Vickie Merrick portrait

Written by Vickie Merrick

PE and History Teacher at an International School in Rome and has previously taught in Vietnam and the UK.

This post was very much inspired by Dr Adam Brett’s (@DrAdamBrett) recent talk about his PhD findings on what it means to be a visible LGBT+ educator. It is a personal reflection of my journey to becoming visible in an international teaching community.

During my ITT year there wasn’t the same talk and work that there is now about DEI, social justice and decolonising the curriculum. As a white British cis woman going through my training year, I never thought about the importance of representation. “If you can see it, you can be it” wasn’t a phrase that ever crossed my mind.

Now I realise and acknowledge that I have white privilege, I’m cisgender, I’m middle class (in that whilst my parents consider themselves working class, I went to a grammar school, I’ve gone to university twice and am currently back again completing an MSc and these experiences have afforded me the opportunity to emigrate and continue my career abroad) and I was lucky enough to be born in the Global North. There are many things about my life that mean I have an easier time than so many people in the world.

I’m also a member of the LGBTQ+ community. And I have a chronic health condition that impacts both my physical and mental health. These two areas are the only parts of my life where I have ever faced any difficulty due to my identity.

Section 28 left a strange underlying legacy on schools in England. Although I began working in schools a long time after its 2003 repeal, I heard “don’t tell the students about your personal life, it’s none of their business who you are” more than once in the staffroom. Even though my straight colleagues would quite openly talk about their partners/spouses, the insinuation was that I shouldn’t allude to being a gay woman in front of my classes.

In addition I was aware of the cultural background of my students and knew that some may not have heard positive things (or anything at all) about LGBTQ+ people at home. If I was in the same situation now I don’t think I would hide myself at the risk of causing offence (offence after all is taken not given) and would have used it as an educational opportunity to discuss embracing others regardless of their identity. But I was a new teacher concentrating on learning how to teach (something I’m still learning) and was not too concerned with being a representative of the LGBTQ+ community.

There were students who found out that I was gay and I never encountered any problems from them, if anything they were extremely positive and open about wanting to support LGBTQ+ people. On the other hand, I did once experience a student using ‘gay’ and ‘f**’ as an insult to another student in a lesson I was covering so I followed the school policy and the student waited outside for an on call member of staff. The member of staff had a chat with me and the student then brushed off the incident and sent the student back into the lesson. Again, looking back, as a more experienced teacher, I wouldn’t have let it slide. But as an NQT, I didn’t feel that I had any power to insist that this was homophobic language and should be treated in a serious way that shows the student it is not acceptable.

The final reason that I was never fully visible in my first school was more of an internal one. I teach history and PE. We’ve all heard of and perpetuated (myself included when I was a kid at school) the stereotype of the lesbian PE teacher. I didn’t want to be a stereotype. I’d previously been in the Army Reserves for a short time and found the same stereotype about female soldiers. That wasn’t my reason for leaving the Reserves but with the Army, working in sport, and being a PE teacher, it can get tiring constantly laughing with and brushing off people making jokes and having ‘banter’ about a part of who you are. And of course you laugh because they’re your colleagues and friends. They mean no harm but it’s the microaggressions that we know now to be aware of alongside our own unconscious biases that can build up and deeply impact people.

Leaving the U.K. and yearly visits to Pride Parades behind brought a change to my level of visibility. I left the U.K. with my partner and moved to Vietnam. Throughout the recruitment process we were up front about applying as a couple and didn’t face any problems when it came to contracts, housing allowances and dealing with HR in our new country. There was a surprising moment when the estate agent who was sorting out our rental apartment said the landlady was concerned that two single western women would have lots of men visiting and would receive complaints. The estate agent luckily had read the situation well and assured the landlady that she didn’t have to worry about frequent male visitors staying over…

In school itself it was a different story. We often talk about walking into our school and seeing a rainbow painted on one of the corridor walls with the words “love is love” below it. Talk about a welcoming sign. Again, at the beginning I didn’t intentionally come out to any of my students. Not through a conscious choice but I still didn’t really consider the positive impact it could have for LGBTQ+ students to see a visibly LGBTQ+ member of staff. There were other LGBTQ+ staff and couples at the school and openly LGBTQ+ students who felt they could be ‘out’ at school even if they couldn’t be at home due to the traditional values of their families. Over time, and partly due to the nature of international schools, many of the students my partner and I taught learnt that we were a couple- and exactly as it should be, they treated this as a total non-event. They treated us the same as the other teaching couples in the school. My form, however, were so excited on the day they noticed my engagement ring that I had to usher them out of the door to be on time for their first lessons because they wanted to stop and hear the full story of the proposal. And as we were getting ready to leave and say our final goodbyes in the midst of a lockdown and online learning, some of our grade 10 students were insisting that we sent wedding photos to one of our colleagues after the holidays so that they could see our dresses and hair and make-up.

In Vietnam, my visibility as an LGBTQ+ educator had increased because I felt supported by my colleagues, the school and the students. And the more visible myself and other LGBTQ+ educators were, the more I noticed the way the vast majority of our students, even though they were from all over the globe with different cultures, beliefs, values and backgrounds, treated their LGBTQ+ peers with an awareness, a kindness and acceptance. I left that school thinking that the kids are alright.

The transition into our second (well my third, as I had taught at two different schools in Vietnam) international school was where the first real challenges of being an ‘out’ educator were posed. And they were not posed by students. Recruitment during COVID was a struggle. We sent off around 40 applications and did about 15 interviews between us. We had been lucky to get jobs in Vietnam for our first international roles as it became quickly apparent that many other places were not as keen on hiring an LGBTQ+ teaching couple. Sometimes this was due to visa complications or job openings, other times it was the laws of the country (43 jurisdictions still criminalise lesbianism) and laws around housing. After a particularly challenging experience where we had offers rescinded because, after checking, the school decided their community wasn’t ready for an LGBTQ+ couple, we were feeling pretty disheartened.

Many of the schools we were applying to were IB schools. I still struggle to see how the IB, who preach about global communities and international mindedness, can promote schools and allow them to teach the IB programs when the school communities themselves are anti-inclusion.

Nearing the end of our tether with the recruitment process, my partner had an interview with a small school in Italy. Whilst they did not have a role for me, they were willing to make something part time if my partner was offered the job. The interview was a breath of fresh air. They were the first school who had asked about my partner or I as people and wanted to get an idea of us to find out how we’d fit into their community. They were upfront about wanting LGBTQ+ staff as they were aware that they had students who were part of the LGBTQ+ community and they didn’t always see themselves represented in the staff body. After accepting the jobs, my (now) wife was asked about joining the DEI team, and whilst she is careful as she knows this has become or can have the potential to be quite tokenistic in some schools, she is aware that she has the ability to do work with her team members around social justice and to help combat racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other forms of discrimination within our school community.

For the first time in a school, as an educator, I have been a visible member of the LGBTQ+ community from the beginning. I am aware that I have a-sexual, transgender and non-binary students (and probably others who identify as somewhere on the gender/sexuality spectrum) and delight when they come to tell me about the first time they went to a pride parade or show me the rainbow item of clothing they have worn that day. Whilst I cannot know or understand all of their experiences, especially as a cisgender woman, I can be an empathetic listener from the large umbrella family that is LGBTQ+. The school has an LGBTQ+ club run by a member of staff who is an ally to the LGBTQ+ community and who knows that providing an inclusive space for our students is everyone’s responsibility. The community isn’t perfect and the country, with its strong religious affiliations, has laws against gay couples adopting. It is a work in progress in our school that will require buy-in from all its members to fully promote inclusivity and celebrate diversity, no matter what that looks like. But it is not tiring to be visible here. Every day when I tie up my rainbow laces (a great campaign from @Stonewall) I know the importance of showing my students that LGBTQ+ people are a part of their community, we’re here to stay and that’s very much ok.

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