At the recent NEU Conference, members overwhelmingly supported an urgency motion for all schools to be empowered to teach an LGBT+ inclusive curriculum. Joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted affirmed: “Silence about LGBT+ people is the wrong approach, and fuels homophobic bullying, inequality for LGBT+ workers and hate crime”.
LGBT+ children and young people can face many challenges in educational settings. Many young people are aware of their LGBT+ identity by age 13; however, more than half of young LGBT+ people felt there wasn’t an adult at school they could talk to about being LGBT+. UNESCO global research found homophobic and transphobic bullying at school contributes to LGBT+ children and young people feeling unsafe, avoiding school, missing classes, dropping out, having lower achievement and suffering from poor mental health.
We asked NEU lesbian educators about their own memories of lesbian role models in schools when they were growing up. We heard inspiring stories: “[she] protected me from bullying for 5 years, [she] recognised my difference and gave me confidence every day to be me”. But we also heard shame and fear laden memories: “If anything, seeing the jokes and rumours amongst my peers escalate was very uninspiring and painted a glum picture of the life of a lesbian teacher”.
Lesbian educators also described some of the challenges they continue to face in the workplace: “It has taken me over 20 years to find a setting I’m comfortable being ‘out’ in”; “I am fed up of assumed heteronormativity: I don’t ‘look like a lesbian’ - whatever that means - so everyone assumes when I say ‘partner’ I mean ‘husband’. I do not have the confidence to be ‘out’ in my job”.
Significantly, lesbian educators noted the positive aspects of being out at work: “I get to be a rainbow waving and wearing proud role model to all my students all the time”; “I have found over the last couple of years that the more ‘usualised’ my sexuality has become, the bolder, more genuine and more interesting the questions have been from our young people”.
Many LGBT+ people overcome challenges in education and go on to live successful lives making significant contributions to society. However, these contributions and achievements are often overlooked, excluded or obscured in the classroom.
Lesbian visibility day should not be the only day that lesbians are talked about in school, but it is a useful starting point. We have many inspirational lesbian educators to celebrate in the UK including Elly Barnes and Sue Sanders. And from artists to scientists to sportswomen, there are literally thousands of lesbians who have contributed to every subject area a school teaches about.
Here are some lesbian educators’ top tips on how schools can become more LGBT+ inclusive:
- Studying historic and contemporary LGBT+ role models and discussing how feeling unseen, ignored, questioned, invalidated or mocked grinds people down.
- Having out and open staff: “I’ve had parents tell me I’m an inspiration and that’s in a primary faith school”.
- Having focus days is not as effective as having diversity embedded as part of what we do every day. I ensure that we have LGBT+ books, challenge gender stereotypes, model diverse family groups and challenge the kids on their preconceptions every day during their play [nursery educator].
As one lesbian educator said:
“It is important to me that LGBT+ students don’t have to go through what I went through, and their experiences are better than mine were. That means that schools need to be a safe place for both staff and students to be able to be out as LGBT+ without fear of repercussions.”
Written by Annette Pryce, NEU LGBT+ Executive Member and Camille Kumar, NEU LGBT+ Equality Policy Specialist.