Feature: My experience as a closeted gay teacher in Ireland: 'I want to say I fought for my equal rights'
Amending Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act is a start when it comes to protecting gay rights in the workplace, but does it go far enough?
This piece was written for JOE by a teacher in rural Ireland who fears discrimination if he were to come out as gay. He has asked to remain anonymous.
The piece begins...
When I was asked to do a piece on my experiences of being a gay teacher in Ireland, I was enthusiastic.
It was a chance to give an insight into how some LGBT teachers still feel in their workplace today and I was assured that my story may be relevant to others throughout the country in some way or another. So sure, why not? Let’s do it! And that’s when the fear kicked in, followed by a million reasons why I was absolutely crazy to be even contemplating this.
These reasons I will come to shortly, but after some persuasion, serious thought and advice from friends, I eventually came to the conclusion that it was a risk worth taking. Anonymity assured, keyboard at the ready, I (cautiously) began to type.
To most people reading this, I am sure this comes across as a complete over reaction. The chances of being identified are beyond minuscule.
On the ball
However, being gay in the teaching profession, I find you learn to be on the ball. You’re always cautious about anything that might give you away and doing everything in your power to prevent that from happening, no matter how small the risk.
I should clarify before I begin that I am not trying to speak for others in this piece, I can only speak for myself. This is just my experience of being gay in the school where I work and the everyday feelings I have towards that.
I am a male in my mid-twenties, teaching in a rural Catholic primary school where I am lucky enough to have a permanent position. I love my job and I know I’m good at it. I work with a wonderful staff and the parents have always been fantastic too.
Being closeted in my job does not drain me of much mental energy or give me countless sleepless nights. I don’t wake up with nightmares or struggle to keep my food down. But it is something a lot more subtle. Something that niggles at you, subconsciously. It affects your relationships with staff members, your principal, the parents and even the kids to some extent in small and unseen ways.
When Panti gave her Noble Call last year, it struck a chord with many people. I found it particularly relevant to my own situation as I too would often “check myself” in work for fear of saying or doing something that may give me up. When I held a temporary position for a few years, this was even more pronounced.
Anyone in a temporary position knows that it is not an ideal situation to be in by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, you are lucky to have a job but there is still so much uncertainty around it. You are in a sort of job limbo and the longer you are stuck there, the more desperate you become to get out.
For me, perhaps being gay wouldn’t have been an issue for my principal when he made the decision to make me permanent. In fact, I’m almost sure he wouldn’t have cared. But it comes down to that small phrase, ‘almost sure’ that holds you back from truly being yourself. ‘Almost sure’ equates to ‘not worth the risk.’
This lack of certainty also follows me to the staffroom on a daily basis. Like I said, the people I work with are wonderful and I have little doubt that, like my principal, they would be fine with my sexuality and probably not even care. However there is always that niggling doubt that makes me question whether I can truly be myself with them. What if one does happen to take offense, or gossips to a parent? You quickly calculate and ascertain that it is not worth the risk.
Temporary vs. Permanent
People reading this may feel that it is none of their business anyway, so why do I feel the need to share news of my sexuality with them in the first place?
Well, a large part of me would have agreed with that when I was temporary but when I was made permanent I found that the situation had changed somewhat. Crucially, this isn’t an issue about wanting to burst out of the closet with my rainbow sequined whiteboard marker.
This is a matter of being comfortable in my workplace and not feeling the need to lie on a regular basis.
Being gay has never been my whole life, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a major part of it. I socialize predominantly in gay bars, I play with a gay sports' team, I am in a relationship with another man, a lot of my friends are gay too. So, while it is not the defining factor about me, it is ingrained in my day to day life.
To have to shut that side of you completely down every single working day can get a little grating, yet it has become the norm. To switch off a major part of who you are shouldn’t be as easy as it is but day in, day out, you just get used to it. You get used to dodging questions about what club you were in last night, who are you travelling away with, what team you play for. You get so used to it that you conclude that it’s easier just to keep lying.
Let them just hazard a guess when I’m 50 and I’m still spieling off the old "I’ve just not found the right woman yet” excuse.
Fear of 'the mammies'
The fear of parents finding out also plays a huge part in my decision to stay closeted.
A lot of the mammies (sorry for any sexism here) love to gossip about anything and everything from my experience. It’s just something embedded in Irish culture.
I feel that, with this in mind, if word broke of my sexuality it would become common knowledge before the end of the week. I don’t believe the parents would do this maliciously, but as seen by the level of interest in Leo Varadkar’s recent disclosure, many people across Ireland still deem somebody’s sexuality as newsworthy.
Modern Ireland has clearly shown a huge swing in attitudes towards gay rights over the past twenty years, and while I keep trying to remind myself of this, I can’t help but worry that it would take just one parent with outdated or religiously motivated views to kick up a fuss.
The only feedback I want is that I am doing my job well, anything else is unnecessary, so why take the risk of spoiling all that?
Many reading this may believe that Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act was the main reason so many teachers have stayed in the closet. While it is great news that they are finally getting around to amending the discriminating act which gives religious institutions legal grounds to fire an LGBT employee, for me this was only ever a law on paper.
The act has never been enforced and no teacher has been fired from it. It can be argued, of course, that it was the Act itself that was keeping so many teachers in the closet in the first place - hence the lack of dismissals. And while I wouldn’t argue against this I believe that, regardless of the Act, teachers would still have found another excuse to stay in the closet.
Teaching is one of those professions where conversations around gay issues are still taboo. So, just because Section 37 is being amended, I wouldn’t be expecting an avalanche of LGBT teachers to suddenly start coming out.
As they say, it is easier to find an excuse than a reason.
However, with the same-sex marriage referendum coming up in a few months, this is clearly a historic moment for the gay community in Ireland. Is now the time to park the excuses and start to do our bit to help in this movement?
"I feel I have a duty to help"
I have played it safe in my workplace for one reason or another. But, with that decision, comes an internal guilt and shame that I cannot seem to suppress.
I cannot shake the feeling that I, along with every gay person, have some role to play in the upcoming vote. I feel I have a duty to help and that now is the time to stand up and be counted before the moment passes. I want to be able to say I helped to fight for my equal rights and that I didn’t let others fight for me.
But unfortunately this is a lot easier said than done.
I am not attempting to achieve anything substantial from writing this piece. I was simply asked to give my account of being a gay teacher in Ireland and I have given it as honestly as I could.
As I said, I speak only for myself, and while my circumstance and experiences are obviously specific to me, I think that there are others across the country who might be able to relate to this in some way or another.
While Ireland’s gay rights movement is progressing admirably fast, I often feel like LBGT teachers are being left behind simply due to the career they chose.
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