Under the spotlight: exploring the challenges and opportunities of being a visible LGBT+ teacher

There is an important and broad range of existing literature exploring the experiences of lesbian and gay teachers. However, most of this literature adopts a deficit model whereby openly lesbian and gay teachers are viewed as likely to experience personal and professional difficulty. This paper offers a more nuanced, and sometimes positive, portrayal of the experiences of LGBT+ secondary school teachers. It presents findings from a case study of three teachers engaging in a photo elicitation research project, in which participants took photographs in their schools to represent the spaces where they felt most and least safe. Participants later discussed the significance of these pictures in one-to-one interviews, revealing key insights that were often time and contextually specific. Although many of the findings support the view that being an openly LGBT+ teacher can present challenges, the research also provided examples of more positive narratives. These narratives present a new and hopeful perspective, where LGBT+ teachers’ identities can carry a form of queer capital, offering important positives for both the teachers themselves and the schools in which they work.

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 (1992) and Pallotta-Chiarolli’s (2010) concepts of surplus visibility and passing, bordering, and polluting visibility are 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 2009, 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 (2014) 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 (2010) 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.