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You can’t be what you can’t see – why teachers shouldn’t live in the closet

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 and over-represented in suicide and mental health statistics, 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 implicit forces that propagate institutionalised heterosexual norms can crush an early career teacher into silence. It happens frequently in the independent sector where parental satisfaction = business and lifestyle clauses (aka religious “freedom”) can make it very easy to sack those who do not comply. Even if you don’t consider these factors, the impact of silence on teacher wellbeing and mental health can make some of these positions untenable. In many schooling contexts, there is an underlying message that having an out teacher encourages children to believe that it is okay to be gay. For some parents, this represents a fear of the unknown.

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 homosexuality in schools. My question is, why aren’t we talking about it? In any classroom, there will be students who have homosexuality 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.

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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 attended a very conservative Christian school, and we knew there would be consequences. I finally plucked up the courage to pull one of my favourite teachers aside to tell her about what had been going on. I was not seeking spiritual guidance nor did I need advice about how to change my feelings; what I was seeking was reassurance. Instead, I was forced to see a counsellor and forbidden from telling my parents. When the ‘counselling’ did not produce the desired result, my parents were called into the school. I was asked to leave and walked out in a cloud of absolute humiliation.

After enrolling in a public school, I felt lost and scarred by shame. I never spoke about my past relationship and threw myself headfirst into dating boys, drinking, and other destructive behaviour. I went from being a straight-A student to barely handing in assessments. Towards the end of Year 11, I honestly thought that I had completely screwed up my future prospects. Instead of looking forward to graduation, I feared the future because I had been told that gay adults didn’t have functional relationships and I knew that my career prospects would be very dim considering how little work I had submitted towards my senior certificate. The most traumatic aspect was that I thought I would never recover my academic prowess because of the dark night that had descended upon my mind, sucking all the life out from the inside.

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During that year, 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 profoundly disrupted everything I had been told at my previous school, who was living proof that I could have the aspirational life I dreamed of with a wife by my side. This realisation was the wind that changed the direction of my sails.

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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. A decade on, I have a successful career, an impressive passport, a published book, a dream home, plans to have children, and a beautiful wife, whom I will marry now that the laws are in place. I did not fall into some mythical drug scene. I did not catch a disease. I did not become an outcast of society because of who I am. However, it would have taken me a lot longer to figure this all out, had I not had a visible role model available to me at a very formative and vulnerable time in my life. Without a strong, like-minded influence to model the possibility of a good life, I could have become another statistic.

This is why the idea of silencing gay teachers is anathema to me. If we are to fulfill the mission of the Educational Goals for Young Australians as set out in the Melbourne Declaration, then we need to help young people find their voice. It is challenging to do that if we must cower behind our desks and hide our wedding photos from plain sight. Having a gay teacher will not make a child gay, and furthermore, there is absolutely nothing wrong with identifying as a gay person. What visible role models will provide are two very important messages to our young people;

  1. You are not alone.
  2. 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. 

In the past, gay students have had to navigate these paths without any guidance and I don’t believe it needs to be like that now or in the future. By keeping our teachers in the closet, we are limiting our young people and contributing to a world that divides and separates people on the basis of unchangeable differences. Learning more about these differences will challenge the discomfort and biases that people have and in time, most people will realise that there is nothing to worry about in allowing people to be more open. A child can’t be what they can’t see and pushing their role models into the closet is sending the message that who they are isn’t part of the conversation.

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?

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