How do you support your LGBT+ staff?

Written by: Adele Bates | Published:
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How many of your school’s staff are LGBT? Half of LGBT+ people are not out in their workplaces. Adele Bates looks at why this is and the barriers LGBT+ people often face in schools

People are happier, perform better and are more innovative when they can be themselves, and yet half of LGBT+ people are not out in the workplace and more than a quarter of bisexual people are out to no-one.

YouGov polls show that 2.4 million people witnessed verbal homophobic bullying at work, and a further 800,000 people of working age witnessed physical homophobic bullying at work. Perhaps this is part of the reason.

A person linked to the LGBT+ community on a CV, for example by mentioning past voluntary work with an LGBT+ organisation, is less likely to be invited to interview according to a study by Anglia Ruskin University. So before a potential LGBT+ member of staff walks through the school gates they are either already, or will perceive themselves to be, on the back foot.

As senior leaders and heads, we want the best teachers teaching our pupils – the fewer barriers to recruiting and retaining the best staff the better: the wellbeing and safety of our teachers and staff need to be at the forefront of that.

In addition, the power of an out LGBT+ role-model exemplifies and educates all our pupils that the world is made up of different types of human beings, and that that’s okay. By creating an inclusive environment within the school many of the pressures or fears LGBT+ people face daily could be eased.

Section 28, which ruled that schools “shall not promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” left a dark shadow over education. Staff who hid themselves at work during this time, work in our schools today.

The act was repealed in 2000, yet there are still many schools in Britain who do not actively support their LGBT+ staff or students. Indeed, 11 per cent of schools do not allow teachers to teach about LGBT issues (The Teachers’ Report 2014, Stonewall).

It is not uncommon to walk down a school corridor and hear homophobic, biphobic and transphobic verbal abuse from pupils. As an LGBT+ person, exposure to this every school day can be wearing, making you feel unwelcomed, invisible and isolated: this can negatively affect your mental health and inevitably gets in the way of doing your job.

In some cases, it goes further. Colleagues, heads and senior management may not be comfortable with LGBT+ people, for whatever reason, and this spills out in the workplace.

  • Why do I need to know about your personal life?
  • I think some of the students will find it difficult.
  • The parents/carers might complain.
  • We don’t mind you being gay, but it’s not really relevant to maths is it?
  • It might be difficult for the children, they’re used to calling you “sir”.

Well-meaning, misguided concern, riddled with an individual’s difficulties, misconceptions or lack of knowledge about LGBT+ people, can add to an LGBT+ staff member’s feelings of vulnerability and insecurity at work.

If staff don’t feel supported by the school, then if and when issues of discrimination, bullying and prejudice do arise, they are unlikely to be able to cope alone and their work inevitably suffers, and of course this affects pupils’ learning.

Best practice in preventing this added stress and pressure on staff is to foster a community of inclusion and celebration for all – with all our differences. If there is a hostile, unaccepting atmosphere in your school for LGBT+ people, then it is also likely to be hostile and unaccepting of any type of difference.

Best practice doesn’t have to be difficult. During my PGCE year I experienced an incident of homophobic/biphobic abuse from a member of the public during a school trip: the school dealt with it in an exemplary fashion. While on the trip a member of the public expressed his disgust at homosexual people, and when I shared my sexual orientation with him, he discussed his fantasy sexual practices with homophobic/biphobic tendencies – the conversation was between him and I, and yet pupils were easily in earshot.

I was shaken and disturbed, and quickly took the pupils away. However, as a PGCE trainee – where most days seem stressful and overwhelming – I didn’t think any further action would happen. I am part of the LGBT+ community and this happens to us. Regularly.

I mentioned the incident as a part of reflection in my mentor meeting. My mentor took this up immediately. His training and knowledge of the discrimination policies within school, and the school’s duty in protecting me while at work, meant that suddenly I didn’t have to bear this alone.

I attended three meetings with senior management to discuss the incident. On behalf of me, the school contacted the local business association, of which this person was an employee, and the police.

The association added a section in their newsletter on their responsibility as public businesses on upholding the Equality Act. I had an interview with the police, who visited the business and spoke to the manager and gentleman concerned, and my mentor regularly checked to ensure that the incident had not affected me in any other adverse way. This was exemplary practice: the school valued my contribution and supported me with discrimination.

To foster this type of support for LGBT+ staff, begin by gaining a true picture of your school’s situation, and don’t presume you know the answers. If you are not part of a specific minority group, it is less likely that you notice the exclusion, systematic invisibility or discrimination as much. Ask. Carry out an equality audit that covers all aspects of the Equality Act.

Open the survey up for everyone: all staff and pupils – not just teaching staff. Make it anonymous, nobody should be forced to come out or reveal anything about themselves if they do not feel safe to. There are many LGBT+ people in education who are not out, or not out to pupils – they do not feel safe or supported enough. Beginning with asking rather than presuming can give you your first clues of what you need to do.

Next, examine everything in your school from an inclusive angle – will the LGBT+ History Month assembly once a year make the caretaker feel protected at the Christmas Fair when a tipsy parent hurls homophobic abuse at her? Is there an equalities policy in place that specifically protects LGBT+ staff members? Do all staff know whose responsibility it is to deal with issues of discrimination? Would a canteen staff member know who to go to for support if a group of year 11s were repeatedly taunting her with transphobic jibes? Would your NQTs know what to do if a year 8 pupil exclaimed that “homosexuality is a sin, and these people will go to hell”? Does the language used in your governor meetings assume everyone is heterosexual and cis-gender?

Is it only the equality officer who promotes inclusivity or do all senior leaders take the responsibility? Are all staff supported in covering trans issues in an appropriate way within the curriculum? Is relationships and sex education inclusive of LGBT+ people? Is the staff dress code gender-neutral and does it avoid gendered stereotypes; are the stipulations appropriate for non-binary staff?

In undertaking your audit, specific areas to investigate should be:

  • Equality policies that specifically mention LGBT+ staff.
  • The implementation process of equality policies. How often are they used? Are they successful? How would you know?
  • A school-wide understanding of key LGBT+ terms.
  • Regularly displayed/communicated information on support within and outside of school for LGBT+ staff.
  • Curriculum – inclusivity of non-heteronormative or cis-normative narratives.
  • Leaders/allies on equality for staff and pupils.
  • Displays – how inclusive are they?
  • Library resources – how many LGBT+ storylines are available in your books?
  • Outside speakers and contributors.
  • Links with other schools and feeder primary schools on issues around LGBT.
  • Communication with parents/carers – are they informed of anti-bullying, anti-discrimination and inclusion policies? Do they have opportunities to contribute?

Any member of staff wants and needs to feel valued, included and welcomed. As members of a school community it is our duty to provide this for one another.

Teaching can be a challenging enough profession, if we know we are safe and protected from harm then we can all get on with focusing on the other pressures of the job.

  • Adele Bates is an education consultant for schools on equality and diversity, LGBT+ awareness and human rights. She has taught for 16 years in primary, special schools and PRUs, and was a full-time English teacher in secondary schools. Get in contact at www.adelejbates.co.uk. Read her previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2F91B33

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