A new US study has shown that gay teachers are less likely to challenge homophobia in schools for fear of drawing attention to their sexuality and putting their careers at risk.
The study reveals that gay and lesbian teachers are less likely to intervene when they witness homophobic language in classrooms than their heterosexual peers, including when children use the word “gay” as an offensive slur.
Tiffany Wright, who carried out in-depth interviews with more than 350 teachers and principals, said: “Often, LGBT educators are less likely to say something in response to homophobia, because then they might be perceived as gay.”
She added: “They’re fearful for their job, or fearful of the repercussions of being seen as gay.”
Many of the teachers Dr Wright interviewed admitted that they did not feel safe coming out as gay at school.
Two-thirds said that they rarely or never see other teachers intervene when homophobic remarks are made in the staff room.
59 per cent said that they had heard homophobic comments made by other teachers.
Around half of gay teachers said that they did not always challenge homophobic language used by students.
The research on homophobia in US schools follows recent UK based campaigns to eliminate homophobic bullying in wake of the passing of the same sex couples act. Labour leader Ed Miliband recently told PinkNews: “We need to ensure that across the country young people are not subject to homophobic bullying.”
However, very few teachers have come out about their sexualities at school for fear of a negative reaction. School leaders in particular are reluctant to reveal that they are gay.
Dr Wright said that more than a third of the teachers she interviewed were worried that their jobs would be at risk if they came out to other teachers at school.
In addition, 62 per cent worried about losing their jobs if they came out to students. Last year it was revealed that teachers in UK schools are also hesitating to come out because of worries around the reaction from their pupils
According to Dr Wright’s study, more than half of the interviewed teachers also said that they almost never felt comfortable being out when they interacted with parents.
She said: “A lot of folks, theoretically, might be in favour of gay marriage and have liberal views.
“But when you’re talking about their kids, that’s a little different. Then, suddenly, people’s prejudices come out.”
Sue Sanders, co-chair of the UK-based teachers’ association Schools Out, said there is a widespread assumption that if teachers challenge homophobia, they are “outing” themselves.
“When a straight person tackles homophobia, the assumption is that they’re gay,” she said.
“But when you’re a member of a minority group, you’re aware that you’re seeing stuff that people who aren’t members of that minority group might not see.
“You see it around women challenging sexism or black people challenging racism. There’s a fear that people will say that, just because you’re lesbian or gay, you think everyone’s against you.”
Dr Wright’s research paper cites an example from her own time spent as a teacher, where she recounts how a fellow teacher used the phrase “this is so gay” to mean “this is so stupid” in front of a classroom full of students.
“We grew up in an era when gay equalled bad,” Dr Wright said. “That’s so ingrained in so many people. We’ve made a lot of progress since then, but the language has just been pervasive.”
Wes Streeting, Stonewall’s Head of Education, said: “Homophobic bullying is much more prevalent in schools where teachers don’t challenge homophobic language. If the teachers themselves are using such language, goodness knows what the effect would be on gay pupils.”
Professor Ian Rivers, who researches homophobic bullying for Brunel University in London, said that school leaders often expect openly gay teachers to lead classroom discussions about LGBT issues.
“This is actually where headteachers are missing a trick,” he said. “They need stereotypically heterosexual teachers to engage with these issues – show that it’s unacceptable for anyone to display any kind of homophobia.”
“Any kid can get called gay,” Professor Rivers added. “If they’re good at something, if they’re bad at something. If they’re a bit different. It doesn’t matter.
“It’s the one abusive term where it’s very difficult to demonstrate that you’re not. How do you demonstrate that you’re not gay?”
Last year, The School Report, by Stonewall, found that 96% of gay school pupils had heard homophobic language such as the words “poof” or “lezza”, and that such behaviour is often unacknowledged by teachers.