Everyone deserves respect at school but, for LGBTQIA+ teachers, coming out can still feel fraught with danger.
When you turn on the television, pick up a book or head to the cinema these days, you’re way more likely to find positive representation of LGBTQIA+ communities than even ten years ago. Particularly in metropolitan Melbourne, we live in a much more inclusive and accepting world than we once did. And yet, we only have to cast our minds back five years to recall the horrendous ‘debate’ preceding the marriage equality survey, or to the hounding of the Safe Schools program. Then there was this year’s federal election campaign, with a hand-picked candidate of the former Prime Minister espousing transphobic opinions.
Ensuring that our education environments are safe, supportive and inclusive for LGBTQIA+ employees is enshrined in Victorian government policy, but experiences on the ground can still vary. We spoke to three teachers about their personal stories.
Beau* says that staying in the closet at school wasn’t really an option for him. “I’m quite flamboyant and effeminate and kids pick up on it,” he says. “They’ll ask you pretty quickly. Then you have that choice of whether or not you are honest and authentic, which will help encourage better relationships with the class and also foster a safer environment for queer kids. Or do you be evasive or lie?”
Being open and honest is the only option for Beau. Although, having also been a casual relief teacher (CRT), he says that having to move between different workplaces can exacerbate any anxiety about the decision to come out. “It’s harder for CRTs, because they don’t have that connection and those supportive relationships with staff members.”
Similarly, insecure work can play a role in the decision. Early in his career, it was harder to land full-time work, rather than short-term contracts. “We worked very hard, as a union, to get more ongoing positions, and through that we got more support to be open,” says Beau.
In his experience, some schools wear their support on their sleeves. “Maybe they’ve got Safe Schools, there might be rainbow flags in the corridors, and some have signs in their staff rooms and toilets saying that you are welcome.”
Others, not so much. “You do get some staff members that are at different points in their life and their own education,” he says. “Just like with racism, sometimes they don’t understand that they’re being homophobic.”
“We worked very hard, as a union, to get more ongoing positions, and through that we got more support to be open.”
He recalls an instance when he was working with a Grade 2 class that were writing about their home-lives. “The teachers all had to model this, talking about their partners, pets and children. And a more senior teacher said to me, “Don’t mention your boyfriend’.
“I was quite offended that here was somebody who was going to talk about their own family, but for some reason thought that mine was less than theirs, and not something that kids should know about.”
It’s stuck with him. “Just like with all of the trauma that we receive as queer people, each time we hear that, it brings up all this other stuff. And it just lingers. We have to do a lot of work to override that, because it’s persistent.”
Beau believes that being out and proud helps counteract that negativity. “All teachers have this desire to give back, and that’s what keeps us in the profession. Being that hero for queer kids, so they know they have that support from a teacher in a safe environment, that’s what I want to embody.”
Jac, previously a full-time teacher and currently a CRT, was on contract at a school when he was about to begin transitioning. “I was strongly encouraged by my principal at the time to no longer teach at the school and to ‘seek other opportunities’, shall we say.”
Sadly, he says this situation isn’t uncommon for trans teachers, who can face not-so-subtle discrimination. “Technically, the department has a system by which, if you come out as trans, you can update your pronouns and your actual gender identity,” Jac says. “You go through a process whereby you sit with your principal and go through a plan to support you through transition.”
This is fantastic in theory. “But my experience was very much a sly thing,” Jac notes. The principal kept asking what their plans were for the next year, making it clear there was no place for him at the school.
“Often in a situation like that, what happens is that the principal’s personal discomfort gets displaced onto the community, even if the community hasn’t said anything about it,” Jac says. “It was a slap in the face, but I wasn’t surprised by it.”
“It was so beautiful, because she’d obviously gone home and practised the acronym to come in and recite it.”
The CRT experience has been predominantly positive, but Jac experienced a lot of anxiety in the early days. “When you start transitioning, that’s obviously the hardest part, because you don’t pass for the most part,” he says. “I would walk into a school, and everybody knows you’re trans. I would literally not go to the bathroom all day for fear of staff responses.”
For a CRT, there’s the added pressure of insecure employment. “So, any school can say they don’t want that person back here. They don’t have to give a reason.”
But there were reassuring moments, too. “There was a group of Grade 6 kids having this very in-depth discussion about whether I was a boy or a girl, which actually doesn’t bother me. One was explaining to the others that, ‘It’s a man’. He wasn’t trying to be rude or anything, so I said, ‘I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but maybe don’t refer to me as “it”. And the boy turned to me, reached out his hand and said, ‘Nice to meet you, brother.’ It was the nicest thing, because it was such a deliberate attempt to cross that divide, to reach out and be accepting in a school where that wasn’t normalised.”
Be the change you want to see
Nicole didn’t plan on coming out at her school, it just “sort of happened”. “I’d shared pictures of my dog, my cat and my kids, and one of the students very innocently asked if I was married, because I’m ‘Miss’. When I said no, they asked if I had a boyfriend, and I said,
‘I’ve got a girlfriend’. It was sort of just in that moment. The sort of detail you wouldn’t think twice about confirming if you had a husband. I thought, I’m going to be as natural about that as I have been in the past and be completely myself here.”
At the time she was in a casual position but made the call that it was the right thing to do, to be true to herself. “If that wasn’t OK, then I was OK with walking away.”
She spoke to leadership about the conversation, in case they were contacted by parents, and they were fully supportive. “Then, the next morning, one of the students came up to me before school and she said to me, ‘I support you and all of the other…’ – and she looked up at me while she was trying to remember the letters – ‘…the LGBTIQA community’. It was so beautiful, because she’d obviously gone home and practised the acronym to come in and recite it.”
For Nicole, that small gesture reinforced why coming out at school was the right decision for her. Because it’s not just for her at all. “To be able to see a teacher, someone they respect, be honest and be themselves without holding back, that means that kids can naturally be themselves too, or know that it’s possible, even if they feel that they can’t. I think that’s a special thing.”
*First names only to protect privacy