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.