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Home > News > 2019 > December > Discrimination exemptions cause harm to employees

Discrimination exemptions cause harm to employees

690852_49536078.jpgFor those who identify as LGBTQI+, working in faith-based schools often includes a level of fear or distress about the impacts this may have on their working lives. Many report a sense of exhaustion at having to conceal their true selves at work, often over long periods of time.

Here, two IEUA-QNT members share their stories as LGBTQI+ employees in faith-based schools. 

Given the risks involved in speaking out, we have preserved members’ anonymity.  

Member story 1:

My position as a visibly and openly queer teacher in a regional Catholic school has been a source of fear, anxiety, frustration and stress and at certain times, deep emotional and psychological distress. 

Teaching is a defining aspect of my identity, and a conduit for building wonderful relationships and the realisation of meaning and purpose in my life. 

While I continue to grapple with the stress of being in a professionally and personally vulnerable situation, when I’m caught up in the flow of a great lesson where kids are genuinely learning and loving it, the tensions created by being a queer teacher in a Catholic school are the farthest thing from my mind. 

The most important point for me to get across is that I can’t say that being a queer teacher in a Catholic school is unequivocally good or bad, difficult or easy; my experience has been all of these, and there is a constant push-pull between them. 

I was hired by a principal who knew that I was queer and I am grateful for the small handful of colleagues whom I trust enough to approach and discuss any concerns that I have. 

In saying that, the principal who hired me left after a couple of years and it was highly stressful to be worrying about the precariousness of my position.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” might seem like a reasonable solution to the complex issue of how to accommodate queer teachers in schools of faith in a way that suits both parties, but I can personally attest to the long-term strain resulting from not knowing where you stand with your employer on this issue. 

Perhaps the best way to explain what it is like to be a queer teacher in a Catholic school is to describe the situation as being a two-speed system. 

There is the official line held by those in the top tiers of the religion, and then there is peoples’ response at a grassroots level within the community you work in. 

On balance, I would consider the school community to have been very supportive. 

Generally speaking, staff, students and colleagues have been respectful and welcoming, exemplifying what I would consider to be the truest expression of Catholicism: loving thy neighbour and recognising the dignity of all, regardless of sexuality. 

Even those colleagues who I know hold particularly conservative views still treat me with respect in our interactions. 

Despite the difficulties that I have faced and continue to face, I value my position within my school community and the personal and professional rewards that come with my job too highly to work anywhere else. 

I don’t have all of the answers for how to address this complex situation, but it is certainly high time that we had the conversation out in the open.

Member story 2:

When I first graduated as a teacher, the thought of being out at work never entered my mind. 

As I often read as straight anyway, I had the privilege that this was a choice I could make. 

I went ahead and signed the documents promising to uphold schools’ values, knowing that often those values did not condone same-sex relationships. 

There was no intended dishonesty since I was not going to be posing any challenge to the school ethos, at least no more so than the atheist teacher at the desk. 

I was raised in a religious community which was far from accepting of same-sex relationships, so choosing a workplace with similar values did not seem like too much of a stretch. 

I would stay in my work closet because I wanted the job.  

But this is not a way to be safe at work. 

When you’re closeted at work, it’s a big part of your life, of yourself that you are hiding. 

Photos of loved ones in desk spaces, sharing holiday snaps, discussing that awkward thing that happened on a date the other night, venting about a significant other, invitations to staff events for you and your partner – these situations have arisen within my first week in new jobs. 

In such conversations of openness and connection, there is an isolation in needing to sidestep pronouns, names, or relationship status. 

The obfuscation becomes habit, and not just at work. 

Whether in the local area, the CBD, on holidays away, or on social media, there’s always the awareness that the wrong person could see something. 

Carrying that weight is not safe.  

We still live in a heteronormative world. 

Even if there isn’t an explicitly discriminatory clause in a contract, it is often safer to assume a workplace is not accepting or supportive of LGBTQI+ staff and students unless there are visible signs to the contrary. 

If you look around your workplace and see no rainbows, no safe space signs on offices, classrooms or email signature blocks, no staff members with rainbow lanyards or pins, or no other identifiably out staff members, there is every chance that staff and students will be feeling that they may not be welcome to be as unguarded as their heterosexual peers. 

Union solidarity is about making work safe, fair, and rewarding - for all of us. 

Where I am now is safe, and I am grateful for that, but I am one of the lucky ones. 

Our job as a union is not done until we are all safe. 

This is a workplace issue – it unequivocally relates to job security, equal employment opportunities, career progression, and mental health.  


Religious schools don't need the Religious Discrimination Bill

The draft Religious Discrimination Bill, released by the federal government, continues the unacceptable practice of limiting the rights of those working in faith-based schools.

Our union’s position remains that employers in faith-based schools do not need the religious exemptions currently available to them nor those proposed within the bill.

Our union believes that:

  • all staff and students in schools deserve safe workplaces/learning environments; and staff in schools should not be discriminated against on the basis of their personal lives.
  • Practices in faith-based schools, and indeed in any endeavour conducted for the public by faith-based organisations, should reflect community standards and expectations.

Faith-based schools have the capacity and resilience to continue to operate in the absence of discrimination exemptions.

Our union is also disappointed by the lack of clarity of the bill, which is part of the draft package of religious freedom bills initiated in response to earlier inquiries into the protection of religious freedom under Australian law. 

IEUA Federal Secretary Chris Watt expressed dismay at the continuing practice of governments to polarise and disenfranchise the rights of members who work in faith-based education. 

“The proposed legislation completely exempts religious schools from allowing their employees the same rights that all other Australians enjoy; here it is not the freedom to love and marry who they wish but the freedom of religion,” Mr Watt said.

“The IEUA has and will continue to lobby governments and politicians to remove the unreasonable and harmful exemptions from discrimination law enjoyed by employers in our industry.

“As the IEUA has made abundantly clear in our recent submissions and appearances before Senate inquiries…we believe that these exemptions are not required by employers. 

“Current contractual law obligations and legislation more than adequately provide for employers to manage their workforces consistent with their beliefs and tenets.

“The IEUA will call upon the Parliament of Australia to reject this current Bill as it not only fails to improve the current undermining of rights of our members but is an untidy and problematic drafting of legislation that will cause further confusion."

Advice and support

Our union is available to provide confidential advice and support to members concerned about or impacted by discrimination on the basis of their personal lives, relationship status or LGBTQI+ identity. 

Get in touch with our union’s industrial team on 1800 177 937.

Read a full copy of our union’s submission to the ‘religious freedoms bills’ at www.qieu.asn.au/submissions 

Authorised by Terry Burke, Independent Education Union of Australia – Queensland & Northern Territory Branch, Brisbane.