Updated: Nov 18, 2022
There is a lot of conversation on social media at the moment from newly qualified teachers regarding whether they should be open about their sexuality with pupils, particularly in primary schools. Here are my brief thoughts on how teachers and schools should approach this decision.
The first thing to acknowledge is that sexuality is a protected characteristic, and therefore it is illegal to discriminate against it. This means that opportunities cannot be restricted and people should not be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Aside from the obvious concern of acceptance, newly qualified teachers are worried about the guidance in England stating that teachers should not be political and should be impartial. This guidance has been received negatively from many sectors, as it is fraught with issues. Who deems what is impartial? Does this mean that teachers have to hide opinions about every little thing? School visions are in themselves not impartial as they drive an agenda that seeks to improve the school, community and life of all stakeholders, so do they have to be scrapped (absolutely not).
Whilst it is a fair point that we need to be careful that we are not pushing harmful agendas in schools, part of the reason that this guidance has been decried, is that it harks back to a time of Section 28, where the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality was banned in schools. On social media, I have seen many newly qualified teachers concerned that if they ‘come out’ to their pupils, then they are not being impartial and are not adhering to the guidance. But this thinking suggests that sexuality is a choice rather than part of someone’s identity. Being a part of the Labour Party and a socialist, or believing in removing Church from state are part of my personal beliefs and are things that can be changed by conscious choice. Therefore, they are not protected, and I should not be pushing these views onto the children in my classroom. However, my sexuality is part of who I am and if I choose to share this information, I should not be required to hide it. To do so would propel us back to the days of Section 28, which caused many teachers and pupils (include myself) repress who they were, causing a multitude of societal and mental health issues. We wouldn’t expect someone to hide their sex, race, disability or religion, and so asking people to hide their sexuality is tantamount to oppression, and directly contravenes the Equality Act (2010).
Of course, some people have concerns about the word sexuality being used in schools. Obviously, we don’t want to be talking about the word sex with pupils before they are developmentally ready to understand it, but there’s no need to when you are coming out. I have come out to every class I’ve had for the last 10 years, but I haven’t once talked about sex whilst doing so. I always start the school year by showing my class a picture of my family: my boyfriend and my adopted son. I don’t make a big issue out of it, I just share that this is my family. This subtle way of coming out means that I am not discussing sex in any way, but by sharing this image, this visibility means that I can be a more authentic version of myself and enables the classroom and school to be more inclusive. If anyone is concerned about sharing that they are in a same-sex relationship, consider whether others in the school have mentioned that they are in a heterosexual relationship by saying they are married? If yes, then a gay or bisexual teacher has every right to share their family too.
A common trope used by opponents of talking about LGBTQ+ in primary schools, is that there is an agenda of ‘queering’ education. It is true that we do not have a full understanding of what are the biological mechanisms that result in varying sexualities, but what is clear by anyone that is LGBTQ+ is that it is not a choice. Having LGBTQIA+ role models in school may result in more pupils coming out in schools; but this is not because they are being converted (which is not possible anyway), but that these pupils feel that the ethos allows them to be honest about who they are; which is a wonderful thing. There is no conspiracy of ‘queering’ education but as educators (and as humane people), we want our pupils to grow up being comfortable and confident with who they are.
With all of this comes a caveat that all teachers should consider the community of their school. Their individual school and/or community may have latent homophobia, biphobia and/or transphobia, potentially stemming from religious or societal reasons, and so it’s important to get the full picture before coming out, so that the teacher is not putting themselves at risk. If they are in a community where this might be an issue, they need to talk to their headteacher to discuss how they can do this in a carefully constructed and graduated way. There is also the consideration of how this is explained the children in an age and developmentally appropriate way. Of course, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are never acceptable, but we need to accept that some people need to be educated first and that approaching this in the wrong way could cause more animosity in the school community. In my first school, it took me several years to come out and I allowed the community get to know me first. Although that is not the way it should be, unfortunately, that is the way that society works in some areas.
Your school should always have an equalities policy that covers staff as well as pupils. Look at this policy carefully and identify how it supports members of staff to be their authentic selves. A teacher sharing that they are in a same-sex relationship should not be an issue and can be a powerful tool that can enable the staff to become role models to LGBTQ+ pupils and help others broaden their horizons. Schools should never stop a member of staff or pupil from being themselves, but carefully considering the approach to this can avoid issues that may arise from other stakeholders mistaking this honesty for an agenda or being in conflict with their personal beliefs.
For more support on developing your equalities policy, or developing an inclusive approach for LGBTQ+ pupils and staff, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org where I will be happy to help.