Over the weekend, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced his government would make amendments to discrimination legislation to make clear no student at a private or religious school should be expelled on the basis of their sexuality. This move now has bipartisan support from Greens, Labor and the Liberals.
The question now is whether this protection should also be extended to teachers and staff at religious schools. Calls to extend the proposed discrimination law amendments came first from the Greens and later from Labor. The prime minister has not yet indicated support or otherwise for the extensions.
At the same time, the Wentworth by-election looms. This is a critical moment for a coalition increasingly split between moderates and conservatives and still reeling from their latest leadership spill. Wentworth emphatically supported same-sex marriage in the postal survey of 2017, with 81% voting yes. One of the contenders for the seat, Dr Kerryn Phelps, is herself in a same-sex marriage with children.
A recent nationwide Fairfax Ispos poll found 74% of Australians oppose laws allowing religious schools to discriminate against students or teachers on the grounds of sexuality, gender identity or relationship status. The current loophole for religious schools does not reflect what the majority of Australia thinks about education, religion and LGBTIQ+ people. Our government needs to start listening to the electorate on this issue.
Rights beyond marriage
Many of us from the LGBTIQ+ community experienced the same-sex marriage survey period as damaging, traumatic and hurtful. “No” campaigners likened same-sex marriage to inter-species and incestuous marriages and argued presenting students in schools with the message that it’s OK to be gay or trans was harmful, and so LGBTIQ+ people are a harmful and corrupting presence in schools.
Public support for the proposed extensions of anti-discrimination law highlights that it’s time to challenge these beliefs. For some, like the gay teacher sacked in Perth last year, the challenge has come too late.
The state of play for LGBTIQ+ teachers
Much of the research into sexuality and schooling has historically focused on young people. But there is a growing body of work that engages with LGBTIQ+ teachers.
In 2014, I carried out a study with Anne Harris from RMIT University and Tiffany Jones from Macquarie University. Our study set out to engage with the working lives of LGBTIQ+ educators in Victoria. Our findings echo previous work in the field:
LGBTIQ+ educators have to negotiate their private and professional lives in ways their heterosexual and cisgender (meaning your gender identity matches the sex you were assigned at birth) counterparts do not
support for coming out at school varies and LGBTIQ+ teachers are more likely to be out to staff than to students
some 79% of our survey respondents reported feeling uncomfortable at work because of their sexual and/or gender identity
27% had stopped participating in work-related activities such as attending seasonal holidays
many participants said working in religious school environments (mainly Catholic, Islamic and Jewish) made them feel shame about who they are, which caused them to restrict the LGBTIQ+ aspects of their identity to private life.
Being able to be open about identity and relationships at work is a luxury available to heterosexual and cisgender people. Having to hide who you are at work or being fearful of losing your job because of who you are makes work a precarious and stressful place.
It also sends a powerful message about how LGBTIQ+ people are perceived within religious and independent school settings. This message is harmful to staff, students and the whole school environment.
Diversity strengthens education
I have done research with LGBTIQ+ teachers in the UK and Australia. A key finding is the desire of many LGBTIQ+ educators to act as role models for young people in their schools – for those who are same-sex attracted and gender diverse, and also for those who are not.
Research around race and education has shown us how important visibility is, and that minority groups do better at school when they see themselves reflected within the school community – including by teachers. Australian society is multicultural and includes LGBTIQ+ people. Schools should reflect this diversity to prepare students for life beyond school and the world of work.
Being forced to hide parts of our identity in the workplace is harmful to mental health. It also perpetuates the notion being LGBTIQ+ is something shameful, deviant and unwelcome in schools. If teachers feel this way, it’s no wonder same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people have negative experiences at school.
Allowing religious and independent schools to continue to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ teachers means to advocate for shame. It sends a message to our young people that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and/or queer is shameful and should be hidden from view within religious spaces.
We need to ask ourselves who could possibly win by allowing teachers to be sacked for simply being who they are. Dean Smith, the author of the same-sex marriage legislation, asserted that the same sex marriage survey result offered a “glimpse of the country we all yearn for, a country that is fair-minded, generous and accepting”. If this is genuinely what we want as a nation, then our anti-discrimination laws need to reflect this vision.