SINGAPORE – A quick nod at a rainbow drawn on the classroom whiteboard, or walking into class with a rainbow tote bag the day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced at the National Day Rally on Aug 21, 2022 that Section 377A of the Penal Code would be repealed.
These were the ways one teacher let his students know they could talk to him about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.
It was the least he could do for his students, said Andrew (not his real name), 38, who has been teaching for about a decade. He believes it has become markedly more difficult to be a teenager in recent years amid what he calls a mental health crisis.
“In order for me to meet my students where they are, when it comes to the struggles that they may have, I need to first show up as my authentic self in order to be able to help them,” said Andrew.
While Andrew has not come out in class to his students, aged 13 to 16 years old, he says that students are able to join the dots through small acts like these and some have given him Teachers’ Day cards thanking him for making the classroom a safe space for them.
He noted that teenagers today are lucky to have pop-cultural references with LGBT representation, but having LGBT adults who can answer questions through their own lived experience about gender identity and sexual orientation is hard to come by.
“It makes a world of difference when it’s an actual person that they can talk to,” said Andrew.
“A very common thing that emerges is that they can’t talk to their parents for one reason or another, be it religious beliefs or a generation gap… Very often, I might be the first person that they actually can talk to.”
Following Parliament’s repeal of S377A, which criminalised gay sex, in November 2022, The Sunday Times spoke to several educators on the challenges they face, and concerns parents have about their children being taught by openly gay teachers.
In the debate before the vote, Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli said Singapore’s education policies and curriculum remain anchored on Singapore’s family values and social norms. This includes the family as the cornerstone of the social fabric and marriage being between a man and a woman.
Mr Masagos said that in schools, all students learn and practise values such as mutual understanding, respect and empathy for everyone. “They will also understand that issues can have multiple perspectives, and are taught to listen to each other’s points of view, understand the perspective of others and learn to interact and engage respectfully with each other, even if their views differ,” he added.
Yet while teachers welcomed the new legal clarity on consensual sex between men, they told ST the rules about being openly gay at their school workplaces are far from clear.
Andrew said that while it may be all right that some students know he is gay, he is concerned about what could happen if such disclosure became more widely known.
“All you need is one student to tell one parent, and it could snowball,” he said, even though, he noted, he is mindful of what he imparts to students. “I think there’s a difference between making a safe space for students who need to talk about certain things and imposing my beliefs.”
Such wariness is common among gay teachers, given the lack of clarity in the rules and protections they would have at school.
Another gay teacher, Darren (not his real name), said that while it was clear to him that being gay in the civil service was not an issue, educators find themselves walking on eggshells.
He said: “In education, we feel like it’s the front line of a battlefield of trying to protect traditional family values, so we are really careful.”
He added that while students do not know he is gay, he is worried about parents finding out and whether the school would defend him should they take issue.
“I know that it will really be great to let students see that this is a gay teacher, he’s just like any other teacher. I would love that, but I feel like the stakes are too high,” said Darren, 33.
When asked what protections there are for gay teachers and if teachers are allowed to come out to their students, the Ministry of Education (MOE) reiterated that its education policies and curriculum remain anchored on Singapore’s prevailing family values and social norms.
It added: “Our teachers are expected to discharge their duties and responsibilities in a way that can win the trust, support and cooperation of students, parents and the wider community.
“This includes demonstrating personal character and conduct appropriate for a role model to students, in line with the established norms of our society,” MOE said.
Keeping personal lives private
While teachers agreed the consequences of coming out to their students were unclear, they were divided on whether they should.
Former teacher John (not his real name), 30, decided to come out to his 17- to 18-year-old students during a humanities class, as he wanted to be more open with them.
“Being gay is something that is very fundamental to me. The stereotype a lot of the time is that it’s just 1 per cent of your identity, but for me, it’s a critical part of it,” he said.
John added that he was encouraged to be authentic and vulnerable when teaching, which he felt necessitated sharing this personal part of his life. “All my colleagues who are heterosexual can do that. My head of department could happily talk about his kid in class and I can’t talk about my partner,” he said.
“Not only did I realise that the students didn’t care, but they were very happy to hear that their teacher was gay. For LGBT students, they finally had someone,” he added.
Creating a safe space for students can be vital. Once, a male student confided in John about being sexually abused by an older man. He escalated the matter to his principal and the school helped the student make a police report.
“(The student) was afraid the police would tell his parents he was gay and that was a no-go for me because that should not be an obstacle to justice,” said John of the criminal case, which is pending before the courts.
But another teacher, James (not his real name), feels it would be inappropriate for teachers to volunteer their sexual orientation to students.
The 34-year-old said the culture in schools does not give this much attention, but at the same time, teachers face societal pressure to keep their homosexuality under wraps.
“My heterosexual colleagues can openly share about their partners and children when talking with their colleagues and students, while all I feel comfortable talking about at work is my parents, nieces and nephews,” added James.
James, who currently teaches a language in a secondary school, has come out to students when they confided in him or asked him about his sexuality individually, but he has never, and said he probably will never, tell an entire class.
He said that just as how a teacher who goes clubbing on the weekends or is in the midst of a divorce would not tell their students, being gay is personal information that teachers may not want to share.
At the same time, however, he feels that there has barely been any recognition of LGBT students, let alone support for them, when many find it difficult to get support from their families.
“Just like how we pay attention to at-risk students who come from challenging home environments or students who have socio-emotional needs, we should also acknowledge the existence of our LGBT students and the struggles that they face,” added James.
On MOE’s stance of remaining anchored on traditional values, James believes this should not mean ignoring LGBT students and their concerns, especially in light of the prevalence of youth mental health issues. He said: “Then we’re letting our students down, we are not helping each and every child reach their full potential. And that’s disappointing.”
James believes in an approach that does not tell LGBT students how they should be feeling or approaching their sexuality. He said educators should not put their personal beliefs, as well as those of gay students, above those of religious or conservative students.
“If we do that then we lose unity, and we have division,” he said.
Parents also questioned the need for self-disclosure even as they accepted that a teacher’s sexual orientation would not affect their ability to teach.
Mrs Doris Wong, 58, who has a child in Secondary 4, said: “What they do with their private lives is their own business.”
But the operations manager would not want her child’s teacher to come out to their students. “I’m old-fashioned, and I don’t think society can accept that so openly,” she said.
Similarly, Ms Carol Loi, 51, whose children are 17 and 20, said a person’s identity is much more than their sexual orientation, and while it does not matter what teachers do in private, it is critical to her that they keep to the values MOE has set out.
The digital literacy educator appreciated the assurance by MOE, and hoped that the ministry will ensure teachers act professionally to carry out what it has promised citizens.
“I believe the ministry will take the necessary disciplinary action against teachers who advocate values that are inconsistent with what the ministry has committed to,” she said.
She said this should extend to teachers who make known their sexual preferences, or encourage their students to pursue values and sexual feelings that are inconsistent with national values.
Taking a different view, mother of five Junia Tan, 44, said having a gay teacher who was out could strengthen the teacher-child bond because of its honesty and lead to greater understanding and inclusivity of the gay community.
“There still has to be a lot of wisdom from the gay teachers; they can’t talk about their escapades just like how straight teachers shouldn’t be talking about theirs as well. There should be guidelines to keep things appropriate,” said the parenting coach whose children are aged five to 16.