Schooling and sexuality
There are an estimated 50,000 LGBT+ teachers in the UK (Lee Citation2020). Although a range of international research into the experiences of LGBT+ teachers exists (Gray Citation2013; Braun Citation2011; King Citation2004; Lundin Citation2016), it predominately focuses on the lives of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) teachers and largely presents their experiences as difficult, challenging or problematic. Schools are often experienced as cisgender heteronormative environments in which sexuality is not an appropriate topic for discussion (DePalma and Atkinson Citation2006), positioning LGBT+ subjects as a source of tension that threatens to reveal or disrupt these norms.
Despite the large number of LGBT+ teachers, there is limited quantitative data about their experiences. While it is important to be critical of self-report data such as that contained in the national surveys undertaken by the UK Stonewall charity researching secondary students’ experiences, these findings at least provide a headline understanding of the current school context. Stonewall’s reports have revealed incremental, yet small, improvements in general attitudes towards LGBT+ people and the decreasing use of homophobic language, yet show that a large percentage of LGBT+ students still experience discomfort due to their school environment. This discomfort is also evident in the LGBT+ teacher literature, where the negotiation between personal and professional identities is the focus (Formby Citation2013; DePalma and Atkinson Citation2009; Gray Citation2013).
Gray (Citation2013) argues that identifying as an LGB teacher often requires a careful negotiation between private and professional worlds, whereby LGB staff are left with three options: to not speak with anyone regarding their private life; to come out to other members of staff; to come out to both staff and students. Whatever a teacher’s decision, they are either left with invisibility or hyper-visibility, while being denied the ‘powerful position’ of simple visibility, a third option reserved only for the majority group (DePalma and Atkinson Citation2009). This continual negotiation of self means LGBT+ teachers often experience minority stress (Meyer Citation2003) and must consciously decide whether to remain invisible and therefore inauthentic, or to come out and fear being seen as different.
Coming out brings a new dimension into teachers’ relationships with students, where they suddenly become “the gay teacher”. “What used to be seen as strengths,” she explained, “are suddenly interpreted as ‘dyke-ness.’” She complained that students are distracted by this new information and that they focus on asking personal (and invasive) questions about her sexuality, rather than on their work (Connell Citation2015, 132).
Connell’s quote demonstrates the shift in attitudes that can occur when teachers choose to come out, and where revealing a sexuality or gender that challenges the norms of cisgender heteronormativity can put the individual under a metaphorical spotlight that can erode their strengths as a teacher. As Gray (Citation2013) argues, the fear of repercussions or changing perceptions means LGBT+ teachers must constantly negotiate the ways in which they are able to be visible.
One may be either invisible or exaggerated, but it is very difficult to simply be a gay or lesbian teacher (DePalma and Atkinson Citation2009, 878).
DePalma and Atkinson’s outline of the choices that LGBT+ teachers make provides insight into the unenviable decision confronting many teachers: whether to be open about their sexuality or to hide it. Patai (Citation1992) argues that minority groups – often powerless or marginalised – can either remain silent and invisible, contributing to existing norms, or choose to attract surplus visibility. Surplus visibility here refers to the attention, warranted or not, that a member of a minority group attracts. This visibility can then create a shift in public perception and the individual may be perceived to accurately represent the entire minority group, providing an unjustified level of responsibility. Some may wish to attract this visibility and use it as an opportunity to challenge the status quo, whereas others may wish to remain invisible, particularly when visibility may be detrimental to the individual or may provide distraction to their education or career. When considering LGBT+ as the minority group, cisgender heteronormative expectations provide the backdrop that highlights this surplus visibility.
Pallotta-Chiarolli (Citation2010) has developed a more nuanced concept of visibility, considering types of visibility available from three perspectives. Although derived from research into bisexual young people and ‘queerly mixed’/polyamorous families, Pallotta-Chiarolli’s metaphors of visibility both mirror and develop a contemporary understanding of Patai’s (Citation1992) surplus visibility. The three types of visibility identified are passing (normalisation), bordering (negotiation) and polluting (non-compliance). Passing suggests hiding the unacceptable to fit in and be accepted within the status quo (largely in line with Patai’s definition of invisibility). Bordering suggests concealing or revealing aspects of identity depending on surroundings and context. Here, the presence of specific individuals and environments dictates the amount of visibility a person may be comfortable presenting. This type of visibility is particularly relevant when considering both the structured and serendipitous configurations of students, teachers and spaces in school settings. Polluting, despite its toxic undertones, is used by Pallotta-Chiarolli as a metaphor for ‘strength, agency and empowerment’ (62) and is central to disrupting existing structures and ways of thinking so as to create ‘emergent and empowering systems and structures’.
Coleman-Fountain (Citation2014) presents a counter ‘post-gay’ view, claiming sexuality should no longer be the defining feature of a person’s identity. Coleman-Fountain argues that some gay and lesbian people’s ‘ordinariness’ gives them access to ‘normalised’ forms of visibility, which Pennell (Citation2016) argues may even carry forms of capital. These ideas will be revisited later in this paper.
The visibility literature is therefore wide ranging and offers many important ideas for consideration. Firstly, unlike some protected characteristics, LGBT+ identities can be invisible, and thus for most LGBT+ teachers, a conscious decision must be made as to whether to be visible and to what extent. Secondly, visibility is contextually relevant, and influenced by a myriad of factors. Whichever forms of visibility LGBT+ teachers choose to adopt; the literature has shown that visibility is something that has to continually be navigated and measured. Visibility has both the power to be an emancipatory tool, and also an oppressive and exhausting one.
Photo elicitation is a somewhat underused method in educational research but has been used to enquire into topics including bullying and the experiences of LGBT+ students (Walton and Niblett Citation2013; Allen Citation2009, Citation2011; Joy and Numer Citation2017). Collier and Collier (Citation1986) are cited as some of the earliest adopters of photo elicitation, describing the method as an interview in which the informants and the interviewer discuss the photographs taken by participants, together. This not only allows the participant to articulate the reasons why they took each photograph; it also provides a springboard from which to explore issues in greater depth. This method helps remove some of the stress and uncertainty that participants may experience if they were subject of an interview alone – ‘instead their role can be one of expert guides leading the fieldworker through the content of the pictures’ (Collier and Collier Citation1986, 106).
Collier and Collier also argue that photo elicitation allows participants to somewhat detach from potentially sensitive issues. They suggest that this method gives participants the maximum degree of free association that would be possible within a structured interview, helping to ease any tension participants may feel in discussing their identity.. As well as the benefits photo elicitation provides in structuring interviews and reducing the anxiety of participants, Harper (Citation2002) argues that participants’ discussions of feelings and experiences may be more vivid and visceral when elicited this way. Harper describes the difference between this method and traditional interviews, in terms of the way participants respond to the ‘symbolic representations’ contained within the photographs.
The parts of the brain that process visual information are in evolutionary terms older than the parts of the brain that process verbal information; therefore, visual images evoke deeper parts of human consciousness than words do (Harper Citation2002, 13).
By using photo elicitation, different layers of understanding can be gained to help connect ‘core definitions of the self’ to society, culture and history (Harper Citation2002). The method allows us to see spaces we would not otherwise have access to and calls attention to that which we cannot observe (Patton Citation2002).
The literature regarding visual methodologies makes it clear that photo elicitation could be an effective way to collect data for a study of this kind. Much of what I hoped to discuss with participants was not visual – it concerned invisible cisgender heteronormative assumptions. The importance of the photos, therefore, was less about what they displayed, but what the image represented, prompting discussion of the emotions and feelings participants experienced in these spaces. Because these feelings dissipate quite quickly, unprompted interviews are not always good at capturing them. Photo elicitation acknowledged participants as experts in their own lives, consequently giving them a sense of empowerment that provided rich insights into their lived experiences as LGBT+ teachers. Coupled with the fact that teachers are encouraged to be reflective practitioners, this method provided opportunities for them to examine their lived experiences in ways that many of them had not before. It also made participants both creators and interpreters in the research.
This paper presents a selected case study based on a larger study with LGBT+ secondary teachers, sharing the findings of three participants: Alfie, James and Amy. The participants have been chosen as the focus for this paper as they present views that both develop and challenge some of the existing literature in this field.
Two of the participants were also trans, offering rich insights from an underrepresented LGBT+ group in academic literature. Participants were recruited through a combination of volunteer and snowball sampling using Twitter and professional networks such as LGBTed. Ethical approval for the study was granted by Nottingham Trent University’s Ethics Committee and participants gave informed consent to take part in the research, understanding they could withdraw at any time. Participants’ photos and transcripts were anonymised and shared with them for approval before being included in the findings.
Participants took photos in their schools to represent the spaces in which they felt the most and least safe/visible and shared these prior to the interview for them to be printed. Participants did not need to seek permission from their school before taking the photos to prevent the need to potentially out themselves. Photos were not to contain students or signifiers that could identify the school to mitigate the need for consent. The photos were then discussed in one-to-one interviews which were recorded and fully transcribed. The transcribed interviews were then thematically coded and analysed using NVivo to identify key themes.
The existing literature identifies the difficult relationship that has always existed between schools and sexuality (Ferfolja Citation2007; Epstein and Johnson Citation1998; DePalma and Atkinson Citation2006). The findings from this study support this view, but also highlight how cisgender heteronormative expectations may be evolving, leading to greater acceptance of some LGBT+ identities in schools. The data from this study tells two key stories. The first is just how powerful an LGBT+ teacher identity can be, while the other considers the challenges of bringing embodied discussion of gender and sexuality into the classroom. The data demonstrated limited evidence of explicit LGBT-phobia; the context to most discussion was how teachers positioned their identities in relation to the overall cisgender heteronormativity of the schools in which they worked.
The most prominent theme in the research was the dilemma of deciding whether to be out with students and the lack of guidance, support and education on how to go about this. Each participant had spent a long time considering this throughout their career and thinking how best to navigate the decision. Connell (Citation2015) suggests an immediate vulnerability that comes from being a ‘gay teacher’ which helps illustrate teachers’ fear of being visible. While the data provided evidence of this, Connell’s earlier quote also offers a useful counterview to what some teachers in this study also observed: namely, coming out enhanced, rather than eroded, their strengths as a teacher. It is important to acknowledge that the participants who were out to students all experienced what Connell described as the initial ‘distraction of new information’, highlighting the cisgender heteronormativity that permeates educational spaces. However, some participants also demonstrated that by having their difference highlighted in this way, coming out quickly became a learning opportunity and a chance to form stronger, more meaningful relationships with their students. These ideas are explored more fully below.
The embodied LGBT+ teacher
Standing in front of a class of 30 students is being highly visible. The first thing on display and noticed by students and staff when entering a school or a classroom as a student teacher is not the trainee’s subject knowledge, dedication to teaching or caring attitude towards young people, it is their body and appearance (Braun Citation2011, 275).
Braun’s study of trainee teachers and their concern of what an embodied teacher should look like helps illustrate a key theme from the interviews. The bodies of teachers tend to be fairly invisible in education (O’Loughlin Citation2006) yet proved to be a prominent theme in discussion of LGBT+ visibility. Not just the body; the voice, behaviour, mannerisms, and dress were all key considerations in the embodiment and visibility of the participants. For some, it was important their bodies and behaviour were congruent with cisgender heteronormative expectations. For others, their difference was a source of empowerment.
James was a 26-year-old Religious Studies (RS) teacher who had recently returned to work at the Catholic school he attended as a child, after having had gender confirmation surgery. James’ body initially proved to be a source of tension within the school, and he was told not to address his gender identity with students, as this would be at odds with Catholic teaching. James’ recent surgery and ongoing testosterone treatment had placed his gender presentation in a state of flux. Despite presenting as male in dress and by name, it was evident to many that James was transitioning. This put James in a difficult position as he had been clearly instructed not to talk about his identity, yet he felt it necessary to address his body that raised questions about gender (Reimers Citation2020). He shared a photo (Figure 1) to explain how he had addressed this.
When I first got into school this year, because I’d had surgeries, I think it was the first four weeks, to get to know my classes, they could just ask anything. So, they would put their questions folded up in a box, and one of the first questions that came out with my new year 9 class was ‘can you be a transgender RS teacher?’. Because they knew, and so I kind of explained it. ‘Yes, yes you can’.
James felt not addressing the situation would have undermined his ability to form strong relationships with the students. James took it upon himself to address the issue in a proactive and positive way. This allowed students to ask personal questions, whilst he controlled the conversation by vetting them as they were selected. He felt this was an important way of being visible, addressing misconceptions, and building relationships with different groups of students. By sharing personal information, he was able to develop trust and credibility quickly, that if left unaddressed, would have continued to place his body as a source of tension against the cisgender expectations of a Catholic School.
James’ self-imposed necessity to address his gender with his group was a potentially risky decision, however, especially since it required him to go against the wishes of the school. However, it allowed him to challenge students’ expectations of what an embodied teacher, especially an RS teacher, should look like. Braun (Citation2011) theorises that ‘traditional’ embodiments of teachers are ultimately superficial and can potentially ‘be ignored if authority and identity in school is available through other channels, such as respect given because of knowledge’ (284). James’ visibility as a trans teacher provided an opportunity to present ‘authority and identity’ in a way unavailable to others, and for him, was a platform from which to challenge existing structures using a form of polluting visibility. James explained that nothing was said to him regarding his decision to be visible and open with students, despite being told not to at interview, but the dilemma was stressful. James’ experience of stress, as well as a desire to be visible and a role model, helps us to conceptualise what polluting visibility can look and feel like.
Pallotta-Chiarolli (Citation2010, 62) defines polluting visibility as a metaphor for ‘strength, agency and empowerment’. While such a description may sound combative and potentially hostile, James described how he had been able to use his identity as a trans teacher to very gently, but very radically, pollute and progress the culture of his school. James was able to present a duality of ideas whereby he could develop his ‘authority and identity’ as both a successful RS teacher and as a confident out trans man. The success of his approach was evidenced by students empathising with him as a trans man, when asking if he could become a Catholic Priest.
And they were like ‘what if you identified as a man or what if you’re transgender?’ and I was like ‘you wouldn’t be allowed to be a priest because the church says that you’re technically still a woman, and they’re like ‘No, that’s not fair’ and I’m like ‘I know, I totally agree’.
James’ ability to be visible carried radical transformational possibilities. Through his relationships with students, James made them question their own views and beliefs, as demonstrated by the response that it would not be ‘fair’ for him to not be allowed to become a priest. He further demonstrated his acceptance by both staff and students by sharing a photo of the boys’ toilets (Figure 2) in school, explaining the significance of him being visible and validated within this strongly gendered space.
Male pupils have called me in if there’s an issue, and they haven’t had an issue with the fact that I’m going into there, whereas of course, I wouldn’t have ever walked into the female ones, and if, even if I was close enough, pupils would be like ‘why are you here?’, so it’s just it kind of, I suppose it’s like a solidarity thing really, that picture, that I’ve been into the male toilets before and the children or in fact other members of staff if they’re in there, it’s not been an issue at all.
James spoke almost entirely positively of his experience as a trans teacher. His surplus visibility (Patai Citation1992) gave him a position of power, whereby he was able to have honest conversations with students and colleagues in ways that gently encouraged them to question their assumptions and beliefs about what a Catholic school and a Catholic education should be.
Alfie was another teacher whose LGBT+ identity was visible. As a gay, cisgender man who described himself as ‘traditionally camp’ in both his voice and mannerisms, he thought it was ‘obvious’ he was gay. Consequently, like James, he felt the need to address this fact with students. Alfie worked in a secular school with a large majority of Muslim students. He shared a story about the importance of first impressions of an embodied teacher.
So, on my first day there, a student came in and it was quite a rowdy year group and they’re making a lot of noise, and I asked them all to sit down and be quiet, and one of these girls just went ‘Oh my God, he sounds so gay!’.
The girl’s aggressive outburst demonstrates a knee jerk reaction to a challenge to the heteronorm and, in turn, a policing of gender role expectations. This event provides a near perfect example of Connell’s description of how masculinity is created and maintained. ‘If a man fails to do masculinity appropriately for any given social situation, he may be socially sanctioned with hostile stares, laughter, or aggression’ (Connell Citation2015, 10). The student’s response demonstrates a deeply ingrained set of beliefs and expectations that male teachers should demonstrate a congruent masculinity. Encouragingly, this was the only example Alfie could recall relating to challenges of being visible with his students. Alfie explained how he handled the situation.
So, I obviously sent her out, but after, when I came back in, I had a discussion with them; that’s when I told them. I was like ‘I am gay, you know if someone has an issue with this, feel free to come talk to me or talk to my head of department, talk to your head of year, that’s absolutely fine, because we can work around that if this is an issue, you don’t have to be, like, in this room’.
Alfie’s immediate sending out of the student out conveyed a powerful message that discriminatory behaviour was not going to be tolerated. He was then able to be simultaneously vulnerable in addressing his sexual identity with the group, yet authoritative by explaining how it could and should be appropriately addressed if students had an issue with it. Much like James, Alfie’s identity was immediately visible, and while he saw addressing this as a necessity, doing so provided an opportunity for Alfie to build trust and rapport with the group, diminishing the initial reactions.
Alfie shared another story that demonstrated the ways in which visibility is contextually contingent, and where bordering visibility often becomes necessary, or worse, required. Alfie had been praised by school leadership for being an openly gay member of staff who acted as a role model for other sexuality minority students. Despite this praise, Alfie’s visibility was problematic. Alfie’s school had a large percentage of Muslim students, and he described the ‘fear’ of some senior leaders and members of staff who thought his visibility as a gay teacher might cause problems with parents. In the following example, a colleague was talking to him about an upcoming parents’ evening.
She was like ‘are you concerned about parents saying anything about it?’, and they said, in their opinion, that I should have almost like a rebuttal planned, or something like, so I can say something about it. It then led to another member of my department being involved in talking about it, and they were like ‘I would just say that you wouldn’t speak about it’, and stuff like that, which isn’t very me, like if they asked me if I was gay or anything like that, I would be very honest with them.
Here, Alfie is being reminded that there may be limits to acceptance of his sexuality, and that he should in some way be ready to defend or shut down discussion of it. This example illustrates the powerful invisibility of heteronormativity, whereby heterosexuality remains assumed, yet ‘the whisper of another possibility is inevitably constructed as a scream’ (Atkinson and DePalma Citation2008, 33). The leadership team in Alfie’s school were happy to have him as a gay role model within the context of the school, but once this sphere widened to include parents, it was then deemed appropriate to silence the topic. Alfie therefore experienced a limited level of acceptance within the school’s heteronormative structure, rather than true inclusivity, which speaks to a school’s multiple dimensions and spaces. Heterosexuality provides frictionless movement between the spaces in a school. In this example, the inclusion and acceptance of homosexuality was place, time and audience specific, reminding Alfie that his visibility as a gay teacher had to be contextually appropriate.
Amy was the second trans teacher to take part in this study, but unlike James who was early in his transition, Amy had received extensive surgery to present fully as female. Amy worked in a reintegration school which students, often for medical reasons, attended for periods of time before aiming to return to mainstream school. As the school was designed to support students back into mainstream settings, it only had a small number of students and Amy commented that the students often asked quite personal questions. For Amy, her gender identity had been a lifelong challenge, one that she had struggled to put a voice to until her 50s. Amy spoke of the trauma this had caused her, to the point of having a breakdown.
It’s like trying to keep a beach ball under the water … sure you can push it under, but you can’t keep it there. it keeps slipping and bobbing up to the surface, and that’s what was happening to me. When I started teaching, of course I no longer was able to work from home, and when I’d been working at home, I would cross-dress; I couldn’t do that anymore. And during school holidays, my now teenage daughters were at home … so I no longer had the outlet. I’m sure that was partly why I had the breakdown … um, so it was building, but I couldn’t at that stage put voice to it.
For Amy, the process of finally being able to come out was a ‘great relief’ and meant she was able to present as the woman she had always felt herself to be. She had taken the decision to come out to her colleagues as a trans woman during her transition, but to be visible only as female with students, often referred to as stealth (Budge, Tebbe, and Howard Citation2010). Amy’s decision to remain ‘invisible’ as a trans woman in the eyes of students did not appear to be one that caused her anguish or anxiety, but one that validated her as a woman. Amy described initially transitioning, ‘I mean it’s scary, really scary just walking in, going out, walking into school’. Amy shared a photograph (Figure 3) of herself in her lab coat, running a science experiment with students, explaining how validated she felt at that time to be seen as a ‘typical science teacher’. In many ways, therefore, Amy was both visible and invisible. Amy’s stealth was the ultimate visibility in her eyes, yet it simultaneously rendered her invisible as a trans woman. Amy’s decision not to be visible as a trans teacher in the classroom was quite deliberate even to the extent of allowing students to believe she was in a heterosexual relationship, married to a man, rather than the truth which was that she had a wife.
And the girls would ask me, they’d say, because I have a wedding ring, they asked me about my husband … um, I’d tell them about things, like ‘I was cutting the front hedge yesterday’ and they’d say ‘why doesn’t your husband do that?’. And they’d say things like ‘Amy, do you colour your hair?’ [laughs], and I’m thinking ‘I can take it off and put it in the sink!’ [laughs].
Interviewer: So, when they ask you those questions, would you ever correct them, or would you just, sort of you know, just let them pass?
Amy: I just let them pass, I mean sometimes, I mean my wife’s name is Georgie [pseudonym], and I’d just say, ‘oh no, George doesn’t mind’. So, I was actually concealing it.
For Amy, not being suspected to be transgender by students was a validating experience and was not something she wanted to address or be more visible about. Her strategy also speaks to the pressure trans teachers feel to control and manage their gender expression within highly policed, cisnormative school environments (Ullman Citation2020). James had commented earlier in his interview that if it were not visibly obvious that he was a trans man, he was not sure he would have addressed the issue with students either. Amy explained that because of the kind of school she worked in, she thought that addressing her gender identity more openly would draw undue attention to the students and school.
The last thing I wanted was the local press deciding this was an issue. I didn’t want to draw attention to it … um, so things like that were at the back of my mind.
Amy was acutely aware of the need for LGBT+ visibility in schools and was able to challenge and disrupt heteronormative expectations to provide an environment in which students felt safe to explore their sexual and gender identities. Amy talked about playing the board game ‘The Game of Life’ with students at the end of term and jokingly describing it as ‘the most heteronormative game the world has ever seen!’.
When it’s time to get married … I would shake up the little bag, full of little pink and blue people, and say ‘who’s your person? Are you going to be a pink or blue person? Who’s your spouse going to be? Pink or blue?’. And they [the students] loved going against the rules.
For Amy, presenting inclusivity and a removal of assumptions was important. She explained ‘we didn’t want to force a standard on them’, and although not visible as an LGBT+ role model herself, her lived experience motivated her to pollute the cisgender heteronormative expectations within the school to make it a more inclusive space for others.
This paper shares three different stories and perspectives that allow us to question the simplicity of the term visibility. The stories identify the many ways in which LGBT+ visibility is experienced, often as a point of constant negotiation and navigation that is both time and contextually contingent. Patai’s (Citation1992) and Pallotta-Chiarolli’s (Citation2010) concepts of surplus visibility and passing, bordering, and polluting visibility were employed to conceptualise the forms visibility may take.
Several accounts are shared in this paper that exemplify the dominant narrative in existing literature: namely, that LGBT+ teacher visibility is problematic and a source of vulnerability. I hope this article presents a new, contemporary narrative; one that offers a less inflammatory and more nuanced understanding of the challenges LGBT+ teachers face. I also hope it highlights the benefits and opportunities that can arise from being openly LGBT+ as a teacher. Surplus visibility describes a form of hyper-visibility, whereby individual minority members are assumed to represent an entire minority group such that ‘their mere presence seems excessive’ (DePalma and Atkinson Citation2009, 887). DePalma and Atkinson further argue that LGBT+ teachers are often denied the powerful position of simple visibility. While this appears true to an extent, some teachers in this study had access to new forms of visibility. They may not have had the ‘simple visibility’ that their cisgender heterosexual colleagues had access to but were nevertheless able to convey ‘normalised’ forms of visibility, some of which carry significant cultural capital. Coleman-Fountain (Citation2014) has used the term ‘post-gay’ to describe the ‘ordinariness’ that some now associate with being gay or lesbian. Post-gay also suggests a view in which sexuality is considered a secondary aspect of an individuals’ identity, rather than the defining feature, as is assumed by notions of surplus visibility.
Although not all the teachers reported on here had access to a normalised form of visibility, some managed to turn this lack of access to advantage. Pallotta-Chiarolli’s (Citation2010) description of polluting visibility as one of ‘strength, agency and empowerment’ can be employed here to conceptualise the advantages available to some study participants through their visibility. Alfie and James both spoke about how the embodiment of their gender/sexuality immediately made them visible, initially creating a source of tension when set against the silent expectations of cisgender heteronormativity. By being forced to address their difference with their classes, usually in the first lesson, these teachers were able to offer LGBT+ role models to their students through open and honest conversation. By giving students the opportunity to learn from their lived experience, both teachers created moments in which students were able to develop an empathetic understanding of what it is to be LGBT+. Both Alfie and James thought this honesty had allowed them to create stronger relationships with their classes, where the students had gone on to become allies for LGBT+ inclusion. Their actions demonstrate the transformational power of visibility. They also suggest we should think about the spectrum of LGBT+ visibility in new ways. In some contexts and some situations, LGBT+ identities can be seen as an asset, even carrying with them a form of cultural capital.
Ideas about cultural capital (Bourdieu Citation1986) have been extended in recent scholarship to consider the forms of advantage and privilege that belong to some members of the LGBT+ community. The capital available to LGBT+ populations has been described as gay capital (Morris Citation2018) or queer capital (Pennell Citation2016), both of which transgress normative expectations and structures.
Transgressive capital, then, indicates the ways in which communities (queer or other minoritised groups) proactively challenge and move beyond boundaries that limit and bind them, creating their own reality (Pennell Citation2016, 329).
The actions of James and Alfie provide examples of what queer capital might look like. Adopting a visibly queer identity in a cisgender heteronormative environment is a form of transgression that not only challenges and moves boundaries within the classroom, but may also help build powerful relationships with students. By being out to their students, teachers show a level of honesty and vulnerability that gives students an insight into gender and sexuality diversity. These transgressive acts may in turn create a form of allyship in which students develop respect and empathy not only for the teacher, but also for the larger LGBT+ community they are a part of. In this way, the visibility of these teachers is transformational.
I would like to conclude by arguing for the need to conceptualise LGBT+ teacher visibility in new ways – not couched in deficit and uncertainty, but as powerful and strong. Young (Citation2009) describes powerful knowledge as that which enables students to think beyond the current limits of their own understanding and experience; something the LGBT+ teachers in this study were also able to achieve through their (differently) embodied forms of powerful visibility. If LGBT+ teachers are able to consider their visibility as powerful, conferring important positives on themselves and on their school, the impact could be significant.
This paper began by discussing the difficult relationship between schooling and sexualities, where LGBT+ lives are often not considered ‘age appropriate’, implying that LGBT+ teacher visibility is not so either. If an alternative narrative can be advanced, more LGBT+ teachers might be attracted to the profession, feeling empowered to be their authentic, visible selves. Such a powerful visibility could allow teachers to develop more meaningful relationships with students and colleagues within a more empathetic and inclusive environment. If LGBT+ teachers come to see their visibility as a source of strength and power, rather than a weakness and deficit, the implications for teachers, students and schools could be genuinely transformational.