Penises in the pigeon hole

A birdseye view of homophobia.

About the author
Suzanne Covich left school in Tasmania at 13 years of age, was educated in Australian pubs, factories, kitchens, nursing homes and West Australian universities. She is the first Australian to win a National Teacher in Excellence Award (NEITA) twice, has taught English in West Australian schools for the past 11 years, and has recently completed a Masters in Creative Arts at Curtin University focusing on the way in which education institutions institutionalise heterosexism and homophobia. This includes a collection of poetry based on her experience of being an openly lesbian teacher as well as research into the way in which homophobia operates in West Australian schools.

Her recent trip to America includes visits to schools and GLBT Community groups in New York, Boston, Washington DC and San Francisco in order to gather resources and information to assist in making WA schools safe for GLBT staff and students as well as to set up sister school/education links. She also visited schools in Tasmania who provided her with additional resources and welcomed the possibility of working together with educators in WA.

Penises in the pigeon hole: A birdseye view of homophobia

It’s the remote North West and teachers embrace the upcoming festive season in the true spirit of Christmas. With one week to go, secret friends place gifts in the designated pigeon-holes. The Christian minister’s son, hailed as the greatest gift-giver, stands back to observe the finale: flashing lights surrounding the invisible lesbian’s pigeon-hole!

When asked about the red hot chilli, the dog dick comments, the phallus shaped cactus with the pretty blue ribbon, the banana, the kiwi fruit and the Father Christmas face on the stretched red condom on the fat cucumber, he replied, “We all had a good laugh”.

~ Penises In The Pigeon Hole. Suzanne Covich (2001)

Imagine for one moment this ‘invisible lesbian’s’ experience. It’s the first year she has taught English in a secondary school. She is far from her young adult daughters, her teenage son and friends. She loves her chosen career and for the first time in ten years is celebrating the fact that she no longer has to rely on a government pension to support herself and her children.

Unsure of her employer’s perspective in relation to lesbian teachers, she assumes that she could well be jeopardising her position if it were to become known that she lives with her lesbian partner. Therefore she conceals her identity, attends church on Sundays, goes camping with a man, ensures that she is not seen in public with local lesbians and is keen to become a valued member of the school community.

It’s the first time that she has taken part in ‘secret friends’, a ritual that occurs at the end of a school year, giving staff the opportunity to celebrate, encourage and affirm one another. Names are selected randomly and allocated to individuals who then purchase gifts to place in the pigeon-holes. She looks forward to the ‘surprises’ she is likely to find, sees the chocolates, flowers and books that others receive, and is devastated to find organic representations of penises in her pigeon-hole.

A sympathetic colleague tells her who the gift-giver is. Knowing this she confirms rumours that suggest he has colluded with his partner and other staff members to produce the ‘gifts’. She chooses to joke along with colleagues who watch and laugh as she unwraps them. Reminded of her traumatic childhood sexual abuse, she trusts no-one, suppresses her outrage, and releases the devastating psychological and emotional impact this has on her within the privacy of her own home.

Effectively silenced, she details the experience in her journal, the safest way she knows of dealing with it. She lets him play out his performance as ‘the greatest gift-giver’, ending in a pigeon-hole surrounded by flashing lights and a Christmas stocking filled with cheap sweets and junky plastic toys. Under the circumstances she is convinced she has no other choice.

Later, when she is encouraged to take action with free legal support from a city lawyer, she refuses. She is aware of her geographic isolation, her isolation within her workplace, the fact that the Christian minister’s son is a respected staff member, and she is terrified of the consequences of being exposed.

At 42 years of age in her first lesbian relationship, in her first year of teaching, she has had her first taste of homophobic violence in an Australian school. She sees what happens in the schoolyard if students dare to exhibit ‘homosexual tendencies’ and she has learnt that if she reveals her lesbian identity within this environment, then she too can expect to be ‘beaten up’.

It is not until ten years later, after another traumatic incident that she is encouraged by the parent of one of her students to return to university to find out why this sort of behaviour is condoned within our schools.

How many of us really stop to think about the odd ‘little faggot’ who is beaten up on the way home from school? Like the tall thin boy who sat as close as possible to my desk with fresh stitches in his face, too afraid to report it to authorities in case the thugs who had beaten him came back for more. And how many of us really pause to consider the ‘dyke with dick and balls’, the girl who chooses not to shave her legs and is forced to leave school because her mind is breaking from the torment of unrelenting taunts and abuse during recess and lunch? And what about the lesbian and gay staff who have been forced, through homophobic legislation to stand back and watch, closeted in their own fears of being seen to promote their sexuality if they show that they care? A situation that could result in them losing their jobs. And how many would see the ‘invisible lesbian’s’ experience in Penises In The Pigeon Hole as an exaggeration, an attempt to seek attention in an over-the-top telling of a possible event?

These are the experiences that have disturbed and caused me to question and understand why it is that education institutions actually condone and perpetuate violence against lesbian and gay students and educators. Violence, a term generally associated with brute physical force, most educators would believe disappeared with the cane. However, seeing the damage that has been done to individuals as a consequence of heterosexist and homophobic behaviour, it is the most appropriate term that I can use to draw attention to the violation of basic human rights that lesbian and gay educators and students have to face in one way or another, every day of their lives. My concern for this lack of human rights, particularly in Western Australia, and the very fact that prevailing homophobic and heterosexist values and attitudes too often collude to seriously damage individual lives and careers, provides the foundation for my research. Research that suggests that the patriarchy stands ironically to gain from what Warren Blumenfeld refers to as: “the great pollution called homophobia (one among many forms of oppression), which falls on us like acid rain” [Blumenfeld 18]. A situation which ultimately affects everyone and operates primarily to silence and render the lesbian and gay community invisible.

Because of a lack of basic human rights laws to protect the lesbian and gay community in Western Australia, together with the pressure to remain invisible, we are unlikely to hear what happens to our lesbian and gay educators and students. Stories of victimisation and harassment are kept under lock and key because schools do not want to draw undue attention to themselves, particularly in light of the current need to compete for ‘clientele’, and teachers abide by this, in order to keep their jobs. If they should happen to speak up about anything like the ‘invisible lesbian’s’ experience, then there’s every chance that they will not be believed. It reminds me of the story Elie Weisel (1981) tells of Moche the Beadle, the poor barefoot singer who was captured by Hungarian police and expelled from Sighet, along with other foreign Jews who were ultimately slaughtered by the Gestapo. He survived and came back to warn others, however: “People refused not only to believe his stories, but even to listen to him”. It was too difficult to comprehend and people did not really care what happened as long as it did not affect them. In Western Australia, in systems of education that openly promote the acceptance of cultural differences and the rights of individuals to teach and learn within safe environments, stories of human rights abuse are also difficult to believe.

A ‘straight’ teacher in Melbourne, told of an incident involving an open lesbian teacher placed under enormous pressure to leave her job, questioned and analysed the situation in an effort to find some other reason for the victimisation this teacher had experienced. “She must have brought it in on herself in some way, been aggressive, or perhaps they were just plain jealous for some reason,” she said. “After all, things have changed. There’s been Priscilla, The Sum Of Us and the parades in Sydney. I mean, look at them.”

I do look at them and know how it feels to walk together with lesbians and gays in street parades designed primarily to announce our existence in a celebratory way. I am also aware of the fundamentalist Christians and those who pay for ‘front row’ seats to view the ‘freak show’. And I am in touch with the terror I experience as I slowly stand more openly in the parade, knowing that students and parents will recognise me. Therefore, considering the way in which this homophobic environment impacts on the lives of lesbians and gays, my patience is short lived when I am confronted with anyone who implies, as the Melbourne teacher did, that the lesbian teacher had asked for it. The implication is that she should have maintained her invisibility and she would have come to no harm. Either that or there was something essentially wrong with her in the first place.

Regardless of how difficult, and at times painful, it is to deal with attitudes like this, I no longer sit back and watch the awful consequences of homophobic and heterosexist behaviour being condoned through ignorance and fear, within our education systems. At this stage of my life, I am hoping that my National Excellence In Teaching Award (NEITA 1995, 2001), my integrity and reputation as a teacher who embraces the West Australian Education Department’s initiatives to acknowledge the rights for all students to ‘feel valued and safe’ (Curriculum Frameworks) will stand me in good stead. The research and support I have accessed in America, in particular from Arthur Lipkin, Warren Blumenfeld and William Tierney, who all advocate the need to undo the closet and engage in open debate and discussion, have given me renewed confidence in the stand I take. This, together with the work of British and Australian writers like Debbie Epstein, Richard Johnston and Anna Marie Jagose, assist me to understand the theories that have worked to oppress the lesbians and gays, whether hiding or working openly towards changing laws and attitudes. Standing openly in the classroom, separated from a community of supportive, concerned individuals with a great deal more knowledge of the ‘big picture’ than I have, has been a terrifying experience. It is one that I would not advocate unless that support and awareness is well established in the first place. Nevertheless, after making the decision to step out and explore the nature of heterosexism and homophobia, it is writers like Blumenfeld who introduced me to the way in which the ‘big picture’ operates.

According to Blumenfeld (1992), homophobia–which operates from the premise that we are ‘psychologically distorted, genetically defective, unfortunate misfits’ who contradict the laws of nature in some way–works to oppress us at ‘four distinct levels: the personal, the interpersonal, the institutional, and the cultural’. The ‘invisible lesbian’s’ experience of the organic penises in her pigeon-hole is an example of the way in which the culture of that school, and its relative isolation, worked to silence her. What began as a perfectly innocent act on her part, ended in a traumatic experience that placed pressure on her relationship and impaired her ability to teach. All of which she kept hidden from her colleagues. On the advice of a closeted gay male teacher she left at the first opportunity to take up a post in a safer working environment.

This situation occurred soon after the West Australian Government decriminalised same-sex sexual activity in the Law Reform (Decriminalisation of Sodomy) Act in 1989. Peter Foss, the Attorney-General at the time, included amendments to the Bill which reinforced entrenched homophobic attitudes in this state, making it very clear that the government was in no way ‘encouraging’ or ‘promoting’ homosexuality [Morgan, 1990]. Section 24 of the Act, has particular significance for teachers, as it reads that it is “unlawful to promote or encourage homosexual behaviour as part of the teaching in any primary or secondary educational institution”. The dilemma teachers faced was in understanding exactly what this all meant, effectively distancing them from anything to do with homosexuality.

These laws and attitudes have had their impact. Teachers and Student Services teams have not wanted anything to do with homosexuality. They are even reluctant to mention the word, and when it comes to dealing with a situation involving schoolyard bullying, it is mostly dealt with by excluding anything remotely related to sexuality. They are terrified of being seen to ‘promote’ homosexuality, so in order to remain safe, they ignore what really goes on. Meanwhile, heterosexist teachers and students, like the Christian minister’s son, take advantage of the situation, continuing to violate the basic human rights of their colleagues and peers, within the framework of an institution that primarily supports their actions.

In Schooling Sexualities (1998), Debbie Epstein and Richard Johnston provide insights into the way in which homophobia operates within education institutions in Britain. They make reference to Jane Brown, the head teacher of Kingsmead School in Hackney, who was beaten up by boys after being outed by the media, forcing her and her partner to go into hiding. Later, while being closely scrutinised, she gained the support of parents, children and the Hackney National Union of Teachers, and continued to work under these conditions to re-establish herself as an ‘exceptional’ teacher. Then, after training as an Ofsted inspector, she was offered a post “only to have the offer withdrawn as a result of further media outrage”. This example demonstrates the point that the construction of sexualities are nationalised in British political and cultural discourses. Lesbians and gays are positioned in specific roles within society, preferably ones that render them invisible. For her to be acceptable ‘she needed to be exceptional’, but even this did not protect her from entrenched homophobic attitudes. For Jane Brown to exist within a British education institution, the media, hence public opinion, worked to exclude her from the right to adopt a position of power, even though she was well qualified for it.

Epstein and Johnston make it clear that individuals in Britain are either included or excluded in the promotion of national identities, and as human ‘agents’ like Jane Brown, they “cannot just stand outside culture and wield power as they wish”, unless that power has been sanctioned by state politics. If it has then schools become generative points “for sexual identities and culture generally”. Homosexuality in Britain as it is here, is not one of them.

In the lengthy preamble to the 1989 WA Law Reform (Decriminalisation of Sodomy) Act it specifically states:

‘WHEREAS, the Parliament does not believe that sexual acts between consenting adults in private ought to be regulated by the criminal law;

AND WHEREAS, the Parliament disapproves of sexual relations between persons of the same sex;

AND WHEREAS, the Parliament disapproves of the promotion or encouragement of homosexual behaviour;

AND WHEREAS, the Parliament does not by its action in removing any penalty for sexual acts in private between persons of the same sex wish to create a change in community attitude to homosexual behaviour;

AND WHEREAS, in particular the Parliament disapproves of persons with care supervision or authority over young persons urging them to adopt homosexuality as a lifestyle and disapproves of instrumentalities of the state so doing’ (Morgan, 1990).

This is hardly a recipe for empowerment or inclusivity of the lesbian and gay community in Western Australia. With this kind of law in place, there is very little that educators have been able to do to influence changes in attitudes and education policy, to address the prejudicial treatment of staff or students and make it safer for us to teach and learn. The West Australian government gave heterosexist educators, and indeed students, the right to wield their homophobic power as they wish.

West Australian teachers have been so effectively silenced by the law, by threats of exposure, by pressures to conform and by outright intimidation, that stories of basic human rights abuse are primarily not aired in public.

Within closed circles however, the stories are told. For example, a teacher who recently applied for a promotional position in a state secondary school was told that she did not get the job because: “We have a focus on boys in education here”, assuming that she was only interested in girls. Another teacher who had returned to university to complete a Social Work degree was told that if she complained about the homophobic prejudice that she experienced, she could be guaranteed never to get a job in social work in WA. Both teachers do not speak about these incidents openly, and neither did they seek legal or union support because they knew that there were no laws in place to protect them. A situation that is certainly not uncommon for teachers in this country, whether there are laws to protect them or not.

In research conducted by Jude Irwin (1999) in New South Wales, the awful reality of speaking up is evinced in the case of one of the teachers she interviewed:

I became a teacher in 1991, and heard the most homophobic comments I have ever heard. My attempts to point out this homophobia were either dismissed or laughed at. In 1995 my work was called into question. I was closely scrutinised and disciplined for no reason. I was treated differently by the principal and others. I ended up being forced out. I suffered emotionally and financially.

Her findings, based on the workplace experiences of 900 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, confirms my own experience and observations, supported by similar research conducted in Britain and America. The fact is that very few individuals speak up, take legal action or approach their unions for help. Reasons include a lack of trust, fear of the exposure of their sexuality and little chance of a positive outcome. Even if the laws were in place to protect teachers, they would still have to deal with a century of ‘deeply rooted’ homophobia which exists within ‘our culture, politics, and our psyches’.

With this in mind, it is no wonder that lesbian and gay teachers within West Australian schools are often advised not to waste their time seeking legal or union support. My recent advice to a heterosexual student teacher who presents as a stereotypical lesbian: flat shoes, short hair, jeans and a motorbike, was to journal the victimisation she experienced and to grin and bear it as so many of us do, because it is too hard to prove. How was she, as a student teacher, to provide evidence of being misinformed, excluded from information others had, long waits for arranged interviews with senior staff, conversations whereby she had been encouraged to change her appearance and perhaps add a little make-up to create a more feminine look? It is, after all, her word against theirs, and if the dominant attitude is heterosexist, then you don’t stand a chance. Her doctor prescribed pills for paranoia–a common response to prolonged victimisation of this nature.

A place to begin to deal with the human rights issues that affect lesbians and gays in our schools is to raise awareness of homophobia and who stands to gain from it, rather than acceeding to the pressure to accept or internalise (as many young people do) the essentialist notion that we are naturally inferior. In his concern about increasing violence against gays and lesbians in the United States, particularly in the 1990s, Arthur Lipkin provides shocking anecdotal and statistical evidence of gay hate crimes. This demonstrates the consequences of the lack of human rights legislation, as well as educational initiatives to deal with its systemic manifestation. He argues that homophobia is a consequence of binary identity categories–homosexual and heterosexual–originating in 19th century “German medicine, culture and politics” that have been “adopted as instruments of social control” beyond Western Europe. According to Lipkin, this consequentially enforces the invisibility and inferiority of lesbians and gays in order to ultimately reinforce patriarchy.

Understanding of how this works in the Australian schoolyard, Martin Mills’ (1999) research into three Queensland secondary schools supports Lipkin’s claims, and illustrates the way in which the “privileged positioning of men and boys” is reinforced through “hegemonic masculinities” and “emphasised femininities”. This forces both female and male students and teachers to conform to rigid gender identity categories or to suffer the consequences of victimisation and harassment. According to Argus and Cox, in Queer In The 21st Century: Perspectives On Assimilation And Integration (1999), with basic human rights laws in place for lesbians and gays in Queensland, unlike in WA, students who are “undertaking courses like the Study of Society or Human Relationships are choosing to look at lesbian and gay issues, as well as including them on social justice agendas in some schools. When laws change in WA, perhaps we can look forward to a similar situation but until then, the pressure to remain invisible will continue to feed ignorance and apathy, as well as the violence that occurs within our schools.

Until such time that anti-discrimination legislation is introduced in WA it is difficult to challenge the kind of attitudes that make it possible for the Christian minister’s son to behave as he did. Together, however, with texts like Lipkin’s Understanding Sexuality: Changing Schools (1999), which primarily targets parents and educators who do not have a comprehensive background knowledge of homosexuality, as well as researchers and activists who share similar concerns, the much needed support to continue to work towards such changes will hopefully result in safer teaching and learning environments for us all.

In the meantime, perhaps in the telling of our stories people will hear and no longer be afraid to acknowledge and deal with issues that directly relate to our sexuality. It is my hope, as it is with Arthur Lipkin, that one day homophobia, heterosexism and the associated human rights abuses we currently experience will “be read as curious historical artifacts of an unenlightened age”.

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