Last week, submissions closed to the latest Senate inquiry into national laws governing LGBTI students and teachers in faith-based schools. Olivia Hogarth is hoping the nation adopts a model that she says protected her well.
I came out as a lesbian to my family in 1997. It was my final year of a teaching degree and I wasn’t far away from starting my first job in the Tasmanian Catholic school system.
That was the same year the Tasmanian Parliament finally passed legislation to decriminalise homosexuality, and the following year it also established the Anti-Discrimination Act.
When I joined the Independent Education Union (the union for those working in faith-based schools) during my first year of teaching in 1998, one thing I looked for was whether being gay was grounds for losing my job.
I was delighted to find a page within the Union handbook that was copied from the Act, spelling out in black and white that I was protected.
Back then I was only out to family and friends, not work colleagues. My mum was in my ear warning me to be careful lest the school authorities find out about me. But I was able to reassure her; I had nothing to fear because the Anti-Discrimination Act, and my Union, would protect me.
As I got to know the other staff members I slowly came out to a few I felt comfortable around. I remember taking my partner at the time to staff dinners.
About 10 years later I entered a Tasmanian civil partnership with my new partner. We had a lovely ceremony attended by friends from school. Another teacher was the celebrant. The Deputy Principal later found out and congratulated me.
I don’t want to give the impression teaching in the Catholic system was a bed of roses.
My relationship and being gay wasn’t something I always felt comfortable discussing in the staffroom or with students. I didn’t want other people’s prejudice to get in the way of me being the best teacher I could be.
I was conscious that homosexuality was against the teachings of the Church, but I still had my faith. Teaching in the Catholic school system was important to me and it was where I felt I could best put my values into practice. So, I mostly kept my identity to myself.
But what I wasn’t worried about was being sacked because I was gay or because I had publicly formalised my same-sex relationship.
My experience of teaching in Catholic schools was nothing like the stories I hear from other states, or internationally, about LGBTI teachers living in fear of anyone finding out who they are, or being sacked when their secret is out.
It should be obvious why this is wrong.
Forcing LGBTI teachers to hide sends a message to students that secrecy and hypocrisy is okay. Firing LGBTI teachers cuts them off from a vocation many are dedicated to.
Sacking or not recruiting teachers just because they are LGBT or I and regardless of their teaching skill, or even their religious faith, means students are not getting the best teachers available.
For 20 years LGBTI teachers in Tasmania’s faith-based schools have been protected from unlawful discrimination and I believe these schools are better for it.
The Catholic schools I have worked in are immensely more welcoming and inclusive than they were when I attended them as a student.
Most Tasmanian Catholic schools would now support LGBTI students, and some run education programs for teachers on LGBTI inclusive practice. Many I have worked in address LGBTI discrimination alongside other social justice issues, both within the curriculum and beyond.
Even if you don’t agree with these changes, there’s no escaping the fact that the sky hasn’t fallen in.
There has been none of the “forced closures” or “existential crises” predicted by religious leaders in other states when the discrimination issue comes up.
There is increased debate in the other states and in Canberra about whether to protect LGBTI students and teachers in faith-based schools.
My recommendation is that they adopt the Tasmanian model.
It is good for LGBTI teachers and students, and it is good for whole school communities.
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