The “different rules” for LGBTQI+ teachers and why authenticity matters.

By Melanie Ralph.

Newsflash:  gay teachers can be fired.  No, this is not some shocking story from homophobic Southern American states, or an  ‘L.G.B.T free’ town in Poland. This is here in Australia.  In 2021.   

Alexandra Greyson, a lawyer from Maurice Blackburn, puts it simply: “Religious educational institutions can discriminate on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation.”  However, they can’t discriminate, she explains, on the basis of colour, age, or disability.  When it comes to sexual orientation, “different rules apply.”

Stories like Karen Pack’s this week on ABC’s 7:30 – which profiles her employment termination by a religious school because of her sexuality – highlight these “different rules.”  They are undoubtedly tragic and disappointing, but they are never surprising, and evidently, nor are they illegal.     

Back in 2013, people got a little bit excited when Pope Francis said it was not his place to judge homosexuals.  “Who am I to judge?” he mused to journalists

While some believed these comments reflected a move towards “a welcoming church” that  “should support all families,” the reality is that these institutions – schools in particular – continue to freely discriminate against LGBTQI+ people.  In fact, federal funding supports this oppressive system in educational settings. 

But does anyone seriously think the discriminatory attitudes of religious schools will change any time soon?

Karen’s story got me thinking about my two extremely different experiences as a gay teacher working in religious schools. 

First, I worked in a Jewish school in North America.  In my first year at this school, I was not open about my sexuality.  But, in my second year there, when my relationships with both staff and students strengthened, I wanted to be my authentic self at work.  This meant giving truthful answers when students innocently asked me if I had a boyfriend or not.    

When I married my partner and subsequently wore a ring, the assumptions that I was married to a man flooded in and I could no longer stay in the closet.  I explained to my wife that I felt the ring had exposed me to even more scrutiny and interest in my private life, so I stopped wearing it at work. 

I decided to meet with my school leaders to ask if they would support me in being out.  To my surprise and delight, they were supportive.  Despite it being a private Jewish school, they had no issue with it.  I’m confident that the school’s Rabbi might have had different opinions to me about sexuality and religion (I mean, duh, I’m an atheist), but we got along just fine, and in the school community I felt valued, safe, and included. 

For the homophobes out there – chill out.   This didn’t suddenly mean that I would start “lobbying” students or proselytizing to them about the joys of being gay, or even underpinning my lesson plans with the ‘gay agenda’ (I’m still trying to figure out what that is, by the way).  It just meant that I could relax and answer regular questions with authentic responses, like my heterosexual colleagues were free to do.  I could then get back to the agenda without fanfare:  i.e., teaching English. 

When I left the school 3 years later, some students told me that me being out as a teacher had a positive impact on them.  Some students just said I was a fun, nice teacher who made English cool. 

Fast forward to a different context in Australia.  Specifically, a private, Catholic girls’ school.  

In my first few weeks there, I turned to my heterosexual colleague in the open-plan office space and casually asked her, “So, what’s the deal for out teachers here?”

Her face contorted into what I think might have been an expression of shock, dread and … pity? (or was it mercy?) 

“You’re gay?” my elbow-buddy whispered.

“Yes,” I said confidently, having just returned to Australia from the inclusive utopia of the Jewish school.

“Don’t say anything about it then.  Not to students and not to staff.  They can fire you for it.”

“No, they can’t…can they?”  I asked.  I feigned composure but inside I was alarmed.  What had I gotten myself into?  Did I fully read the fine print in that contract I signed?  I did – but I don’t think I truly understood what they meant by supporting the “ethos” of the school in my personal life. 

In fact, to make the moment more twisted, I ended up having to console my colleague.  You see, a lot of straight people in these schools are not homophobic.  They just work for a homophobic institution and frankly can’t do much to change that.  On more than one occasion, I found heterosexual colleagues tended to get quite upset when they were made aware of the homophobia and by extension, their complicity in perpetuating it by the mere fact of working there without protest.

As my colleague became overwhelmed with what seemed like shame and despair about the injustice of it all, she whispered desperately to me, “I just don’t understand. It’s just so unfair.  I can’t believe it still exists…I mean, you must be so angry!”  Her eyes welled up with guilt-ridden tears.

“There, there,” I whispered, “You’ll be ok.” Simultaneously, I pictured the entire year ahead of me, and wondered, “but will I?”

On my lunch break that day, I hid in my classroom and called the Independent School Union in Queensland to get advice about my rights.  I was told explicitly that yes, I could be fired, and I was encouraged to “not talk about it” if I wanted to keep my job. 

This was in week 2 of a one-year contract.  I had a decision to make.   I could unfold my pride-flag that is always carefully tucked into my “Gay Agenda” briefcase and wave it defiantly as I walked out the gates.  Or I could keep my sexuality to myself and finish the year without making a scene. 

Due to financial reasons only, I chose to see out the year in silence, knowing that it would be futile to speak up. 

It is sad, yes.  But it is not surprising.  These days, I feel there are bigger fish to fry than persuading the Catholic church to accept LGBTQI+ people.  If the Pope can’t do it, you’ll be waiting a long time before private religious institutions do it. 

My perspective might surprise and challenge readers; and it might even come across as pessimistic.  Though I do not agree with taxpayer money supporting religious schools with discriminatory beliefs, just as I am free to live my values and beliefs as a peaceful atheist, I also believe religious institutions have a right to create a space that reflects their beliefs.  Who am I to judge?

Of course I am supportive of activism in this area that might spur a change in exemptions such as these.  However, I’m not convinced that even this would dramatically change the values and beliefs of religious schools, and therefore the question remains:  would you want to work there?  At the end of the day, teachers must not underestimate the clauses in the contracts of religious schools which currently are legally sanctioned.  If you sign it, you agree to become part of a homophobic system which can fire you.

Oddly, I agree with former Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies’ on one thing, and that is that “it is simplistic to state that a teacher merely delivers academic content in the classroom,” and they do become “mentors” to students. 

It is indeed simplistic, and downright backwards, to think that a teacher’s role in the classroom is only to deliver academic content.  For teachers to be authentic role models to students, they must be themselves.  In fact, research shows that “teachers who have an authentic teaching style are more positively received by their students,” and that “authentic teachers showed a willingness to share details of their life, and displayed elements of their humanity by telling personal stories, making jokes, and admitting mistakes.”

The authors assert that it is not about “limitless amounts of self-disclosure” but rather about teachers “making efforts to engage with students beyond their expected roles in the classroom.” 

I have witnessed some heterosexual colleagues over the years engage in “limitless amounts of self-disclosure.”  Think endless wedding planning or baby updates, or in one school it even involved a female teacher enlisting her students to help cut, paste and glue her wedding invitations.   

While many heterosexual teachers might start the year off with a warm and fuzzy slideshow about their spouse and children, gay teachers are regularly faced with a high stakes decision about how out they can be in their role as a teacher – no matter the school context, be it a religious or secular school, public or private. 

As a gay teacher who has worked in private religious schools and is now out and proud in the public system, I know that the reality for LGBTQI+ teachers is that any disclosure about their personal lives still comes with some risk. 

My advice to LGBTQI+ teachers in religious schools who are tired of staying silent is to get out.  Get into an organisation that truly reflects your values.  And to the heterosexual teachers at these schools who are so regularly outraged by the injustice of homophobia: you too have a choice about your participation in systemically discriminatory institutions. 

I hope Karen will consider continuing her teaching career in the public education system.  Research tells us that public school teachers feel “more able to be “out” with colleagues than in religious institutions. This may reflect an increased visibility, whereas in Catholic schools, diverse sexualities are generally less visible and often explicitly forbidden, providing fewer opportunities for discussion but also observable harassment.”

When I walked out of the gates of the religious school, I didn’t leave teaching behind.  I happily returned to the Queensland Department of Education.   It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s pleasing to know that in 2020, the Department was awarded a “gold standard” for its inclusivity and support of LGBTQI+ employees in the 2020 Australian LGBTQ Inclusion Awards

Additionally, the Queensland Teachers Union have an LGBTQI+ members network, and in 2018, the Department also introduced the Rainbow Liaison Officer (RLOs) program, which involves “employees who have volunteered to become a workplace champion for staff of LGBTQI+ inclusion.”  The role of the RLO is to “provide employees with an appropriate internal contact point to discuss LGBTQI+ issues and concerns.”

Karen’s story is a reminder that on the ground in classrooms, LGBTQI+ teachers continue to face a different set of rules to their heterosexual counterparts.  But in public school settings there is departmental support for inclusivity and a valuing of diversity.  Perhaps more importantly there are no exemptions that allow for legal discrimination.

Which setting is better to work in?  You be the judge. 

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