To be a queer teacher

At the end of last year, I received a handful of thank-you notes from students. Some of these were curt, parentally imposed words of unfelt gratitude. Others clumsily conveyed an understanding that teachers do work hard. One came in the form of a card wishing me a good holiday with my family, mentioning my same-sex partner by name.

I had revealed my partner’s first name and gender almost two years earlier, during an introduction to new students. I had known at the time that outing myself was transgressive and potentially dangerous; I have since taken care not to tell students these personal details when it can be honestly avoided. Still, this student had remembered and nurtured the knowledge. Here it was, scrawled prosaically on a card in an achingly simple gesture of affirmation. I had to read it through three times to make sure it was real.

There are people who regard my mere presence in a classroom as obscene; some of these people are our elected representatives. It’s hard to quantify the physical and emotional toll this reality takes, and harder still to express without sentimentality what it means to have this burden eased for a moment.

In the co-written article ‘Australian LGBTQ Teachers, Exclusionary Spaces and Points of Interruption’, researchers Emily Gray, Anne Harris and Tiffany Jones explain that LGBTQ teachers inhabit ‘difficult terrain’ – we embody something that for many is still associated with deviance or even criminality, and are forced to negotiate issues of personal identity and workplace discrimination while simultaneously trying to act as a role model for young people.

Every year is a tough year to be a queer teacher, but 2016 was exceptionally bad: it was the year the anti-Safe Schools movement dominated public discussion of education.

Safe Schools began in Victoria to little fanfare in 2010. Its aim was simple: to provide training to teachers and principals on how to address homophobic and transphobic bullying (and in doing so protect institutions against future litigation). Like most educational initiatives, the responsibility to confront these forms of discrimination fell largely on teachers.

The program began to be rolled out across the state through professional development sessions for teachers, and within a few years a nationwide Safe Schools Coalition was formed, drawing funding from state and federal governments and being implemented by various organisations. The work of the coalition and the schools that signed up was largely uncontested until early last year, when a concerted campaign by The Australian and the right-wing backbench led to the rolling back of the program and its eventual defunding. In Victoria, the state Labor government took a different tack: it initially supported the program, but then decided to incorporate it into the Education Department, claiming this move would ensure stability and ongoing funding. In the process, ‘controversial’ staff member Roz Ward was removed from the program.

The anti-Safe Schools campaign was a litmus test for the Australian Christian right – and it proved the right’s power to influence and shape public discourse. But it also revealed the invisible labour of those who work to keep schools safe. Many of the people implementing the program are themselves part of the LGBTIQ community, and their vulnerability to excessive stress has never been more apparent.

Lisa, an experienced teacher in a government secondary school in Melbourne’s north, describes 2016 as a year of great paradoxes. On the one hand, her teaching colleagues were overwhelmingly supportive of her decision to marry her same-sex partner in New Zealand, leading her to feel ‘nothing but equality and acceptance’. This is not all that unusual: in progressive schools, out teachers often experience a degree of safety and even ordinariness in staff rooms. On the other hand, Lisa would listen to the news during her commute to and from school and would end up feeling pilloried. ‘The reluctance to accept Safe Schools has been based on homophobia and transphobia,’ she explains. ‘We seem to be okay with running anti-bullying programs for other minority groups, but when it comes to the LGBTIQ community there is still this foolish fear that this program is trying to turn kids gay.’

Teachers are well aware that beneath the scaremongering lies contempt for – even hatred of – queer educators.

In her book On Being Included, Sara Ahmed examines the racism inherent in tertiary education and the work of ‘diversity practitioners’, those who are co-opted by institutions to take responsibility for diversity issues. Ahmed’s work is instructive in a broader sense: all institutions, and most forms of diversity, create an interplay between the need to take shortcuts and set standards (institutionalisation) and the needs of stakeholders and the community to be represented and included as individuals with diverse needs. The habits of institutions are perceived as necessarily expedient markers of cohesion – for example, the practice within schools of referring to parents as ‘mums and dads’, teachers as ‘miss and sir’, students as ‘girls and boys’ and so on. We must not make the mistake of dismissing these actions as individual habits, but rather recognise them as a process of institutionalisation. To put it another way, schools are heteronormative institutions not only because of the attitudes of some individual staff, but also because they exist as heteronormative institutions.

Nothing brings the heteronormativity of schools to the surface faster than a few critical voices. If diversity work is the labour assigned to – or sometimes foisted upon – people who work within institutions to bring about cultural change, then Safe Schools staff and teachers can be seen to be diversity workers. This labour is important and sometimes radical, but its existence is not necessarily a sign of institutions becoming more progressive. As Ahmed argues, ‘having an institutional aim to make diversity a goal can even be a sign that diversity is not an institutional goal … the diversity worker has a job because diversity and equality are not already given.’ Roz Ward would need no reminder that her work is contingent not only upon funding and systemic support, but also on the presence of heteronormativity. The very fact that such work is needed makes the notion of Safe Schools a visible falsehood: if our schools were safe, we would have no such program; if we have no such program, our schools are not safe.

As a queer teacher and parent, I have watched the media storm around Safe Schools unfold with no small sense of horror. So have many heterosexual parents and educators, despite what the Murdoch press claim. Rabid attacks on young LGBTIQ people and their families are hard to stomach for people who consider themselves progressive and fair. The suicide of queer Aboriginal teenager Tyrone Unsworth brought feelings of rage and grief to fever pitch. The ‘gay agenda’ (or its reboot ‘radical gender theory’) sounds vaguely threatening, but dead kids are a legitimate, visceral nightmare from which all but the most bigoted would wish to wake.

The leftist and nominally centrist media has run an alternative narrative about Safe Schools, often centred on moving pleas from now-adult queers. Well-known queer figures like Magda Szubanski, Jason Ball and Janet Rice joined a chorus of writers like Benjamin Law and Maeve Marsden to lament the lack of support available during their high school days. A quick google of ‘I needed Safe Schools’ turns up a plethora of first-person pieces. Queers all over Australia have, quite rightly, taken the attacks on this inexpensive program very personally. And it is no wonder: all adult queers were once queer kids, whether we knew it at the time or not. The desire to somehow heal the pain of growing up in a homophobic and transphobic world by protecting the kids of today seems an almost universal queer experience. No-one wants the bullies who won against us to win this round.

Among the outpourings of confusion, bigotry, dismay and hopefulness generated by the attack on Safe Schools, there has been a conspicuous silence: queer teachers – professionals who spend the bulk of their working week with young people and who are on the front lines of the battle against discrimination – were largely absent from the debate.

With the exception of Bill Leak’s revolting cartoons depicting teachers as depraved gay sex fiends, little has been explicitly said about teachers at all. This seems bizarre, given that schools are not merely made up of students, parents, principals and departmental bureaucrats. Many LGBTIQ teachers are de facto diversity workers who have dealt with, and continue to deal with, the quotidian costs of this ideological debate (which filters down to every social media platform accessed by teenagers). Tellingly, not one of the practising teachers I interviewed wanted their real name used or their workplace exposed; it is clear that schools remain unsafe spaces.


To be a queer teacher is to be set apart: there is always a risk of being seen as too different, as too much work, as too removed from existing patterns of practice. Anna, a pre-service teacher from Perth, described her reluctance to address homophobia in the classroom during her teaching practicals, even when working in an inner-city government school that is ostensibly accepting. ‘I was very concerned that there was potential that a complaint from parents could reflect in my grades. While I knew the deputy [principal] had no issue with me being gay, I just felt that if I stirred the pot too much, I would become more trouble than I was worth.’ Importantly, Anna was not considering undertaking any radical action at the school; her greatest need was to find appropriate language when offering support to individual students who sought her advice.

Another early career teacher, Avi, echoes Anna’s concerns. ‘I just felt so annoying,’ she explains. ‘As a grad teacher, it is just too much.’ Talking to the head of student welfare at her workplace, a government school in Melbourne’s inner west, was a tricky experience. Although nominally supportive, the welfare officer had a multitude of blind spots when it came to LGBTIQ issues, forcing Avi to adopt the role of diversity worker. Afraid that her contract would not be renewed if she kept highlighting bigotry or pushed too hard for change, she began to keep her concerns to herself. What often hurts queer teachers most keenly is not the potential of parental complaints or the casual homophobia of students but the silence of colleagues.

Where once teachers could be forgiven for assuming students were too young, ignorant or impressionable for direct teaching on sexual and gender diversity, there is now no denying the urgent need for such information to be covered in the classroom. With media coverage of the Safe Schools inquiry smattered over the newspapers in every school library, and the ubiquity of celebrity news about Caitlyn Jenner, Miley Cyrus and other queer figures, there is no doubt that students are fully aware of sexual and gender diversity and impacts of pejorative language. Rather than meeting this awareness openly and frankly, and enforcing consequences for homophobic and transphobic bullying, many heterosexual educators wash their hands of the problem. This not only adds stress for queer teachers, it also increases their workloads.

Students are often well aware that the work of upholding diversity policies at school falls on teachers who don’t fit the heteronormative mould. ‘Homophobic and transphobic slurs have popped up more because of the media,’ Avi confirms. ‘Most of the teachers stay away from it. When I pull students up on it, [the other teachers] roll their eyes. That is the dispiriting stuff, when other teachers don’t see it as an issue.’ The ability of cisgender heterosexual staff to dismiss the diversity work undertaken by queer teachers is one way in which heteronormative power is institutionalised in schools.

LGBTIQ teachers are consistently positioned as the ‘other’: their lives, identities and families are regarded as different, as unrelatable, as potentially harmful. Straight teachers are spared this burden: their family lives are valued as acceptable models for young innocents, as somehow representative of social and moral norms.

This othering is pernicious and pervasive. A male primary school teacher I met at a networking event shared his feelings of betrayal when his husband, who had donated his expertise to help fundraise for the school, was publicly referred to as simply his ‘friend’ by the school principal, someone he had long considered an ally.

Holding hands with a spouse at a school production, dance or sporting match would unlikely be an issue for a straight teacher, but this same action can be fraught – even disruptively radical – for staff in same-sex relationships. This is true even in areas where same-sex couples can be safely affectionate on the street. Several of the teachers I spoke with detailed how their inner-city schools were populated by parents who were largely supportive and colleagues who were open to inclusive practices. But even in these environments there is an underlying notion that LGBTIQ people are not us. Children are understood to be capable of supporting diversity but not of manifesting diversity.

The foundation of the Safe Schools training program is the acknowledgement that every school has students who are same-sex attracted and gender diverse, and that most young people are well aware of their identities by late primary school. Disrupting notions of childhood innocence – and, by extension, childhood immunity to questioning or rebelling against normative pressure – is one of the main accomplishments of the program. It’s also the cause of its most feverish criticism: the alleged leftist conspiracy to make kids gay or trans – a claim that has turned into a real vote-spinner for conservative MPs.

Of course, underneath this pearl-clutching is a fundamental mistrust of teaching professionals and their judgement. Parents and the public take for granted that a teacher may, for example, skip a chapter of a geography textbook and replace it with more up-to-date online resources and an excursion. They accept that a food technology teacher might rejig his curriculum to better serve a class of mostly vegetarian students, or that an art teacher might change an assignment to reflect a currently showing exhibition, or that an English teacher might choose a different film text to suit a particular cohort. All of these professional practices are taken for granted; they are, in fact, invisible, like much of the work of teachers. The capacity to make decisions about what is appropriate for each class – day in and day out, week in and week out, term upon term – is one reason teachers have not (yet) been replaced by automated online courses. And yet, to the likes of right-wing MP George Christensen, queer teachers are always potential abusers, ‘grooming’ students for a desperate, immoral life outside of the protections of heteronormativity. In this sense, all diversity workers in schools are conceived of as deviant and dangerous.

According to Ahmed, ‘the feeling of doing diversity work is the feeling of coming up against something that does not move, something solid and tangible.’ By pushing for diversity, the worker is entering into a frustrating and taxing experience, often voluntarily. Because diversity work creates trouble for institutions, diversity workers are often regarded as troublemakers. For this reason, diversity workers are the ones who most often require industry protection and support.

In Victoria, there are currently no workplace protections for LGBTIQ educators in the lucrative independent system. While there are no reports of teachers being dismissed from private schools explicitly because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, there is abundant evidence that the threat of dismissal is very real. Several teachers I spoke with had previously worked in Catholic or independent schools and had been warned not to ‘out themselves’ to students. Even when teachers are not verbally open about their sexuality or gender identity, they are inevitably co-opted into diversity work; at the very least they are exposed to the frustrations of feeling solid boundaries to inclusion. Academic Anne Harris, a former secondary teacher, shared her frustrations:

I hated [being closeted at school]. I felt that I was a negative role model for the students, not a positive one – because they were seeing a pretty obviously queer teacher who felt that I could not stand up for queerness. I did what I could to be an activist about it, to support queer students (who were constantly drawn to me and outing themselves to me), but overall it felt inadequate.

Government teachers, in Victoria, are well protected against workplace discrimination, and the positive impact of the state government’s insistence on rolling out Safe Schools to all state schools has been felt across all staff rooms. However, at a time when teacher burnout has never been more of a crisis, the invisible labour of diversity workers and the psychological consequences of hitting the ‘brick wall’ need attention.

Meredith Peace, the Victorian Branch President of the Australian Education Union (AEU), understands the importance of supporting staff to ‘be who they are’ at work. The AEU has ‘a very long history of advocating in this space on behalf of members and the young people that they teach, going back decades,’ she says and ‘[they] are working with the Department of Education to make sure that schools and principals are aware of the issues that people might confront and to ensure that diversity in our workplaces is respected.’

One of the barriers to providing this support is a lack of data on just how many LGBTIQ teachers are suffering stress at work. Some may be afraid to ask for support, and some may simply be unaware that support exists. According to Peace, the union does not field many calls reporting direct discrimination, but there is certainly anecdotal evidence that many teachers feel excluded at work by ‘stuff that sits under the surface and that can make people feel uncomfortable about who they are. There are a lot of people who are “out” to [friends and colleagues] but being out in your school community is often regarded as quite different. That is cause for concern.’

This is a problem for all unions, Peace notes. With 2016 data collected by ACON Pride in Diversity showing that almost half of Australians hide their LGBTIQ status at work, it is clear that minority stress is taking a toll across the board, although educators’ proximity to children means that they are uniquely vulnerable when moral panic strikes.

The AEU’s determined advocacy is encouraging, but so much more work needs to be done. To be a queer teacher in 2017 is still to be othered. Right now, the standard approach is to work towards the bland goal of tolerance, rather than a full integration of diversity into the institutions and workplaces that make up the education sector. Even though many queer teachers do not set out to change workplace culture, their very presence as educators has a political dimension. So it is, too, with diversity work: to model diversity and inclusion is in itself an act of education – one that consists of more than just ‘teachable moments’ when challenging explicit homophobia or transphobia, although these deliberate actions are important. The work that LGBTIQ teachers do for their own workplace safety and for the wellbeing of their students is sometimes cast as apolitical by those at risk for taking a ‘confrontational’ or ‘inappropriate’ stance. I would argue, however, that this work is always political. And it is a political project that must be understood as important – and taxing – activist work.

Although overwhelmingly negative, the discourse surrounding Safe Schools has had some positive elements – most importantly, it has drawn attention to some of the blockages in education institutions. Teachers are now better informed in their efforts to tackle both the obvious effects of bigotry on individual students and the systemic effects of heteronormativity. Ahmed is right to reassure us that diversity work – though it feels thankless and endless – is productive. Just by existing, queer teachers disrupt dominant myths and misconceptions; their very presence renders nonsensical education systems built on and invested in heteronormativity. This forces schools to unlearn discriminatory habits, such as assuming all students have one mother and one father. Doing this work can make teachers feel vulnerable and ‘annoying’, but it is precisely through acts of agitation that change becomes possible.

As I write this, many workers in the education and youth sectors are preparing for the Midsumma Pride festival in Melbourne. Between the Safe Schools contingent, individual school groups, families and the AEU, it is likely that the voices of young LGBTIQ people and their advocates will be raised up louder than ever. Among the loudest will be those of teachers, marching not only for their students but also for the young people they once were themselves. The next day, they will put away the rainbow flags and start on day one, term one for 2017. For some, this is braver than any march. Working on the frontlines of the debate about sexuality education is one way to protect our queer youth. It’s one way to enact change, one painful lesson at a time. And it’s work that LGBTIQ teachers should not have to shoulder alone.


Pseudonyms have been used for all practising teachers interviewed, and some personal details changed to preserve anonymity.


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Elizabeth Sutherland

Elizabeth Sutherland is a teacher and writer. She lives with her daughter and wife-in-waiting in Melbourne.

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