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Column: 'You couldn’t let your students know you were gay, so you had to hide it from them'

Teachers encourage their pupils to be kind, upstanding citizens but sometimes the teachers themselves are faced with challenging attitudes in the workplace, writes Sheila Nunan.

Sheila Nunan INTO

IF A NATION’S greatness depends upon the education of its people, then surely teachers play a pivotal role in unlocking the potential of a generation.

Teachers encourage their pupils to be kind, upstanding citizens but sometimes the teachers themselves are faced with challenging attitudes in the workplace. Recently, LGBT+ teachers, from primary schools across the country, shared stories of their experiences in Irish schools.

Shared Experience

On RTÉ Morning Ireland recently, Damian McGrath, now retired, spoke of his time as a young teacher in 1979. “When I was a young teacher, you were afraid, you were ashamed of being [openly] gay with your colleagues and you certainly felt that you couldn’t let your students know you were gay, so you had to hide it from them and I think doubly so hiding it from their parents. This whole mask was being maintained.”

Jean Louise McCarthy, a relatively new teacher, reflected on the impact of changes to the Equality Act in 2015 which sought to rebalance the rights of the employee with those of the ethos of religious institutions:

The law is changed but there’s still the schools where you cannot be yourself. I now have permanency, and this is the first time that I’ve been openly out and comfortable being out as a gay woman. You’re constantly censoring yourself, you say ‘my partner’, you use the plural, you say ‘they’ instead of ‘she’ or ‘he’, depending who it is, it’s a constant battle with yourself – do I show who I really am, or do I protect my job?

Others spoke of the ever-present fear of becoming the next big scandal in the school, of having a parent demand that they be removed from a classroom.

Sean Hegarty, secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation’s (INTO’s) LGBT Group confirms similar stories are regularly heard by the group and confirms that school leaders can play a critical role in creating environments of inclusion.

Solidarity

The INTO, the nation’s oldest and largest education union, sought to share these stories of gay teachers to encourage debate and a better understanding of the issues that still exist in schools. In fact, INTO were the first teaching union in Ireland to create an LGBT group to support and advocate for LGBT+ teachers within the membership.

Ahead of Dublin Pride, the INTO also temporarily re-branded, in a show of support and solidarity with LGBT+ teachers, students and the wider community in Ireland.

While Pride is a celebration of the advances that the LGBT+ community has made over many years, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the challenges that remain. In a country where you can marry your same-sex partner yet be attacked for holding their hand in public, or where so many remain in the closet professionally in so many sectors for fear of bias and discrimination, it’s clear more remains to be done.

A specially-commissioned INTO pride logo, reflecting INTO’s 150-year journey has been created and is being used across the organisation for the week of 25 June 2018, coinciding with Dublin Pride weekend where INTO’s Teachers’ LGBT Group will be marching.

As we reflect on INTO’s 150-year journey of activism and advocacy, it’s important that we also look forward and face the challenges that remain. INTO has always worked with its LGBT+ members to make classrooms and schools a place of inclusion where teachers are free to be their authentic selves.

INTO recognises, however, the ongoing challenges facing not just LGBT+ teachers but the wider community and our small gesture ahead of Dublin Pride is aimed at demonstrating our commitment as an ally in the coming years.

Sheila Nunan is the General Secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation.

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Sheila Nunan  / INTO

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