The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) estimates that thousands of members are forced to hide their sexuality due to fears of discrimination within schools.
Despite laws which provide for equal employment opportunities for all,research by the primary school teachers’ union indicates that only 18 per cent of LGBT teachers in the Republic and 12 per cent in the North have declared their orientation in the school community.
On this basis, it estimates that approximately 4,000 primary school teachers on the island do not feel comfortable revealing their true identities in schools.
Outgoing INTO president Joe McKeown told the union’s annual congress that homophobia “can never be allowed to hide behind a religious or cultural cloak”.
“In terms of this issue, I don’t care who currently owns the schools, the minister for education needs to make it clear, if you’re homophobic, you’re not allowed to run a school,” he said.
Almost 90 per cent of Irish schools remain under Catholic patronage and delegates said this is creating difficulties for teachers whose beliefs may not align with Catholic values.
One gay teacher told the conference that he lived in fear that the leadership in a Catholic school he used to work in would “find out who he really was”.
He said his casual work as a teacher in the school suddenly ended after disclosing his sexuality at school.
The teacher, who is now employed in a new school, called on fellow delegates to promote inclusion in schools and to help reverse the “learned behaviour” of homophobia in schools by telling their pupils it is wrong.
“I am now an out and proud gay teacher and for staff, parents and most importantly, children in my school, I strive every day to be the LGBT+ teacher and role model I wish I had as I grew up,” he said.
At the ASTI conference, Eamonn Daly received a spontaneous standing ovation from delegates when he told how he was unable to tell his work colleagues that he had lost his partner as he feared that coming out as gay might have cost him his job.
“Imagine, any of you who are married, that your partner dies and you can’t share that news. That happened to me, I had to suffer in silence, not being able to speak, share my grief with my colleagues because I was worried that I would be kicked out and fired on the spot.”
A Science teacher, Mr Daly told The Irish Times that he was in his late 20s and in his first year teaching at Good Counsel in New Ross in Co Wexford when his partner died in the summer of 2006 just a few weeks after he had lost his mother.
“Colleagues came to my mother’s funeral and people sympathised with me when we came back to our first staff meeting and I was able to thank them.
‘Fired on the spot’
“But the thought struck that none of them knew of the other grief I was experiencing after my partner died from cancer… I was teaching in a faith based school and I still am but my fear was if I mentioned that I was gay, I would be kicked out and fired on the spot.”
Mr Daly said the fear that coming out as gay might cost him a permanent job or a promotion permeated all aspects of his life as a teacher including mundane conversations about how he spent the weekend or where he went on holidays.
“So you end up lying because there’s this fear at the back of your head – it’s not that my colleagues would in anyway be judgemental but it was in the back of my head, I was looking for a permanent job and and I couldn’t take the risk parents might find out and complain.”
Mr Daly said he had confided in close friends in Good Counsel that he was gay soon after he started there but what enabled to him to come out publicly as a gay man was a change in the legislation in 2015 that gave greater protection to gay teachers in faith based schools.
He credits then minister of state Aodhán Ó Ríordán for introducing the Equality (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill in 2015 which made it more difficult for any faith based school to dismiss someone because of their sexual orientation to the relief of LGBT teachers.
“I know of colleagues, past and present, who are afraid to come out because of the bullying that might happen to them but since I came out openly after that change in legislation, colleagues have been hugely supportive and school management have been very positive.”
Mr Daly said he is now openly gay in Good Counsel, informing his First Year students that he is gay and highlighting how inclusive the school is.
“We need to stand together in solidarity and speak out for our colleagues – the marriage equality referendum was fantastic but we still have homophobic attacks and we need to be visible and active and say we do not tolerate any injustice to LGBT colleagues and students.”
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