'As a gay teacher I felt I had to switch my partner from a 'he' to a 'she', I felt ashamed'

The posters on the wall said “It’s ok to be different” but LGBT teachers working in denominational schools felt the opposite, writes Niall Callan.

I REMEMBER THE wide-eyed look on our boat skipper’s face the first time he heard me talking about my then boyfriend. “Is that Reese like that actress Reese Witherspoon?”

“No. It’s Rhys like that rugby player Rhys Williams”. The skipper of that rusty old boat was a nice guy but a bit old school and he probably thought “the gays” all worked in hair-dressing salons. He wasn’t expecting to find one standing in front of him, covered in diesel, working on his dive boat in the middle of the River Thames.

A commercial workboat can be sometimes be a laddish place where masculinity is over-exaggerated (photos from Loaded or FHM plastered all over the place) but I never felt uncomfortable there because as far as I was concerned we all had every right to be ourselves at work.

Fast forward a few years, and I had made a big change in my life and moved back to Ireland to become a primary school teacher, something I’d always wanted to do. The school I work in, like most schools, is a lovely, bright welcoming place with colourful positive posters everywhere.

And I felt very uncomfortable, because I didn’t have the right to be myself here.
The posters on the wall might say “It’s ok to be different” but LGBT teachers working in denominational schools often feel the opposite.

The Employment Equality Act, the very legislation that protects you from discrimination in the workplace, allowed LGBT teachers to be discriminated against in Ireland. The Act includes Section 37.1 – which was essentially a loophole allowing religious institutions, including denominational schools and hospitals, to discriminate against people who didn’t fit in with their “ethos”.

This has been described by politicians as having a “chilling effect” on gay teachers, but in reality it was more like a swinging axe hanging over the head of any teacher who was a bit different, be they gay, divorced, an unmarried parent, a person of a minority faith or anyone who didn’t fit into the perfect box required by that denomination.

 I felt ashamed of myself switching “he” to “she”

I had been viciously bullied for being gay when I was in secondary school and I had since always been open about who I was, not in an “in-your-face way”, but in a “No, it’s not Reese, it’s Rhys” kind of way. I felt I had earned that right. But there I was, at the age of thirty, switching “he” to “she” in the staffroom, or avoiding talking about my partner at all. Saying I’d done nothing at the weekend when in fact I’d had a lovely romantic trip to Paris.

It’s hard now to describe how bad that felt or the effect it had on me. It was awful. I felt I was being dishonest to these people I’d spend the next thirty years working with, people who I’d hoped would be my new friends. I felt like I was being disrespectful to my partner, who had been good enough to put up with me changing career and country.

I felt ashamed of myself, to be back to being a seventeen year old boy who switched “he” to “she” to avoid being bullied. I knew it was highly unlikely that anyone in the school would have any issue with me being gay, but at the end of the day, the law had given that school the right to “take action against an employee if necessary to uphold its ethos” and that scared the life out of me.

As it happened, at the end of my first year and after I had broken up with my then partner, someone in the school told me (at a staff night out after a few drinks) that they all knew, they were all fine with it and they were all wondering why I was being so coy about it all. So it was a happy ending and since then I’ve always been happy to be myself at work and my denominational school is one where the “It’s ok to be different” posters actually mean what they say.

The same isn’t true of every LGBT teacher however. I know some who still switch pronouns, avoid talking about their personal lives, even take a ring off their finger walking in the door. The person who teaches your child how to stand up to bullies could well have been being bullied themselves, but not by a bigger kid, by the Church and State.

As luck would have it, there’s a second happy ending to this story. On Wednesday night, I sat in the visitors’ gallery of Dáil Éireann and watched our elected representatives overwhelmingly vote in a Bill which will amend Section 37.1 to end the discrimination faced by LGBT people in schools and other religious institutions.

As is often the case, the political solution wasn’t perfect and involved compromise – the schools retain the right to discriminate against employees based on faith if they wish to – but for LGBT teachers the “chilling effect” is over.

The swinging axe is gone. I hope that all of those working in our schools will feel that they have every right to be themselves at work, join in the personal conversations their straight colleagues are having and be happier people as a result.

They’ve earned it.

Niall Callan is a primary school teacher and member of the INTO’s LGBT Teachers Group. He teaches Senior Infants in a Catholic school in Tallaght.

Read: Dáil passes Bill to make it illegal to discriminate against LGBT teachers>

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