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“Do you have a girlfriend, Sir?” The question alone is one that can paralyse even the most confident of teachers mid-flow, leading to all manner of over-analysing from the would-be Freuds of the class. The enquiry takes on a whole new depth when the teacher in question happens to be homosexual.
It might have been asked innocently enough as an effort to learn more about a teacher and establish more about their own private life. More likely, the question is asked either as an effort to avoid work for yet another moment or as a semi-confrontational attack; to find some ammo that they can dredge the next time they have to attempt simultaneous equations or pen a sonnet á la Shakespeare.
Yet, this aversion on the part of the teacher might seem a little bit premature. After all, a poll taken by YouGov in May this year showed that 54% of Brits support the notion of gay marriage. A statistic that is historically proven to be more controversial than the question of acceptance of homosexuality, suggesting a vast majority of the UK population happy to live alongside gays. Add to this a raft of newspaper articles that suggest that professional sport is simply waiting for an outpouring of comings-out and society at large seems to be a fairly inclusive place. Further still, and a survey of 3,000 adults by NatCen Social Research (and cited in the Times Educational Supplement this week) found that 8 of 10 British parents would be happy to have their child taught by a gay teacher. If the picture is so rosy, then, every teacher should be shouting their sexuality from the rooftops, yes?
Well, no. First and foremost, there is the obviously thorny ground of discussing real-life, personal sexual identity with students and the suggestions that such conversation can raise if taken out of context. Less cynically, but no less truthfully, it’s none of their (or their parents’) business. Granted, there is a culture in this county of assuming heterosexuality until proven, told or suggested to otherwise, but such is pure speculation and not fact (think back to those English lessons on the difference on fact and opinion). For this to be confirmed, we would have to assume that Ms Busybody has enquired of a teacher’s sexuality or marital status which would hardly define as appropriate for a parent-teacher relationship. Why should it be any different to confirm the bed preferences for homosexual teachers, given that the same litmus tests must be applied? Besides, if Mr and Mrs Bigott-Pratt are going to take exception when they find out that sir likes men or that miss eschews heteronormativity then it’s frankly simpler to keep schtum about the whole affair.
In my experience, gay men are overrepresented in the position of school teacher in a primary school setting. Indeed, on my training course, around a quarter of the course was male and, of them, around one eighth to one sixth was openly gay (there was an element of suspicion about some, mind). This is much higher than the supposed numbers in society at large and, therefore, we might deduce that a significant minority of the population is more likely to find exception with a male primary school teacher than a random man on the street. (Women being more heavily present in primary schools makes the maths much harder, so I’ll leave that one to someone better suited.) If 20% of the population feels so strongly about their child being taught by a homosexual teacher in school, then the odds are that at least one parent in each class would feel this way, leaving two potential (in extreme circumstances, it must be noted) courses of action, neither of which are very pleasant: withdrawing their child from that class, having all sorts of knock-on ramifications for the child in terms of education, friends and wellbeing, or else causing all sorts of problem for the teacher, perhaps leading to them having to move schools or putting their profession on the line owing to complaints and accusations.
Certainly extreme but by no means impossible, the above scenarios form the darker side of why I am reluctant to come out to the parents of the children in my class. The unfortunate bottom line is that it is simply much easier and hassle free for everyone to ignore the whole subject and focus on education instead. Indeed, if a child is gay then they are born gay – any well-informed and reasonable person would tell you as such – and the absence or presence of a gay teacher in their life will not change that fact one way or the other. What could harm child, teacher, institution and reputation at large is intolerance and prejudice and, as is the nature of the intolerant and the prejudiced, such views are not easily swayed.
An often-quoted retort in teaching circles on the subject of the gay teacher questioned about his sexuality goes: “Are you gay, sir?”, “No, but it’s very kind of you to offer”. I think I’ll stick to a simple “Get on with your work” in future.
A note from the editor: this post was written by a contributor who asked to remain anonymous, maybe a symbol that the UK isn’t full ready to accept that gay men are also educators.