This blog has been written by Carol Hordatt Gentles, President, International Council on Education for Teachers, and Purna Kumar Shrestha, Global Technical Lead- Resilient and Inclusive Education, VSO International – coordinators of the Teacher Task Force thematic group on Inclusion and equity in teacher policies and practices.
We need open dialogue to understand the challenges faced by LGBTIQ+ teachers
As we celebrate the 2023 International Women’s Day, we see the progress made to raise awareness of issues that challenge equality and equity for women. We recognize that embracing equity “means to believe, value, and seek out difference as a necessary and positive element of life” (International Women's Day). To ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, treating all teachers equally and ensuring the teaching workforce reflects the diversity of the classroom and wider community are critical.
However, difference is often construed as an obstacle, instead of an asset to promote diversity. In many contexts, LGBTIQ+ teachers face serious challenges, including unequal opportunity, lack of representation, discriminatory laws, social exclusion, stereotyping and violence. As coordinators of the Teacher Task Force’s thematic group on inclusion and equity, we feel it is the right moment to reopen a dialogue among policy-makers, practitioners and academic scholars to better understand the inequities and social injustice that LGBTIQ+ educators face around the world.
On the occasion of the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia in 2022, UNESCO has reminded us that: “Human rights are inalienable rights, to which LGBTI persons are no less entitled than anyone else. Every person, in every circumstance, has the right to respect and dignity, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
To ensure LGBTIQ+ teachers’ safety, protective laws need to be enacted
A quick review of the current realities of LGBTIQ+ teachers suggests some improvement in their occupational security, arising from policies to protect them. The 2022 ILO learning guide on Inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) persons in the world of work states that “as of December 2020, 81 United Nations Member States provided protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment. These include Barbados, North Macedonia and San Tome and Principe who have recently amended or enacted new labour laws to protect persons regardless of their sexual orientation.” In Poland, labour laws assure that teachers cannot be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation, while Canada through its Charter of Rights and Freedoms has also committed to social justice, inclusion and equity for all its citizens, including teachers. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that protection for persons with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities should include employment protection. Yet, while federal law currently favours protection for LGBTIQ+ workers, twenty-nine states remain with no employment protection laws for LGBTIQ+ workers, including teachers.
Despite the mixed progress in these countries, there are still many others where there is neither a policy nor political will to include or protect LGBTIQ+ teachers. Moreover, even in countries with policies for protection in place, enactment is often weak. Thus, ILO’s Guidelines for the inclusion of LGBTIQ+ persons in the world of work remain current. According to the Organization:
“LGBTI workers often find themselves without legal redress because of prohibitive costs, drawn out legal procedures, or lack of trust in the system. In effect they are denied justice and protection. If we truly want a human-centred future of work that leaves no-one behind we must include LGBTI workers. We must also ensure that laws and policies do not criminalize LGBTI workers on the grounds of who they love and who they are.”
Discrimination and prejudice still impede LGBTIQ+ teachers from thriving
Without legal protection and cultures of inclusion, LGBTIQ+ teachers often live in a state of fear and anxiety about being “outed.” Pitonak (2021) found that among Czech LGBTI public sector employees 52 per cent of educators do not talk about their sexual orientation at work, 71 per cent fear negative reactions from their colleagues, 64 per cent fear it will damage their relationships in the workplace and 44 per cent fear it will impede advancement in their career. In Brazil, DaSilva (2019) found homosexual teachers suffered homophobia within their school communities. In Israel, a survey by the Magnus Hirshfield Institute (Rogel et al, 2021) looked at how school climate is characterised by LGBTIQ+ teachers in Israel. The results showed that 94 per cent of teachers had received homophobic and insulting comments from their students and 53 per cent had heard homophobic comments from other teachers and staff members. In Chile, in a study of the experiences of homosexual and lesbian schoolteachers, participants spoke of fear of the unknown, of uncertainty (Catalan, 2018).
Challenges faced by LGBTIQ+ teachers inside schools are compounded by public opinion and prejudices on the part of parents. For example, a 2018 survey by GLAAD and the Harris Poll, found that 32 per cent of non-LGBTQ Americans would be very uncomfortable if their child had an LGBTQ teacher reflecting false beliefs and prejudice against LGBTQ teachers. There is also the false perception that homosexuality is an ailment that should and can be cured. A survey by Movilh (2008) of parents, students and teachers in Santiago, Chile, found that 24 per cent of teachers did not think homosexuality is an illness, but they believed it was a condition that could be altered.
The picture emerging here is one of LGBTIQ+ teachers for whom secrecy, being afraid, and suffering discrimination are a way of life. In many countries, the subject of differences in sexual orientation remains taboo and is often shrouded in silence; thus, scholarship on this subject is still limited. As Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN - the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in the US has said, “Everyone knows what a huge impact it has on people to have to hide some aspect of who they are in their day-to-day lives. ... When people are free to be themselves, ... they do better work, and this is true for teachers.” In countries where cultural traditions and legal frameworks are less accommodating towards sexual diversity, LGBTIQ+ teachers must also contend with fear of being targeted for persecution and exclusion from classrooms and from various public spaces more broadly.
LGBTIQ+ discrimination contributes to teacher shortages
In a world where teacher shortages and challenges with teacher recruitment, retention and attrition have reached crisis proportions, we cannot afford to continue ignoring the impact of inequity on LGBTIQ+ teachers. It has serious implications for their capacity to provide quality teaching and makes the teaching profession less attractive for those who may want to apply for admission to a teacher training programme. In our own research in Jamaica (Hordatt Gentles and Davis-Morrison, 2020) we found that student teachers face discrimination, even violence from peers, teacher educators and administrators. Some evidence shows that many student teachers have left, after graduation, for destinations where they feel safer. This exacerbates the high rates of teacher attrition and loss of valuable professional capital. Another concern is that, if homophobia and inequality are widespread in teacher training institutions, then possibilities for training teachers to practice anti-homophobic inclusivity and advocacy are limited. As the Global Education Monitoring Report titled Inclusion and education: All means all, states “…in most countries, teacher education related to inclusion and safety of LGBTIQ+ students is a neglected and contentious area”.
Countering negative views of LGBTIQ+ issues through curricula and training
Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), which is a curriculum-based approach that implicitly includes a better understanding of gender and related norms, rights, equity and combatting negative stereotypes and traditional perceptions of gender roles, is key to promote equality for LGBTIQ+ individuals. An analysis from a review of 50 education systems for the GEM Report's Profiles for Enhancing Education Reviews (PEER) revealed that the least covered content in the curricula is sexual orientation and LGBTQI+ issues. It is covered in only 17% of the countries. Argentina, Lao PDR, Mongolia and Sweden all aim to promote and raise awareness around gender, sexual orientation, and equal rights and opportunities through CSE. Meanwhile in Namibia’s National Strategic Framework on HIV, teachers are trained on how to present sexual orientation and gender identity in the curriculum.
Inclusive education is not possible without effective inclusion of LGBTIQ+ teachers
If we are going to commit to embracing equality, we must do more to recognize, understand and reverse social injustices that characterize the lives of LGBTIQ+ teachers and other educators across the globe. We recognise that in many countries, the inclusion of LGBTIQ+ workers in the education workforce is complex, complicated and wrought with serious political, cultural and social issues. It is, however, significant and demands our attention if we are committed to inclusive education systems that promote equally inclusive education workforces. Simply put, inclusive education cannot exclude LGBTIQ+ teachers for who they are.
Consult the UNESCO & Teacher Task Force fact sheet Women in teaching: Understanding the gender dimension (2023).
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