When we first start to learn important life skills, our success hinges on watching someone else model the task before we try. Leading our own lives isn’t any different from mastering basic life skills; we all have the desire to form human connections that influence us and form our ways of being in the world. We know that young people look up to the world around them and so we try to steer them towards good role models to fight against the negative messages they will undoubtedly consume from the wider world.
Although there are positive role models everywhere, it is more meaningful when a child sees a person just like them in a position of success, in a place where they can connect with them. Young people adopt habits and attitudes by looking at people who share their gender, cultural background, or other life circumstances. When a child belongs to a group that is in the minority, knowing individuals who have succeeded in spite of stereotypes offers hope that their future can be bright. The most common place for a child to connect with a role model is at school.
This is why I find it so perplexing that being a gay teacher in Australia is still such a silent idea. To be fair, nobody is going to stop a gay person from attaining a Bachelor of Education, but it can be hard once you’re in the system.
One of the most significant “no” arguments that got a lot of airplay during the lead up to the plebiscite was that gay marriage would pave the way for talking about it in schools. My question is, why aren’t we talking about it? In any classroom, there will be students with this in their lives – whether it is through having a gay relative, gay parents, or even being gay themselves. At some point throughout their life, they will likely meet a gay person or work with one. For some students, they may not yet realise that they are gay, but are grappling internally with feelings that they can’t explain. They might be looking for confirmation that they are completely normal and loved regardless.
Thinking about this takes me back to 2004. My family had relocated to a regional city in Queensland, and the intent was to lead a quieter life while my father developed his business. I had always known I had those feelings and had never said anything because I wasn’t certain that I actually was gay, because I lacked life experience. In my family and friendship groups, nobody spoke about it. Popular culture at the time didn’t contain many visible role models, or at least none that I had been exposed to. YouTube and social media were in their infancy and so I was somewhat in the dark. Furthermore, the Christian education program at my school had explicitly stated that being gay was not an option if you were to lead an acceptable, moral life.
Towards the end of that year, I developed a close friendship with a girl that turned into a somewhat-relationship behind closed doors. We never spoke to anyone about it because we knew there would be consequences.
During year 12, my senior music teacher resigned and was replaced by a bright and talented teacher who played numerous instruments and rocked a shaved head like nobody’s business. She unabashedly wore jackets with gay patches stitched onto them, and considering where the world (particularly Bundaberg) was at in 2007, this was a bold move. Not only did she impart her amazing musical taste on all of us, but she spoke about the life she had built, complete with a career, mortgage, world travels, a dog, and a (nearly) wife. Suddenly, here was this person who was living proof that I could have the aspirational life I dreamed of with a wife by my side. It changed everything.
Not long after I met this teacher, I came out to my parents. I wrote a song about a woman I loved and sang it on school assembly. I stopped caring what other people thought about my life and lived as my true, authentic self.
This is why the idea of silencing gay teachers is anathema to me. We need to help young people find their voice. It is challenging to do that if we must hide our wedding photos from plain sight. What visible role models will provide are two very important messages to our young people;
- You are not alone.
- Those of you who identify as gay have equal worth and you have just as much chance of fulfilling your dreams as anyone else. Here are people who have walked similar paths to you and succeeded. It is possible for you.
I think every child’s diversity should be represented visibly in the schooling system, through teachers, coaches, parents, students and curriculum materials that acknowledge a variety of life narratives. Only then will we see change and open up a brighter future, not just for some students, but for every student. I think that’s worth standing up for, don’t you?