Trigger warning: this story contains material some people may find distressing.
I was watching The School That Tried to End Racism this week, on ABC iView. Young Alan tugged at my heartstrings in particular. During the process of his class learning about and unpacking racism and privilege, he shared a story of his own experience of racism that he’d never even had the courage to tell his mother about. He later talked about how important it felt for him to ‘be himself’ and set himself free from his past. He healed – right there in the classroom – in front of everyone.
What a powerful message for us all! Firstly, for us to witness a school that is actually helping students HEAL, in the true sense of the word, blew me away. Then, it reminded me of my own story that I haven’t really told publicly yet, or perhaps even really shared with my friends or colleagues.
It’s the story of what it’s been like to be a ‘gay’ teacher in a changing world. It’s a story of sadness, but it’s also a story of hope; because so much has changed since I first started teaching.
It started when I was doing my teacher training in 2005. I asked a university tutor what they thought of people ‘coming out’ to their students. Her advice was not to share any personal information with the kids. She said, it’s not just because you’re gay. I don’t either (she was unmarried, for context). I only talk about my cat. I was disappointed with her response. I knew that as a student and through work experience that many married teachers happily introduced the students to their spouses through story and in real life. So why couldn’t I?
In my first year of teaching, I didn’t tell the students about my sexual orientation until the very end of the year as I was leaving. My partner helped out with a school play and the students were quite accepting. There was another gay staff member at that school, but it was definitely not encouraged to talk about our personal lives with the kids.
In my next position, I did the same thing. I taught at this school for two years and only started talking about my sexuality in my final term at the school. It was a ‘teachable moment’. The students were saying that you can tell if someone is gay, but you can’t tell if someone is Jewish. I think we were talking about WWII. I illustrated my point by sharing my own sexuality – which they hadn’t guessed. It took them aback. They couldn’t believe I was telling them this. They’d been raised in a culture of silence. I remember when I was at school, I’d tried to guess which teachers were gay – I knew there were some. But it was never confirmed. They didn’t talk about it. I never knew until I was an adult when I found out my HPE teacher had been ‘one of them’. We had a fascination about this as kids, although I don’t think we would have cared much had we been told or found out.
When I had my ‘teachable moment’ about my sexuality, I felt obliged to inform my school principal. That’s how it was then. Parents would likely complain. I wanted him to hear it from me first. His response was again, disappointing. He said that a lot of good teachers have had their careers ruined by doing such things and he really wished I hadn’t.
Not long after I left this school (in 2009), a 15-year-old student committed suicide, with bullying being one of his foremost complaints. There was suspicion around his sexuality and many students started to open up about being ‘bisexual’. The silence around the topic started to shift and students knew they could talk to me because the rumours had well and truly spread by then. They asked me at the funeral whether I’d left the school because of being gay. I felt awful that might have ever been the impression as it was certainly not the case. I also carried a lot of guilt that I had not come out earlier or done more to challenge the culture in the school. What things had been left unsaid by this young man because of the silence we’d imposed on ourselves, or had imposed upon us by a broken system?
At the same time as all this was going on, I had been studying for a Master of Education and writing numerous essays on sexuality and gender in schools. I received 100% for an essay on Queer Early Learning Educators and had numerous run-ins with a male classmate who was adamant it was worse for straight male early learning teachers because everyone just assumed they were gay and a pedophile. I thought it was worse for queer teachers because there was no legal protection for them at the time and both genders were often labelled as pedophiles. Queer teachers could be sacked just for their gender or sexual identity from early learning through to secondary. We eventually agreed that both issues were significant.
I’d also been part of a study examining how queer teachers were getting on in schools. It led to the development of local government policy that finally protected queer teachers. Comments like the one made to me by my school principal were now illegal. Principals were required by law to support their teachers and not discriminate (except in religious schools, where they can still be sacked, I believe).
The reality of being a gay teacher didn’t seem to change much though. I left the classroom for a number of years to explore other paths in education, paths where I was accepted for who I was and didn’t have to constantly battle with challenging students and parents. It was better for my mental health. I didn’t feel like I was carrying a hidden identity or that I was walking on eggshells all the time.
When I eventually returned to teaching in 2017 I noticed a drastic difference. While the media was still really sticky about discussing diverse sexualities and genders in schools and arguing against same-sex marriage, the work had already started. Students were comfortable in embracing a new normal. So many kids were ‘out’ as bisexual, pansexual, gender fluid and all sorts of things I hadn’t even heard of. They were talking about their cisgenders and wearing all kinds of hairstyles and outfits. They spoke openly about their mental health challenges and the school was teaching gender and sexual diversity right in the midst of their usual sex-ed and wellbeing programs. I was teaching an ‘extra’ class one day that happened to be on sexual orientation and a student turned to me and asked, “What gender do you prefer miss?” I was taken aback. Never in my life had I been asked this question – not even by an adult. I paused and didn’t know how to respond. Then I simply said, “I prefer women”. The student nodded and got back on with their work. No deal was made of it. No rumours spread. No students looked to me as a gay icon teacher to which they could pour their heart out. They didn’t need to. They were safe.
It was a tough year, however. The same-sex marriage vote took up a lot of our emotional energy. The street leading up from our school was covered in posters of support, but nonetheless, it was a constant reminder of a battle we hadn’t yet won. Two of my immediate family members voted against it. There was a lot of painful media and politicisation of the topic. I received a pamphlet telling me I would be an abusive parent. (it wasn’t written to me or about me, but I took it personally). Thankfully, same-sex marriage was passed. Many tears were shed both in school and out of school.
Later that year, the school celebrated IDAHO day and the College Captain stood in front of the whole school and expressed how proud he was that the school was doing this and that as a ‘gay guy’ he loved how accepting this community was and how much had changed for his generation compared to the ones before. He thanked us for all the campaigning the older folk had done for their sake. I was weeping, and I wasn’t the only one. Us teachers knew what this symbolised. We knew what had gone before. Everything was different now – and it was glorious.
I got married nearly two years ago to the love of my life. A certain two family members didn’t attend for ‘religious reasons’. I haven’t taught in a few years. But I know now that if I ever go back, I’ll be able to talk about my wife just as all my teachers did when I was at school. It won’t be a big deal – even in a primary school. I know that if we ever have kids, we’ll be sending them to a school with much less bullying for having gay mums ( I’m not naive enough to believe there won’t be any). It’s just such a relief.
That is what makes this a story of hope. Real change does happen. Education does heal. It may have broken me, but it healed me too. If we can stop it from breaking our young ones and use it for healing only – just imagine what might happen!
I will probably continue to think about Alan for weeks to come. I’ll think about his courage and how this project has changed his life. I’ll think about his mother who now knows how to help him. I’ll think about. his brave teacher who faced racism and prejudice himself at school and how much he is now healing through this project. I’ll look forward with optimism and hope because the world is what we make it and our battles are not fought for nothing. At the end of the day, what is good and right and just will always win. It just takes time and effort.