Exclusive: The Prime Minister is under pressure to close legal exemptions that let religious schools discriminate against gay teachers. For those at the coalface, it can be an everyday experience.
Homosexual teachers working at various Christian and Islamic schools have described a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture in their workplaces, where they believed their jobs would be threatened if school management found out they were gay.
SBS News spoke with a number of gay teachers about their experiences as the Morrison government faces pressure to include teachers in its planned legislation to prevent religious schools from excluding gay students.
While some had colleagues who were accepting and supportive when they found out, others describe a culture of silence and an unspoken pressure to keep their homosexuality secret.
Jobs at risk?
One current teacher at an Islamic school in Melbourne spoke to SBS News on the condition of anonymity, for both her and the school. She believes she will lose her job if management discovers she is a lesbian.
“From the talk in the staffroom, it’s clear that [homosexuality] is unacceptable. There’s been talk that, next to murder, it’s the worst sin,” she said.
That particular comment came from a headteacher, and her supervisor, during a “lunchtime chat” - with a large group of around 10 of her colleagues also present.
“All the other teachers agreed,” she said. “That is accepted as fact. They said this, obviously, not knowing that I’m gay.”
The Islamic school in question is highly conservative, she said, and would not tolerate an unmarried teacher either. Teachers are required to wear a head covering at school and to live a life according to Islamic values.
“It’s sort of like the old army thing: don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The teacher told SBS News she would “definitely get spoken to” about how her homosexuality was “not in line with the school’s values” if they ever found out she was a lesbian.
“The people that I work with say that about their own children. They don’t want their children in a classroom with a gay teacher.”
‘He was pushed’
Another school teacher, Michael James, said the disapproval of managers at his former Catholic boys’ school eventually led to him losing his job.
He was on a short one-term contract at the Queensland school teaching drama and film.
Mr James says it was one of his co-workers who first discovered he was gay.
“We were talking about different music we liked one day, and some of my answers were fairly obvious. He kind of laughed and turned around and was like ‘you’re not gay, are you?’”
“I thought about what I was going to say and went “yeah, I am”. And he was like “oh, okay”.
That co-worker ended up becoming a friend, he says, and it was always “fine" to talk about being gay with several of the teachers he knew well.
Then, some of the students at the school found examples of Mr James engaging in gay rights activism online.
The news “raced around the school pretty quickly”.
“It was brought to the attention of the senior management of the school, and so there were several conversations I had to have with them regarding the fact that the kids had discovered it and what was to be said around that,” Mr James told SBS News.
“I was just got told to ignore it and let it lay low, basically, and not talk about it with the kids at all.”
“I had a couple of good teachers there, who when they heard the kids talking about it they kind of put them in their places. So it was kind of this mix of good coworkers, and then management at the school just being like ‘you need to keep quiet’.”
Mr James said a Catholic brother who worked at the school had also been let go after management realised he was gay.
“He was pushed. Under the guise of something much more basic, but yeah, he was definitely pushed out of the school. And it was definitely because he was an obviously gay man.”
‘I tried to be interested in men’
The teacher from the Islamic school said her two years at the school and the discussions in the staffroom had changed the way she thought about her sexuality.
Before, she had never struggled to reconcile her lesbianism with her Islamic faith.
“It was just something that never bothered me until I started at the school and I heard the views of the people that I work with,” she said.
“It was the first time that I felt, maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe this is something that I should try to control.
“And for a time, I did. I tried to be straight. I tried to be interested in men, and it didn’t work.”
She said she did not share her colleagues’ belief that homosexuality was a test from God.
“I don’t, but I’m also scared that they’re right,” she said.
“So it’s sort of eroded my own confidence, just being surrounded by that belief. And they’re so certain, as well.”
A mixed response
Mr James was not alone in sharing stories of supportive colleagues.
One 48-year-old schoolteacher, Jason Tuazon-McCheyne, told SBS News coming out at work lifted a huge weight from his shoulders.
He said the Anglican college he worked at was 100 per cent supportive, but acknowledged many others were not.
‘We want teachers who walk the walk’
Mark Spencer of Christian Schools Australia said parents were “flocking” to Christian schools because they “want that sort of values-based education for their students”.
Asked how many teachers were sacked on the basis of their sexuality, Mr Spencer said it was “not common” because teachers “self-select by not even applying” if they are gay.
“We obviously want teachers who not just talk the talk, but walk the walk,” he told SBS News.
“Whose faith is not just something that they can talk about in the classroom but they can live it out.”
Mr Spencer said there were “other great schools”, including some Catholic schools, were homosexual teachers could find a job.
SBS News also approached the Islamic Schools Association of Australia for a comment but did not receive a response by the time of writing.