Even though marriage equality has been the law of the land in Ireland since 2015, LGBT teachers there report having to publicly hide their identity in order to work at schools–both religious and secular institutions. The Irish Times reported that the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) is working to help LGBT teachers feel welcome at schools across the country.
Irish teachers report that hiding their identities has been a career-long issue, and even with union support, they have struggled with balancing their career and personal lives. Damien McGrath, was one of those teachers. He helped to found the LGBT group of INTO in 1979, and said that:
“When you were ashamed of being gay, with your colleagues, you certainly felt that you couldn’t let your students know you were gay and doubly so hiding it from their parents, this whole mask was being maintained.”
The problem cuts across the various school systems–Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, and public. Teacher Jean Louise McCarthy said that she feels that she cannot be her full self in school, and that in order to further her career, she must hide part of her life:
“There are still schools where you cannot be yourself, I now have permanency and this is the first time that I’ve been openly out and comfortable being out as a gay woman.
“It’s 2018, but you’re constantly censoring yourself, you say my partner, you use the plural you say they instead of she or he depending who it is, it’s a constant battle with yourself.
“Do I show who I really am or do I protect my job?
“Ireland’s very small, if you’re working in a Catholic school or a Church of Ireland, Presbyterian school and the principal doesn’t take fancy to you being gay – they have a network that can be very difficult for you then to get in to other schools.”
Niall Perrill, another teacher,reported that he felt unwelcome in parochial schools, and struggled with his now limited career options, saying:
“My first year I worked in a religious school, it was around the same time that I was coming out, I found it very, very difficult, it was coming towards the end of the school year and I distinctly remember the principal telling me ‘there’s jobs coming up here, make sure you apply’, and I was saying no, I don’t want to apply to this school because it’s religious run and I don’t want to be the next big drama in the school.”
“It’s the fear, that parents are going to come in and say I don’t want this teacher teaching my child, or the chairman of the board of management will come in, usually a religious figure will come in and not really say anything because, obviously he can’t, but kind of almost looking down.”
Sean Heagarty works as a secretary for INTO LGBT, and says that he continues to hear from other teachers who say similar things to McGrath and Perrill:
“Teachers who teach in religious schools are told, ‘well you know if you want to continue working here in this school or if you want to get a job in the local area you can’t be ‘out’ – get back into the closet’. That’s shocking in 2018.”
Others say that school leadership is what makes for an inclusive environment, regardless of religion. Cecilia Gavigan serves as chair of the group and says that:
“There would be parents in my school who are very religious, but I think the thing that has meant I don’t mind being public about things is because the principal is so strong and has been so supportive in all the contacts, so I know if a parent came in the principal would just tell them to go away.”
What’s unique about the situation of teachers in Ireland is the small size of the educational network. But, other than that, teachers in many nations still experience the same kind of fear and oppression. One need only look at the list of employees fired from Catholic jobs in the last few years to know that this trend is only going to become more widespread, especially as marriage equality grows and more people come out as LGBT.
The other unique aspect of the Irish situation is that the national teachers’ union has stepped in to help those in both religious and secular schools. Such a model would not work in the U.S. because of the strict separation of church and state, and other nations would face similar constraints.
It is ironic that while Catholic institutions are often among the strictest ones keeping their employees in the closet, they actually should be among the ones who are doing the most to support LGBT teachers. Catholic teaching against non-discrimination towards LGBT people is strong, but, unfortunately, it too often gets trumped by teachings about sexuality. It’s sad that a labor union will be doing the work that the Irish Catholic Church should be doing. Let’s hope that Catholic leaders will learn by example.
If you are interested in Catholic resources about schools and youth, visit New Ways Ministry’s new webpage on the topic.
—Francis DeBernardo and Kaitlin Brown, August 4, 2018