The Courage to be Free
Senator Katherine Zappone
It is a tremendous privilege for me to launch the INTO LGB Group’s Leaflet on Good Practice Guidelines to create an inclusive staffroom. As one whose professional identity has been integrally shaped by the weaving together of lesbian and teacher, I can say that I know from the inside out how powerful and historic is this act to publish and to disseminate a leaflet of lesbian, gay & bisexual teachers’ visibility to 38,000 Irish primary school teachers.
Indeed, as I look at it, what I see is a portrait of the courage to be free.
So 38,000 Irish primary school teachers will be receiving a magnanimous gift soon – words and images that re-present the human courage to be free and by so doing, calling others to step on to that same path.
The Peacock Theatre recently finished running a new Irish play entitled “I (Heart) Alice (Heart) I” by Amy Conroy. It is the narrative unfolding of how two older women, who are life-partners, took on the challenge of being ‘out’ over time. Its prime message, though, is applicable to everyone: it is a challenge to each of us to be who we are and to be seen. At one point in the play one of the women says, ‘I don’t want to hide anymore. We are here. Here we are . . . We all have our place.’ The play challenges each of us to be free, to push beyond fear, to embrace the uniqueness of who we are, and to be surprised by the consequences of freedom.
The consequences of freedom are far more positive than negative. On this leaflet the consequences are stated positively as the ‘hope for the future’: ‘that there will come a day when it will be unremarkable to be a lesbian, gay or bisexual teacher, where ‘coming out’ will be unnecessary in school and where lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers will be held up as role models.’ Surely something of that day has already begun to dawn and, not unlike the natural world, others will not be able to say ‘no’ to the morning.
As you know, more than seven years have passed since the inaugural meeting of the INTO LGB group was held and this leaflet highlights several achievements of the group and it points to the progressive vision and practice of INTO leadership. All of you have played a significant part in bringing about cultural, attitudinal and institutional change for the unfolding freedom of those whose sexual identity is part of the minority. This is largely due, though, to the willingness of individual lesbian, gay and bisexual teachers to claim their own power, and not to hand it over to the educational system or management or patrons that form part of the educational politic. I know something of what that is like – especially through the witness of my life-partner, Dr. Ann Louise Gilligan, who was so pleased to address one of your conferences a while back. Ann Louise, a teacher of thousands of primary school teachers throughout Ireland, claimed such power in her own life as a teacher of teachers. There were two key moments when she stood up and challenged, legally, the power of the Roman Catholic Church. The first time was in the mid- 1980’s when she was the first lay person to be chosen to Chair the Department of Religious Education in St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra by an Academic Appointments board. After being chosen, her name was put forward to the Manager of the College, the Archbishop of Dublin. And for no known reason, the Archbishop vetoed her appointment. For the subsequent two years after that, Ann Louise initiated a legal process against the Archbishop to claim what was rightfully hers. The case never reached the courts, and an agreement was made to allow her appointment to go through. The second key moment is one that you are perhaps more familiar with, and that is the day that Ann Louise decided, with me, to take the Irish state to court because they refused to recognize our Canadian marriage to each other. At the time she was still teaching in the same college and had to face, head on, the infamous inequality clause of Ireland’s employment equality legislation, namely Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act. Though her action could be interpreted as undermining the religious ethos of the institution of her employment, Ann Louise decided to do it anyway. And the sky did not fall in on her – she continued to teach there until her early retirement two years ago.
Don’t get me wrong – it is not an easy journey to be free. But we need individuals like yourselves and Ann Louise who are willing to push through the fear of difference, financial insecurity, professional loss and the culture of prejudice to bring about the change. And we need those whose sexual identity places them within the majority, and we need principals and trustees and patrons and union leaders to practice these good practice guidelines so that staffrooms and the whole school community can bring about the change. When this happens, and it is happening, this provides the lawmakers with the material and courage to do what is their responsibility – to make law that is fair and just and equal for everyone.
As you know a bill has been published by Senator Power that will be brought to the Seanad to debate the inequality clause Section 37. Your courage and political work as teachers has provided the impetus for such a bill. As many of you are also aware, a bill is currently being drafted by the government to recognize transgender persons in law. Today I say to you that you might take the opportunity to consider the possibility of extending the remit of your group to include those with a transgender identity – they are in your schools too and want, as you do, to be seen.
My hope for the future matches your hope. What is required is more and more individual courage, the implementation of good practice and the enactment of law that is good for everyone.