This is a personal blog from somebody currently working in the field of education. This trainee teacher tells of her often difficult classroom experiences as a gay woman in the closet.
“Every day, as they say, in teaching is different. Currently, every weekday starts in the same way. ‘Power-mincing’ along the train platform then through the bus station of a provincial Northern town, teacher costume on, Lou Reed or David Bowie blaring through my headphones. It takes a long time to become ‘Ms. Closeted Trainee Teacher’ in the morning.
In the 1964 novel ‘A Single Man’, the protagonist George, a gay teacher living at a time when being gay was illegal, lectures his English pupils, artfully listless and indifferent 1960s youths living with the constant threat of reds under the beds, about the potency of fear. His lecture is specifically about the fear of the majority that a minority will take over and threaten their entire way of being.
Fast forward 50 years and this is a threat that still exists. When that minority is an invisible one that slips through society unseen it is an even greater threat!
I’m a lesbian student teacher on placement in a small town.
This week we discussed an article about David Silvester, famous for saying that England had been “beset by storms” because David Cameron had brought in marriage equality legislation. One of my pupils responded by saying “what gay people do is weird and bad, god will punish them”. Also this week, two teachers talked of the “survival of the fittest in the classroom” with survival tips that included “don’t cry in class”, “don’t be gay” and “if you are gay keep it quiet until you can leave town”.
These teachers are apparently reflecting the reality of how things are, so what have I let myself in for?
I was lulled into a false sense of security before I started studying. I’d seen the work that Stonewall and the Lesbian and Gay Foundation (LGF), based in Manchester do in schools such as the “some people are gay get over it” posters. On placement in the slightly less provincial northern town before this one, some homophobia was effectively challenged. Transphobia came up regularly in the classroom which was not seen as a problem to other teachers unless it was accompanied with sexually inappropriate talk. My partner identifies as ‘trans’ and many people close to me are transsexual or gender non-conforming. Hearing: “Ha, you ladyboy/tranny!” is a surefire way to turn my mood sour and prompt me to use faintly superhero comic phrases such as “NOT in my classroom!”
In my year 9 class there is a boy who set my “gaydar” going from day one, and it didn’t take long for me to see why he had to be sat away from the boys known for their short tempers and small minds. He constantly wishes to fail assignments so he can be moved down to the bottom set. He wants to move to get away from the bullies, but also because his self-esteem and motivation has been ripped out of him. Reading a note he had written about how hopeless his life felt and how he was to blame, sounded like such a sad but familiar gay tale.
Another boy has no respite at home from a bullying macho dad who attempts to “make a man out of his son”. I always thought these types of parents were dinosaurs and this didn’t really happen anymore. Sadly not.
Then there are times when you have hope. Like when you attend a school assembly on anti-homophobia. It was simple stuff on page 1 of how not to be homophobic, but given the extent of homophobia in the school, it’s a start.
I still subscribe to the idea that society will only change for people who identify as LGBT when Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and/or Trans identifying people are visible and seize permission rather than waiting for it. Sometimes though, the negative consequences of being out don’t make this a viable option for everyone.
I may or may not ever be out to students on this placement. As a femme lesbian, I have an invisibility cloak from the most obvious homophobia. However, choosing to wear makeup and glam feminine clothes and being under the age of 55, I also run the gamut of male students objectifying me. I am however quite a strict teacher when it comes to discipline, possibly because I have to work even harder in the face of everyday misogyny.
In terms of advice to other LGBT teachers, all I would say is it’s your closet space and you can choose when or indeed if you want to open it. For some whose closet is made of glass this can be more challenging, but it’s still your choice as to when it is discussed.
It’s OK to mention: “Oh my partner/wife/boyfriend likes that book too” to a student. Why shouldn’t you?
I would recommend being out to colleagues as soon as you can as it sorts the wheat from the chaff and you know early on who will be supportive. Nobody likes the teachers, whatever their orientation, who talk of nothing but their home life with students, but I would say it’s OK to mention: “Oh my partner/wife/boyfriend likes that book too” to a student. Why shouldn’t you?
The kids that flag up on my gaydar automatically seem to be more comfortable contributing to the class when I’m taking their lessons, so perhaps they know or have guessed, or sense a kindred spirit. Perhaps in time I could be a role model for teenagers who still feel alone and like the world is up against them for who they are and how they feel.
As I approach the end of my placement and the finishing line is in sight, I plan to open the closet door and run near the end. I only plan to do this when I know my escape TARDIS is fired up and ready to go.”