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Column: Why should gay and lesbian teachers live in fear for their jobs?

Some teachers are being forced to keep double lives. We need to tackle this now, writes Senator Averil Power.

Averil Power

MARY IS A teacher in a Catholic primary school.

She has been working in the same school for the past twenty years. She is a great teacher; her pupils love how she makes every lesson interesting. Parents are impressed by how well their children are doing in her classroom. The school principal appreciates how she is always willing to go above and beyond the call of duty and help out with after-school activities. And she does a great job every year of preparing her class for their Communion day.

Mary loves teaching. In fact it’s all she ever wanted to do. But she has never been fully comfortable at school.

Instead, she lives with the constant fear of her colleagues finding out that she is a lesbian. This fear emanates from the fact that her employer could use Section 37.1 of the Employment Equality Act 1998 to justify discrimination against her by claiming that her sexual orientation is a threat to her school’s religious ethos. She hopes they would never do this but she feels it would be safer not to test them.

So when other teachers talk to each other about their families and what they did at the weekend, Mary is very quiet in the staff room. She makes a point of only socialising with her long-term partner outside the town that she works in. And while herself and Susan would love to enter a civil partnership to celebrate their love and commitment to each other, she feels that this isn’t an option as it would become public knowledge. Mary is determined that her colleagues will only learn of her relationship with her partner when she brings Susan to her retirement party.

Over the past week, I have received emails from many teachers like Mary welcoming the Employment Equality (Amendment) Bill 2012 which I published recently. All of them make the same point. They don’t want any special treatment. They just want to be judged on the same basis as everyone else – on their effectiveness in the classroom, rather than on someone else’s perception of their private lives.

‘An intolerable infringement of their basic rights as human beings’

The Bill sets out to do just that. It proposes to amend Section 37.1 of the 1998 Act to ensure that schools will no longer be permitted to treat staff or potential staff differently simply because of their sexual orientation or marital/civil status. In addition to protecting LGB teachers, the Bill would also prevent discrimination against teachers who are separated, divorced or unmarried with children. It would also protect such employees in other sectors, such as in hospitals under religious management.

If the Bill is enacted, schools and hospitals will still be entitled to insist that staff members demonstrate respect towards their ethos in the workplace and not actively seek to undermine it. But they won’t be able to dismiss or discriminate against conscientious employees just because they don’t approve of their “lifestyle”.

Freedom of religion is of course an important value and one which I fully respect. It should not, however, be used to permit discrimination which would unacceptable and illegal in any other employment, especially by institutions that are state-funded. And it should not be allowed to significantly reduce job opportunities for an entire group of people.

With 90 per cent of schools under Catholic management, the current position represents a completely unfair interference with LGB teachers’ constitutional right to earn a livelihood. It also represents an intolerable infringement of their basic rights as human beings.

Fianna Fáil has taken the initiative by publishing this legislation. As Micheál Martin has explained, “As a republican party, a commitment to fighting discrimination in all forms is a core value for Fianna Fáil. The introduction of civil partnership by the last Government was a major step forward for gay and lesbian couples. This legislation is another key initiative to ensure that LGB people can live open and happy lives, free from discrimination.”

Some people will say that Section 37.1 should have been amended before now. I agree. In fact, I wish this discrimination had never been legislated for. But as a new member of the Oireachtas, I refuse to sit back and do nothing on this issue just because it wasn’t addressed before.

I am proud that Fianna Fáil has put forward this bill. But equally I don’t see this as a party-political issue. The bill is in line with a commitment in the Government’s own programme. And it is in keeping with the progressive approach that Minister Ruairí Quinn has taken to the issue of tackling homophobic bullying in schools.

It has also been welcomed by a wide range of groups, including teaching unions, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network and BelongTo youth service for LGBT young people.

A commitment to affirming basic human rights is something on which all parties should be united. I am, therefore, hopeful that the bill will receive cross-party support and pass into law as soon as possible.

Averil Power is a Fianna Fáil Senator for Dublin North East. Mary and Susan are not the real names of the characters described above.

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