We spoke to a LGBTQ+ teacher about her experience working in the Catholic school system and the proposed Safe Schools program.
Alice emanates every bit of that sort of teacher-y mien you would expect from a seasoned high-school teacher, only her name isn’t Alice and I can’t guarantee she’s a she. Counterproductive as it may seem to identify someone as anything other than who they are, in this case, its function is twofold. First, as an LGBTQ+ teacher working at a Catholic School, Alice has never been open about her sexuality in a professional setting. Since her lifestyle is not aligned with the “Catholic Ethos,” full disclosure comes with a threat to job security and because of this, Alice has opted to remain anonymous for this interview. Second, Alice’s obscurity animates the reality of the faceless figures that dominate the LGBTQ+ community in the Australian school system. In fact, 10% of Australian students identify as gay, lesbian or bi-sexual, 4% as gender diverse and 1.5% intersex; yet of these students, 81% feel a lack of support from their school, a sobering reality since 80% of the abuse these students endure happens at school.
Since school is out, Alice has agreed to spend the afternoon telling me about her experience as a gay teacher working in a Catholic school and answer my questions about the Safe Schools Program that proposes to affirm the LGBTQ+ identity in schools.
What initially drew you to working at a Catholic school? Did you attend one?
I did, but nothing particularly drew me to working at one. I got placed there through my university for practical I got a job there, so I stayed.
Do you ever feel like heterosexuality is a job requisite?
In a lot of ways, yes. If I was going for a job in a Catholic school and I was openly gay, I would most likely not be employed because faith-based organisations are protected by religious-freedom exemptions in anti-discrimination law.
Wow, that’s a mouthful. So what you’re saying is that even if you’re the best person for the job, if you’re openly gay, it’s not likely a Catholic school will employ you and the law doesn’t protect you.
I find it really interesting that you teach religious studies.
Yeah, having some sort of religious accreditation makes you more employable at a Catholic school. That said though, I’ve always enjoyed theology. I find the fact that faith can be such an integral part of someone’s life fascinating.
Do you consider yourself a religious person?
I was baptised within the Christian faith but I don’t subscribe to any particular religion. I consider myself a more spiritual person, I know that sounds like a cliché [laughs] but I don’t take Bible stories with any sort of literality. I think that the messages about love, respect and treating people equally are what’s more important.
This is a bit of a personal question, but do you intend on getting married or starting a family?
I definitely want to do both of those things. Not to get married in a religious sense with a priest under the eyes of God but I definitely want to get married and I definitely want to have children.
So when you are married with kids, would you be comfortable talking about your family life at school, particularly if you’re still in the Catholic system?
Not in front of students. You know, if students ask if I’m married or in a relationship, there are boundaries and students don’t need to know that sort of information about you. Often they know about teachers – if they are married or whatever but it’s not something that I would share.
But normally that sort of stuff does come up in class, do you feel like you would have to withhold that information?
If I got married and all of those things, I wouldn’t be able to share that with my students which is totally fine – that’s ok, but with colleagues I think that it would be hard. I think that’s not something you can hide from the people you work with – the fact that you’re getting married and who you’re getting married to, it’s just not easily hidden. I guess initially your sexuality – my sexuality, would be put under a microscope. Because I already get questions like “Are you seeing anyone?” and “Why aren’t you seeing anyone?” I feel like I could never turn around and say “Oh it’s because I’m gay.” It’s constantly because “Oh I’m just not looking at the moment” or “I’m just concentrating on myself right now.” I just couldn’t do that because there are so many people that I work with that would not be ok with me being gay.
Does that possibility affect your working relationships?
It stops me from getting closer to people that I work with. I don’t go out with my colleagues.
Would you send your kids to a Catholic school?
No [laughs]. I’ve been to a Catholic school, I teach at a Catholic school and while there are some really good things that happen at Catholic schools – they’re really not all bad. I would prefer my children to be in an environment that was supportive of the family that they come from and the people that they’re going to be, regardless of who they are and whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity happens to be. I would rather send them somewhere that will be supportive and inclusive.
Do you feel that if you had students with LGBTQ+ parents at the school you teach at now, it would be particularly incubating for that family?
To be honest, I don’t think they would be accepted into the school in the first place, but they couldn’t say that it was because the parents were gay. The excuse would be “we’ve got too many applicants” or “you’re out of the area.” People of a different religion have trouble getting in so I feel like same-sex couples have little to no chance.
What if they were accepted?
If they were accepted – well, faith is a major part of going to a Catholic school, it’s compulsory to do religion until Year 12 and the Catholic Church has very strong opinions on things like marriage equality and same-sex relationships. I worry that it wouldn’t be a supportive environment for that child, going home and thinking that their mums or dads are not doing the right thing and that they’re “sinning.” I don’t think that’s a good environment for a child to be in, especially when there’s things like “Don’t Mess With Marriage” booklets are going home to students written by the Catholic Bishops of Australia saying that marriage between a man and a woman is the only “real” form of marriage. In the booklet it says “‘Messing with marriage’[…] is also ‘messing with kids.’” It would be so confronting for those students.
So when kids ask you questions pertaining to your personal views about issues like marriage equality, how do you answer them?
I mean we’ve been briefed on how to answer those kinds of questions, whether you’re for or against it, you never give your personal opinion on it. You have to give the opinion of the church. That’s the only way that I could approach it. There’s no way that I could say “Marriage is a personal choice and no one else has the right to say anything about that.” I can’t say that to my students, so I have to take the approach of what the church says.
As a gay teacher though, don’t you feel a responsibility curate the conversation about marriage equality not just on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community but on behalf of the students who may be part of that community?
Yes, I feel like I’m misleading them, I’m telling them this is the only way this can happen for you. I know that I do address students that identify as LGBTQ+ and I feel like I have a massive responsibility to do what teachers didn’t or couldn’t do for me. All they really need is someone to say them “You know what, it’s ok. It’s going to be ok” and I wish that I had had someone at a school to say that to me – “You’re normal.”
Compared to generations preceding them, you’re spending a lot of time around a very enlightened generation of adolescents in terms of sexuality and sexual orientation. Do you feel like the Catholic education system will ever catch up?
No, I think that the kids will always be ahead of the Catholic Church.
So what is Safe Schools? It’s sort of been sidelined in the media recently, but what is it?
It’s a program created by the Safe Schools Coalition Australia that aims to provide support and training for schools to reduce homophobic and transphobic bullying and discrimination. In general, it aims to ensure that LGBTQ+ students are safe, included and supported in their schools. It’s a whole school program, it has to be implemented from the top down across all of the school’s operations and subjects – that includes discipline and responding to homophobic and transphobic behaviour. It’s kind of like a change in culture by bringing awareness to issues faced by LGBTQ+ students. That said, it’s not just LGBTQ+ issues, I think people forget that the whole point of the program is to make school safer and better for kids by acknowledging and celebrating diversity in whatever form that comes in, whether that’s sexual or cultural and so on.
Has it been implemented at the school you work at?
No, I haven’t heard of many Catholic schools who have.
Are there many schools that have implemented it?
At this point, there are 546 member schools in Australia. Only two are Catholic Schools – St Joseph’s School and St Joseph’s Flexible Learning Centre in Victoria.
Wow, only two Catholic schools.
[Laughs] That surprises you, does it?
A little bit, yeah. Where do you think the resistance is coming from?
There’s a lot of resistance coming from the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL). On their website, they call it a “radical program” that “sexualises” children. They’ve even come up with a ridiculous checklist that they use to demonise the Safe Schools Program by taking things completely out of context. For example, they say the program teaches girls to bind their chests to hinder development and it gets even more ridiculous, the following which is taken directly from the ACL website;
- Teach girls to bind their chests so their breasts won’t develop.
- Encourage students cross-dressing
- Teach kids gay and lesbian sexual techniques
- Encourage kids to use either boys’ or girls’ toilets.
- Integrate gender theory and sexual themes across all subjects.
You can’t teach people to be LGBTQ+, it’s about creating a support network for those who are and it’s educating the other students on these issues and teaching them how to be inclusive. So people need to understand it’s not about teaching kids how to be LGBTQ+
Something I thought was very interesting is the approach to changing the language students use. You know, with the phrase “that’s so gay.” The aim is to change the language because saying “that’s so gay” makes “gay” synonymous with “lame” or “uncool” or less than. Instead of saying “That’s so gay,” say what you actually mean.
So what can people do?
If you have kids at school, you can bring it to your principal to become a member with the Safe Schools Coalition. Beyond that, write a letter to your local member or state premier if that’s not something they’re interested in. The most important thing is to educate yourself on the program, there’s so much information on the program on the Safe Schools Coalition website.
Interview by Sophie Bishop