Out of the closet and into the classroom

Issue 

By Deborah Singerman

SYDNEY — School is supposed to provide the best days of our lives, but for many gay and lesbian students, school days are a nightmare spent hiding their sexuality and identity. For gay and lesbian teachers too, socialising at school may be fraught with danger and the fear of becoming the subject of staffroom gossip.

To meet the need for a support and social network for lesbians and gays in the education system, the Gay and Lesbian Teachers and Students (GaLTaS) group was formed in July. (A similar group called GAYTAS was wound up in the early 1980s.)

GaLTaS meets monthly and already has 40 members, divided almost evenly between students and teachers, with some trainee teachers and high school principals, and gays and lesbians. The group's co-conveners are student Jennifer Glass, 17, and high school teacher Derek Williams. GaLTaS operates in association with the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, of which both conveners are committee members.

"All the teachers and most of the students are from state schools", says Glass. "The students are mainly in year 12 and come from all over Sydney." So far the group has been publicised only in the gay and lesbian media, but news has reached interstate and the group has received letters from Darwin, Melbourne, Tasmania, Queensland and western New South Wales. Glass says, "People have been great, really encouraging. Membership is booming. I think what we're doing as a group is really important."

Glass attends an all-girls selective school in southern Sydney. At 14, when she first came out, she says she faced prejudice and discrimination from the other students. "At first they didn't believe me. They thought I was seeking attention. It was difficult for me to meet gays and lesbians my age who were still at school."

Glass' coming out process has been unusually outspoken. In year 10, she went to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and marched with other young lesbians, holding a banner that said "Out of the closet and into the classroom". A couple of months later she went on an International Women's Day rally. "I was caught on television shouting, 'We are lesbians and we are proud'. Afterwards at school I was called names and people tried to avoid me."

Glass then wrote a long article, with a by-line, for her school newspaper on the Mardi Gras, and wrote a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald supporting the then recently out NSW state politician Paul O'Grady. The letter began "As a teenage lesbian". No-one said anything to her either time.

Latterly, her attempts to put up Mardi Gras posters around the school have failed, but she has taken a workshop on homophobia and, after much discussion, has finally been allowed to take a woman partner to the year 12 school formal. Although she praises her school principal for generally being very supportive, Glass admits that generally at school she is isolated. "My experience has been fairly typical, though some students in other schools have had a more positive

Derek Williams feels that most gay and lesbian teachers are closeted at school. "I think some of them are waiting to see how I get on", he admits. He came out before GaLTaS was established. "I appeared on A Current Affair criticising the decision of a Sydney City Council body to kick out a gay video dating agency that was in the same building", he remembers. The council later withdrew, and the agency has since closed down, but Williams is in no doubt that everyone at his school knows he is gay.

At his school, Williams tackles the problem of homophobia on an individual level. If students call him faggot or another derogatory name, Williams will talk to them, if necessary taking the matter higher.

"One student had said he was frightened that if he stood next to me he would catch AIDS. He had also said that homosexuality was against his parents' religion. I talked to him until I realised it wasn't worth my going on much further. So I took him to the deputy principal, who was inordinately prepared to help. We haven't had much luck with him, but we have seen a marked change in the attitude of his older brother (who also attends the same school). He said that before he had never thought of homosexuals as human, and that now he would talk to his mates, some of whom he knew went poofter-bashing."

"Schools have an unquestionable duty to provide safe, supportive learning environments for all", says Glass. "Ultimately, we want to see schools as safe havens where gays and lesbians will not encounter homophobia." In the meantime, GaLTaS fulfils that role, also aiming to be "a voice of authority for gays and lesbians in the education system".

So far GaLTaS representatives have met with Virginia Chadwick, minister for school education, Fenton Sharpe, director general of education, Phil Cross, president of the NSW Teachers Federation, and senior representatives from the Board of Studies and the Parents and Citizens Association. The group has also set up contact with Sue Thompson, police gay and lesbian client liaison officer.

Other lobbying work includes a submission to the NSW Department of School Education's report "Education 2000", on the future of school education in NSW. GaLTaS focussed on the social and emotional needs of lesbian and gay teachers and students within the school system, and on the importance of support for those who are targets for vilification and violence.

GaLTaS has also had input into the teaching resources against violence and homophobia that will be available as part of the new compulsory Personal Development, Health and Physical Education curriculum for years 7 to 10 next year. After talking to a chief education officer from the Department of School Education, Green Left understands that this material means that schools where homophobia is a problem will now "have the capacity to address that difficulty".

"Homophobia is regarded as a sensitive issue falling under the controversial issues policy by which parents must be fully informed of the course, and have the right to withdraw a child if they want", the

This is a crucial course, say the GaLTaS co-conveners, especially because so many attacks on lesbians and gay men are carried out by school-aged youths. "We have to make sure that course stays on the curriculum", says Williams. "We need positive role models for students."

As part of its outreach program, GaLTaS conducted a workshop at the Queer Collaborations Conference at the University of Technology, Sydney, for gay and lesbian tertiary students. "We're also developing a flier which will go out to student counsellors, student representative councils, sympathetic people and to places where young people congregate", says Glass. "We hope to reach young people in those areas — those lesbians and gays who don't have access to the inner-city areas."

To contact GaLTaS, write to PO Box 9, Darlinghurst NSW 2010; for information, phone 02 360 6650.