For a school to be productive and successful, everyone who works there should have good mental health and be supported when help is needed. Here are some tips to support the wellbeing of LGBT staff:
1. Use inclusive language
Making small changes around inclusive language can have a huge impact on either making people feel accepted and/or feeling excluded. If we make staff feel excluded, their wellbeing will suffer. Here are my suggestions:
· When asking about a colleague’s weekend or personal life in the staffroom, be mindful of the pronouns they use to describe their partner. If they do not specify whether their partner is ‘he’ or ‘she’, they may be indicating their partner is of the same sex. Never assume someone is heterosexual and attracted to the opposite sex.
· Instead of greeting your staff team with, ‘Good morning ladies and gentlemen’, say, ‘Good morning everyone’. With this, you have included all genders and identities without assuming everyone identifies with the gender they were assigned to a birth.
· Challenge colleagues and students who use phrases that diminish sensitivity or acting like a particular gender. For example: ‘man-up’, ‘you throw like a girl’, and ‘boys don’t cry’.
LGBT staff need to feel accepted and be shown that their workplace is inclusive. School leaders should proudly show they support LGBT staff. If we do not feel accepted, then this may have a detrimental effect of our wellbeing and mental health.
· This could be by wearing LGBT lanyards, flying the Pride flag outside and inside their school, have displays around school that celebrate diversity and LGBT issues.
· Have your staff complete a learning walk where LGBT is the focus. Can you spot anything in your school that says this is a safe space for LGBT students, families, and staff?
3. Educate yourself to understand LGBT perspective and experiences
Read books and use organisations that specifically discuss LGBT voices in education and whole school approaches. It can be difficult for people who are not part of a minority group to see life from their perspective:
· Catherine Lee’s ‘Courage in The Classroom. LGBT Teachers share their stories’.
· Shaun Dellenty’s ‘Celebrating Difference. A Whole School Approach to LGBT+ inclusion’.
· Andrew Moffat’s book series for the No Outsiders programme.
Dolan, C. (2014) Into The Mainstream: Addressing Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys in Conflict. Available at: “https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Into_The_Mainstream-Addressing_Sexual_Violence_against_Men_and_Boys_in_Conflict.pdf”
Jones, O. (2017, July) Hatred of LGBTQ People Still Infects Society. It’s No Time to Celebrate. The Guardian. Available at: “https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/27/lgbtq-partial-decriminalisation-homosexuality-gay-trans”
Human Dignity Trust. LGBT The Law. Available at “https://www.humandignitytrust.org/lgbt-the-law/”
Hudson-Sharp, N., Metcalf, H. (2016) National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). Inequality Among Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender Groups in The UK: A Review of Evidence. Available at “https://www.niesr.ac.uk/sites/default/files/publications/160719_REPORT_LGBT_evidence_review_NIESR_FINALPDF.pdf”
Lee, C. (2019) Fifteen years on: the legacy of section 28 for LGBT+ teachers in English schools, Sex Education, 19:6, 675-690, DOI: 10.1080/14681811.2019.1585800
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