Double lives for gay teachers in Ireland

Published: December 21, 2011

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

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

"When you are in the school system, 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 in that post is up for challenge."

The Church has been toppled from its once pre-eminent position in Irish life thanks to rising prosperity, membership of the European Union, the shift from farm to city and wave after wave of sex abuse scandals. Ireland’s recent decision to close its embassy in the Vatican brought relations to a historic low.

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 ten primary schools and half of all high schools are run by the Church. The boards of such schools are typically chaired by a parish priest and, although the state pays the 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 lecturers trainee teachers and is treasurer of a group representing lesbian, gay and bisexual primary school 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."

CHANGING ATTITUDES

Up until 1993, it was a crime to commit a homosexual act in Ireland — anal sex could land you in prison for life.

Before that, most people opted to hide their sexuality. 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 since then. This year’s gay pride event attracted 25,000 people, the second-largest procession in the country after the St. Patrick’s’ Day Parade.

Polls show a majority of the public are in favor of gay marriage, including many practicing Catholics.

"The Lord made them that way. They should have equal rights," said Ita Phelan, 91, on her way into Sunday Mass at Dublin’s main Roman Catholic church.

But in many classrooms, where about half an hour of 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 his final year in frustration at how the staff was ignoring the problem.

"I think it came down to the ethos of the school 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."

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