I’d been a teacher for over 10 years before I felt comfortable enough to just be myself. I had settled into a rhythm. I wanted to be a great maths teacher – why did I have to face the burden of being a role model for LGBTQ students too?
Some colleagues knew about my sexuality. If someone asked about my “husband”, I’d casually tell them the situation. And it was working OK. Then one day the stakes suddenly got bigger.
I had an interview for an assistant headship in a comprehensive in a semi-rural area. I was the only candidate invited back for a second interview. My potential future boss spoke warmly about the ethos of the school and the importance of his Catholic faith. As a member of the senior team, I’d be working closely with this man. I suddenly thought: if he turns out to be a homophobe, this will be a problem. It seemed an important moment – for my future, and for his.
That day, we’d moved house. I’d had to wiggle out of my jeans and into my interview dress in the car a couple of roads away from the school. I was a little flustered as well as having the usual interview nerves. I mentioned that I’d come straight from collecting the keys.
“Oh, why the move?” he asked.
“We need a bigger house now we have twins,” I said.
“Ah, twins? How old?”
He looked at me. I clearly didn’t look like somebody who had given birth to twins a month ago.
“My partner had them – she’s at home with them now,” I said.
And there, I had come out in my interview.
There was a brief silence. “Oh, yes we have another teacher like you – she and her partner are going through IVF right now,” he said. And that was it.
I know a handful of teachers and school leaders who are not out as LGBTQ at work in any way. The majority of the teachers I’ve known who were LGBTQ were out to staff but not to students. I can’t blame anybody in either group. For some it’s because they are not yet fully out in their personal lives. Others are from visible minority groups and don’t want to add something else that they feel will count against them in interviews or for promotions.
Their fears are justified. Stonewall reports that LGBTQ staff across all workplaces who are BAME are more likely to lose their jobs than white LGBTQ colleagues.
And for teachers who are single or currently in a heterosexual-looking relationship, being honest about their sexuality can feel like too much of a statement. Bisexual people are less likely than gay men or lesbians to be out.
One school leader described her inner conflict to me: “I look at others, the confidence they have, the sense of complete ease and comfort, and I want to be involved. Then, days like today when I’m feeling overwhelmed and I’m not OK with it all, I certainly can’t be the ‘role model’. Where does that come from? Self-preservation? Protection? Shame?”
In my lifetime, I’ve seen the advent of civil partnerships and same-sex marriages; IVF rules have changed. In the wider commonwealth, homosexuality has been decriminalised – in India and Trinidad. But in England in 2019 there is transphobic hate crime and we’ve seen lesbian couples being assaulted on public transport in our capital city. Hundreds of parents have withdrawn their children from schools in Birmingham and protested because they didn’t want them to be taught about equality for LGBTQ people.
In such a climate, I would not pass judgment on any teacher or school leader who decides not to come out. Sometimes they simply feel unsafe. How do people know they will be supported – by colleagues, by school leaders, by the government?
In my own case, I had lingering memories of hearing that homosexuality was wrong and recurring thoughts of hell and damnation after a childhood of church on Sundays. And having been educated in the 80s and 90s, with the impact of section 28, which barred “promoting” homosexuality, added to my internalised homophobia. People my age, and especially those who are now teachers, are still living with the fallout from this.
My journey to being open was a long one. Before I became a teacher I was a fleet engineer for a train operating company. None of my colleagues then knew about my sexuality. This was an almost entirely male environment. I split my time between the office and the train depot where pictures of page 3 pin-ups were standard. I didn’t fancy being the subject of banter.
Deciding engineering wasn’t for me, in 2004 I enrolled in Teach First, the teacher training organisation. By now, fed up of being vague about my life outside work, I decided I would be out to my colleagues. It helped that I liked everyone and felt generally supported.
In my early teaching jobs, my policy was to be out to other staff but not to students. This felt safe for me. I was teaching in a faith school. My colleagues were respectful, but I had nagging doubts: would the school leadership support me in the face of any comments from parents or students? I didn’t want it tested.
As I became more comfortable with my sexuality in my private life – my family were mostly on my side – the same became true at work. It was easier when I went to work in a school where there were other openly gay teachers. One, a close friend, was also out to pupils and things were fine.
Eventually, once I was an assistant headteacher, I came out to a Year 9 class I knew well, correcting them when they assumed I had a “husband”. They hadn’t expected me to be gay and asked a bit about if I’d always known, but the lesson carried on as normal. I thought it would be all around the school by the end of the day. But it wasn’t.
I had taught for over 10 years by then. I’d been on a journey – through different schools and on a personal journey of my own acceptance.
Being out has been hard at times. I’ve suffered homophobic abuse in public for nothing more than sitting next to my partner on a train or walking our dogs together. Being out is not an event, it’s an ongoing process. It’s daunting but it gets easier. For me, the journey has been worth it for my own mental health and wellbeing. But I don’t blame anyone for taking their time.
The real onus should be on schools to create an environment that makes staff and students feel safe enough to be honest about their sexuality. I felt able to come out at my interview because the school had a Stonewall schools champion logo on its website. These gestures may seem small but LGBTQ people notice them and they matter.
What I’ve learned: my advice to LGBTQ teachers
• Safety and health first. Look after yourself and don’t feel guilty if you aren’t ready to be a role model for others.
• Find teachers in your school or wider network who you can be yourself with.
• Coming out is a series of steps – don’t worry if you can’t take them all at once.
• Get the support of your headteacher or, if you are a head, chair of governors before coming out to pupils.
• If you don’t feel supported or valued as a teacher who is also LGBTQ, move to another school – check out their websites to get a feel for how they are with gender issues.
• Coming out doesn’t have to be a big announcement in assembly or class. It can be casual and personal in the flow of conversation.
Iesha Small is the author of The Unexpected Leader