LGBTQ teachers

What schools should do now to empower their non-binary students

The decision this week by the Federal government to pull the Religious Discrimination Bill illustrates that in the current climate it is not actually possible to get such legislation through parliament.  I assumed the Bill might at least make it to the Senate. 

As far as the Morrison government is concerned, I wonder if it’s not necessarily a problem that the bill didn’t succeed. Perhaps it is enough to at least be seen by members, by their base, to be trying to do work in this space. The government obviously perceives that there is enough support for such legislation in the community that they are motivated to be seen trying to uphold religious freedom. What is less clear is how much the base cares about religious freedom, versus how much they want a curtailment of sexual and gender identity attached to religious freedom. Maybe such questions will be tested in the upcoming election. 

Is there still, in our contemporary political context, political capital to be gained from taking that position? We are likely to see more political debate in this space, especially when and if the Australian Law Reform Commission hands down its report about what they think is the way forward for students and teachers on issues related to sexuality and gender. 

When thinking about trans issues in schools it is important to grasp that trans is a broad umbrella that covers a large range of genders such as being non-binary, genderqueer, a Sistergirl or Brotherboy, genderfluid, having a binary gender, and more. Some trans people want to affirm their gender in social and legal ways, like changing their name or wearing new clothes and updating their legal identity, and some affirm their gender in medical ways, like being on hormones or having surgeries, but some trans people don’t affirm their gender in ways that are visible to the outside world at all. Given these different ways of being trans, schools have a lot to think about in working out ways be inclusive of teachers, parents and students who are trans and non-binary 

A good place to start is by asking young people what it is they want rather than having an assumed policy for trans and non-binary students. That isn’t to say we can’t think in advance of some things that might need to be put in place. 

For example, available resources in terms of changerooms and bathrooms people can access. Don’t necessarily assume that because somebody is trans, that they will need a separate space. They might want to be in the same space as the gender to which they’re socially transitioning. They might like to have a say, rather than being told, this is where you have access.

Schools are getting much better at this because it’s much more common. There are a lot of schools really doing a good job nowadays and there are good policies at a state education level, for example, Victoria, the ACT and Tasmania have good guidance in place, around how we can work with trans students to give them a better experience of schooling. 

Schools, at least in some jurisdictions,  have  a  legal  duty  of  care to  protect students  from  risks  of  harm  (that the school should be  able to anticipate)  and to do  what  is  reasonable  to  ensure  students  are safe  at  school. In  spite of  these  obligations, it can still  be  daunting  to  navigate the different gendered  facilities and  activities  at  school. For  example,  wearing  a gendered  school  uniform,  using  gendered bathrooms, going  on school  camps  and participating  in  school  sports  teams. 

In some schools, there’s not much going on but in others there are 

good policies in place because schools have had to develop them. They’ve had pressure and activism from trans students and their parents, and from non-binary students and their families. These groups have demanded to be seen by schools and really doing a lot of great advocacy. 

It’s important to recognise the advocacy that young people are doing in this space to try and create better places for themselves in education. As part of our Queer Generations project we interviewed a young person who was being schooled in Victoria. The first school that they went to wasn’t meeting their needs. They left that school and went to another school which they chose on the basis that it had explicit support programmes for queer youth at the school. 

Clearly, not all young people have the capacity to move schools if they are not welcoming.  This is especially concerning when young people are in school contexts in which they are invisibilized or which are outright hostile and transphobic. Transcend Australia and A Gender Agenda are just two organisations working with young people and their families to help schools improve on the ways that they support young people. But it’s not just students we should be concerned about, it’s also teachers who can feel incredibly sidelined if they don’t toe the line in terms of cisgender norms and also heteronormativity. 

We shouldn’t assume that independent and religious schools, or state schools, are intrinsically supportive or hostile. But research does suggest that LGBTQI+ students experience higher rates of discrimination in religious schools. One interesting aspect of the case of the Queensland school was that the principal put something in writing about school norms, making transphobia and homophobia explicit. A lot of people found that reprehensible – but that type of educational context is not exceptional in Australia. It was only exceptional in this instance because it was made public at a time when these issues were in the news. We know those schools exist, – we often don’t see just how they enforce these particular worldviews. If we are going to continue to allow schools to discriminate against teachers, students and parents who are LGBTQI+ I would like to see more demand from parents and from teachers for schools to publicly make known their stance on such issues. The whole school community are adversely impacted by schools that discriminate. It’s not just about young people, it’s about teachers. It’s about parents. It’s about people who are coming in and delivering sexuality education or other forms of health education in the school context. It can’t just be about one part of that story. We need to think about how all those people who are part of our school communities can bring themselves to the classroom, to school events, to activism at school, and also see themselves being represented across the curriculum, not just in the sexuality education class, but in health, in politics, in religious education. 

I know when I was studying to be a teacher in the nineties and I was going into schools as somebody who has a non normative gender presentation, that it was just really untenable for me to stay in that space. It was incredibly uncomfortable in terms of harassment, especially from the students. That experience is alive and happening for teachers and young people today. Even though there’s an increasing number of sexual and gender diverse people in our community schools can still be very tough places and there’s a lot of recent research that bears that out. It’s not just about young people themselves, it’s about the whole school community feeling like they have a place where they feel valued and seen and respected within our school communities. 

Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen of the Australian National University has undertaken research in the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Her research focuses on building transdisciplinary understanding of sexuality and gender across diverse lifeworlds, taking account of issues related to sexual citizenship, cultural and religious difference and technologies of sexuality, education and health. She is co-editor, with Louisa Allen, of the forthcoming Handbook of Sexuality Education (Palgrave).

“It was just nice to see they existed”. The importance of having LGBTQ teachers who are ‘out’ at school

Luis, attending a private boys’ school in Western Australia, knew that three of his teachers were gay – “Not that it was ever, like, talked about or anything. But it was just nice to see that they existed. Like, you know, they are there and normal. They had all that”.

As the Australian parliament takes steps towards removing the power of faith-based schools to discriminate against children on the basis of their sexuality, protections for LGBTQ teachers are still being debated. Recent research in Australia suggests these two issues should not be so easily separated. For Luis, and many other LGBTQ young people, having teachers who were “out” provided them with a feeling of belonging and a sense of what their future adult lives could look like. Provisions to protect all teachers from discrimination on the basis of sexuality ensure that LGBTQ young people, no matter their school, have access to important role models.

Luis was part of our research Belonging and Sexual Citizenship among Gender and Sexual Minority Youth [‘Queer Generations’] exploring the experiences of LGBTQ people born in the 1970s and the 1990s. Drawing on in-depth interviews and focus groups conducted in 2016 and 2017 with 121 people (50 born in the 70s; 71 born in the 90s), we wanted to know about their experiences of growing up in Australia. We specifically asked participants about their experience of schooling and education and how this contributed to their sense of belonging and wellbeing. The excerpts below all come from participants born in the 1990s – who began their first year of high school between 2002 and 2012.

In the midst of this debate about religious exemptions, some participants found teachers to be quite accepting of LGBTQ students, but also recognised teachers were often not able to be explicitly supportive because of the constraints of the school context in which they worked. This is hardly surprising given how politicised the provision of relevant information about gender and sexuality has become in schools. Existing exemptions enable teachers to be dismissed or refused employment in religious schools on the basis of sexuality. Other participants had teachers who were genuinely helpful and supportive. These teachers had a significant impact on the lives of young people, with participants often remembering influential teachers by name many years later. And, it was just enough to know that there were teachers who weren’t straight who were going about the business of teaching in their school. Taya, who went to an all-girls religious school in Sydney, recalls:

There were specific teachers that …either you knew were queer…or you kind of knew would be very supporting. But we had a couple of teachers we knew weren’t straight as well, which was really nice.”

Taya emphasizes a feeling of connection to some teachers at the school who the students had a feeling, or perhaps were openly informed, “weren’t straight”. She was not alone in the study. Others expressed similar views about the value of recognising ‘queer’ teachers in the school environment.

Remembering that LGBTQ young people may be growing up in families where they feel quite alone, and potentially quite unsafe, the importance of knowing there are supportive teachers at school should not be underestimated.  Liam attended a Christian school in Melbourne:

“…There was one particular teacher who, he was the only teacher … he was my drama teacher … I’m now a drama teacher … back then he was the only person that I’d said, ‘Look, I think I’m gay. How would my parents feel about it? I don’t think they’d accept it but I’d like to know what you think.’ And the teacher didn’t know how to respond but just, all they said was, ‘I accept you and they will care about you’… it still resonates with me today ’cause that was the first time, the only moment as a teenager growing up where I thought, ‘okay, well at least somebody’s got my back.’

Liam didn’t specify whether or not this teacher was gay; he just hoped that they would be accepting – especially because he anticipated that his parents would not be supportive. LGBTQ students often report feeling worried about the process of coming out while at school, at a time when they are still completely dependent upon their parents for support. Like Liam, they are seeking trustworthy adults who they could talk to. Knowing that there are teachers at your school like you, or likely to be accepting of you, continues to be meaningful for young people, because these are moments where they feel like they are no longer alone; when somebody ‘has their back’.

Anna’s story provides a reminder of the precarious position in which young people are often still placed when they first identify as LGBTQ– “coming out to family and stuff […] my mum still disapproves.” And yet Anna remembers “three or four teachers” who were openly out in the public school she attended in Sydney. “So it was just, it was sort of a flow-on effect. And now they actually hold a queer group there which they’ve invited me to.” For Anna, school became place where she could feel safe, be herself and find support.

The examples above involve students feeling safe and supported. Teachers who were out at school affirmed young people’s existence just by being there and being known to the students.

These stories are important in the context of current debates about religious exemptions because young people watch their teachers closely, and keenly looking out for people like them. They see when teachers speak back to discrimination; they likely also know when teachers can’t be out and can’t defend themselves against personal and professional attacks. Either way, research suggests that young people are learning powerful messages from their teachers about what’s acceptable and what’s not. Australian schools are places in which public recognition of sexual or gender identity remains incredibly important for young people who are questioning or developing a sense of their own identity as different from the majority. Maintaining a system that justifies discrimination against LGBTQ teachers fails to provide a safe learning environment in which these and other questions can be asked.


Pseudonyms have been used

Our research Belonging and Sexual Citizenship among Gender and Sexual Minority Youth [‘Queer Generations’] was funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project.


Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen is Professor of Sociology at the Australian National University College of Arts and Social Sciences. She has undertaken research in the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Her research focuses on building transdisciplinary understanding of sexuality and gender across diverse lifeworlds, taking account of issues related to sexual citizenship, cultural and religious difference and technologies of sexuality, education and health. She is co-editor, with Louisa Allen, of the Handbook of Sexuality Education (Palgrave).



Professor Peter Aggleton is a distinguished honorary professor in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at The Australian National University. He holds a visiting professorial position at UCL in the UK. He is an adjunct professor in the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Peter has published over 250 scientific papers and chapters and has authored and edited more than 50 books. He is well known internationally for his analytic work on health education and health promotion, the social aspects of HIV, sexuality and gender, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. He is editor-in-chief of three international journals: Culture, Health & Sexuality, Health Education Journal and Sex Education, and is an associate editor of the journals AIDS Education & Prevention, Global Public Health and Health Education Research.


Dr Clare Southerton a postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University, Denmark, in the Center for Surveillance Studies. Her recent PhD research focused on mobile digital device habits, but I have also worked on projects related to digital health technologies, belonging and sexual citizenship among LGBTQ young people. (Aarhus University),




Dr Daniel Marshall is a Senior Lecturer in Literature in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He is also the Convenor of Deakin’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Major in the Bachelor of Arts programme, and of Deakin’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Research Network. 



Assoc. Professor Rob Cover is Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at The University of Western Australia. He is a social, media and cultural studies researcher whose work focuses on the implications of media and digital cultures for minorities, particularly in respect to health, social integration, diversity, ethics and belonging. (University of Western Australia)




Assoc. Professor Christy Newman is Associate Professor at the Centre for Social Research in Health, UNSW Arts and Social Sciences at University of New South Wales. Christy works across a range of collaborative and interdisciplinary projects in the fields of sexual and reproductive health, blood borne virus prevention and care, mental health, alcohol and other drug use, migrant and refugee health, and Aboriginal health.