DUBLIN (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.”
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.”
While it has followed other European countries in legislating for divorce and contraception, Ireland is still a relatively religious country with church weddings and funerals the norm and baptism still considered a natural rite of passage.
The Irish government consulted the archbishop of Dublin in 1937 when drafting the constitution. A clause recognizing the special position of the Catholic Church was removed in the early 1970s but the first line of the charter still reads “In the name of the most Holy Trinity” and there is a reference to the role of the woman in the home.
“Whilst we are becoming more liberal and there is a growing appetite for a more secular approach to policymaking we still don’t see very strong secularism coming out of the main political parties,” said Theresa Reidy, a lecturer in politics at University College Cork.
“They are slow in moving in a completely secular direction.”
Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s ruling coalition has pledged to look at the possibility of constitutional change to allow for gay marriage, which opinion polls show is favored by a majority of the public, and wants to reduce the number of schools that fall under the Catholic Church’s remit.
But with the government focused on trying to steer Ireland out of financial crisis, the last thing Kenny wants to do is tackle contentious social issues, and the idea of cutting back on the church role in schools is likely to suffer from a shortage of funds.
His government has yet to introduce a law clarifying when abortion is legal in Ireland, a year after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the lack of legislation was violating women’s human rights.
And it has made only a vague reference to examine the threat hanging over gay and lesbian teachers from the employment legislation, which allows religious employers to take actions which are “reasonably necessary” to ensure employees or prospective employees do not undermine their religious ethos.
Nowadays, teenagers are more comfortable about coming out. Most of the callers to Dublin-based gay youth services group BeLonG To are aged between 14 and 15 compared to 19 and 20 when it was first set up nearly nine years ago.
“There is a quiet revolution going on out there. The numbers of young people coming to BeLonG To have more than doubled each year for the last three. It’s quite phenomenal,” said Michael Barron, the group’s co-founder.
More than 2,500 people got involved with the organization’s youth group this year and tens of thousands contacted it via email.
Barron works with schools to raise awareness about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and to campaign against homophobic bullying, which he describes as a huge problem.
The attitude of the schools’ management boards and principals, the vast majority of whom are no longer nuns or priests, is key.
“Some of the best schools we have worked with have been religious schools but it certainly poses a barrier overall,” said Barron. It is not unheard of for teachers to tell pupils homosexuality is sinful.
“The educational system still has that Catholic legacy and in some cases it’s more than a legacy it’s still how things are taught,” said Barron.
“We would know of many gay teachers who aren’t out in schools. It is an issue. Those gay teachers could provide vital role-modeling for young people, particularly a young person who is struggling, who thinks they are the only gay or transgender young person in the world.”
For Feargha Ni Bhroin, being a lesbian isn’t an issue at the non-religious vocational college where she teaches. The problem is at home.
Ni Bhroin and her partner, Linda Cullen, are stuck in legal limbo since becoming parents to twin girls.
Under Irish law, Cullen has no relationship with her daughters because she is not their biological mother. She cannot adopt them or be their guardian and she is not named on their birth certificates.
“If we separated I would have no rights, and more importantly the children have no rights on me, so I wouldn’t have to pay maintenance or anything if I didn’t want to,” said the Dubliner, who runs a television production company.
Legislation unveiled last year gives same-sex couples who register as civil partners the same financial entitlements as married heterosexual couples but not full equality. That means children of same sex couples, even those who chose to enter a civil partnership, are not protected by the law.
“The children know I am their mother. I am up with them at 3, 4, 5 in the morning. But the law doesn’t.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall