Gay Irish teachers lead double lives

Being honest about their relationships can get them fired in a nation in which the Catholic church still wields power

Schools in Ireland can be hostile places for gay people, particularly the staff rooms.

Gay, lesbian or bisexual teachers in schools, still dominated by the Catholic church, risk discrimination or even the sack if they reveal their sexuality, thanks to a law that lets religious employers penalize employees for actions undermining religious standards.

“You are caught up in the ethos of the school, you are caught up in the silence,” said Leo Kilroy, 34, who used to teach in a Catholic-run primary school in Dublin’s inner city.

“You are aware that if you come out as a gay or a lesbian, you may experience discrimination. Your very existence is up for challenge.”

The church has been toppled from its once pre-eminent position in Irish life thanks to membership of the European Union, the shift from farm to city and wave after wave of sex abuse scandals.

But the church’s influence is still profound in two key areas, schools and family law, which is governed by a constitution still bearing the legacy of Ireland’s Catholic past.

More than nine in 10 primary schools and half of all high schools are run by the church. The boards are typically chaired by a priest and, though the state pays teachers’ salaries, the church still has a say in enrolment and recruitment.

Kilroy came out as a gay man in his late 20s after he left his teaching post. He now lectures trainee teachers and is treasurer of a group representing gay teachers. It has 45 members out of a sector with an estimated 31,000 employees.

“One of the reasons that I was freer to come out was because I was free of the school system. A gay and lesbian person in a staff room has to censor themselves,” he said. “I know of gay teachers who have been passed over for promotion, they have been verbally abused and discriminated against and had to suffer jokes about gay or lesbian people.”

Until 1993, it was a crime to have homosexual sex in Ireland. Anal sex could land you in prison for life.

Gay pride parades in 1980s Dublin were paltry affairs, attracting a few hundred people and the odd bigot shouting taunts about AIDS.

Attitudes have changed dramatically. This year’s gay pride event attracted 25,000 people. It’s become the second-largest procession in the country after the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Polls show a majority favour gay marriage, including many practising Catholics.

“The Lord made them that way. They should have equal rights,” said Ita Phelan, 91, on her way into Sunday Mass.

But in many classrooms, where daily religious instruction and a crucifix on the wall are the norm, not much has changed.

Patrick Dempsey used to pretend to be sick to avoid going into school in Dublin’s south inner city.

“From first year right up until I left, I had to deal with bullying, name-calling, being afraid to walk down a corridor.

“When you know someone is going to call you a faggot or a queer and you know you are going to be embarrassed in front of 30 or so odd people, you are going to want to avoid that at all cost.”

The 19-year-old eventually dropped out of the Catholic-run school in frustration at how the staff was ignoring the problem.

“Because it was a Catholic school, they didn’t have a specific policy towards homophobic bullying,” he said. “It was so open in the school it was unbelievable. Homophobic language was used by one of the teachers.”

For Feargha Ni Bhroin, being a lesbian isn’t an issue at the non-religious vocational college where she teaches. The problem is at home.

Ni Bhroin and her partner, Linda Cullen, are parents to twin girls, but Cullen has no relationship with her daughters because she is not their biological mother. She cannot adopt them or be their guardian and is not named on their birth certificates.

“If we separated, I would have no rights, and more importantly the children have no rights on me, so I wouldn’t have to pay maintenance or anything if I didn’t want to. The children know I am their mother. I am up with them at 3, 4, 5 in the morning. But the law doesn’t.”

by Carmel Crimmins, Reuters
Source – The Gazette