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When Being Yourself Can Get You Fired: LGBTQ+ Workers And Legal Discrimination

[Image description: a pair of hands holding a woven basket upside down above a lit candle. The light given off by the candle is rainbow-coloured.]

There is a parable in Christianity that one should never hide one’s light under a bushel. We had to Google what a bushel is, but it made sense eventually. 

There’s also a popular hymn that you might be more familiar with. Sing it with me, now: 

This little light of mine

I'm going to let it shine

Let it shine, all the time, let it shine

There’s a good message in that for everyone. Be yourself. Share your light with the world. 

Not everyone is able to live like this, however. Many workers in faith-based organisations have no choice but to hide their light, lest they face discrimination and termination. In 2021, this should be unthinkable. Instead, it is perfectly legal, due to carve-outs for religious organisations in workplace laws.

Anonymous No Longer

“Unfortunately, there are still a handful of schools out there where LGBTQ (the laws, thankfully, don’t apply to intersex people) students and staff have to hide their identity,” says Deb James, Secretary of the Independent Education Union Victorian and Tasmanian branch. “The law allows a faith-based employer to discriminate against a member of staff, or make employment decisions on the basis of factors including gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status or even parental status, such as being an unmarried parent.”

Sign the IEU’s petition to change the law

In May 2019, an anonymous story appeared in the Independent Education Union’s quarterly newsletter, The Point. Its author, a lesbian woman struggling to balance her identity with her profession as a teacher at a religious school, chose to go unnamed because she feared the consequences of what might happen if she came out in such a public manner. 

She wrote, at the time:

“When I came out as a lesbian to myself, it was the most relieving experience I have ever felt. I worked as a teacher in a religious school at the time of self-discovery. As my private life was just that, I only told close friends and my family and was so thankful for their positive response. However, I still felt that I couldn’t fully be myself because the consequence was to be terminated from my job. Yes, you read that correctly: being me would mean losing my job.”

The author’s name, she is now proud to tell you, is Sam Cairns. She is a teacher still, although now thankfully at a much more accepting place. She is out and proud and happy to share her story with parents, students and the whole community. 

Before she knew anything about her sexuality, she knew she wanted to be a teacher. 

“I realised that since I love sport, I love being active, and I love working with people, PE teaching it was!” She’s teaching online from home this week because of the lockdown, and excited to go back to the classroom soon. 

“I used to play a lot of sport myself but then I had a pretty bad injury a few years ago which has sadly left me grounded. I was playing footy, AFL, but I ended up with a Lisfranc injury. I’m just like Dane Swan. It took him out, it took me out. We’re basically the same.

“I actually went to the school I started working at when I was a kid, so I knew all about the school and its beliefs. Faith was important to me at the time, especially as an adolescent and in my early 20s.”

Over time, however, it became clear that there was a problem looming on the horizon. 

“I didn’t really know about my sexuality until about six years into teaching at the school I was at, which was a faith-based school. I knew it was going to be a problem because I knew I would be terminated from my job. So I said nothing and carried on living my life in secret. 

“This led to some pretty serious health concerns, reflecting back. 

“I was having panic attacks and really serious anxiety due to having to live a double life. 

“So, I decided to leave on my terms because I felt like otherwise I was eventually going to be fired and I’d lose all the leave I had accrued over that period of seven years.”

Plain and simple: “We don’t want you here”

Simply leaving, it turned out, was not a sustainable solution to her problem. She struggled to find new employment (not because of her sexuality, just because nothing was available) and soon started to struggle financially. She went back to her former school, on a short-term contract.

“Lo and behold, someone had mentioned something somewhere along the line and I was called into the Vice Principal’s office. I was told, pretty bluntly, ‘We don’t want you here.’ They let me finish out the day but the contract was basically torn up.

“I never looked into any legalities because when I first started at the school seven years prior we signed a piece of paper saying that we’d live out our lives in accordance with Christian values. And of course, for some groups, homosexuality is a sin. You sign the dotted line and that’s it. So when I was supposedly in breach of that, they just said seeya later.”

Sam suspects that someone outed her to the school using a photo from social media. 

“I wasn’t really friends with anyone from work because I knew what the consequences would be, but faith communities are wider than just the workplace. I think I know who went to the school and flagged it with them, but I can’t be sure.”

Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light

All of that transpired in 2018. Today, Sam is in a much better place, but the scars of her trauma aren’t completely gone. 

[Image description: two women side by side, smiling, with an arm around each other. They are holding a rainbow flag with the symbol of the lesbian community: two interlocking circles on top of crosses.]Sam, right, with actor and queer activist Dominique Provost-Chalkley

[Image description: two women side by side, smiling, with an arm around each other. They are holding a rainbow flag with the symbol of the lesbian community: two interlocking circles on top of crosses.]

Sam, right, with actor and queer activist Dominique Provost-Chalkley

“It’s taken me this long to get over what happened,” she says.

“I’m at a new school now, which is still a private Christian school but it’s an equal opportunity employer. That means the school has made its own decision to not make use of the laws which allow discrimination. On top of moving, I’ve also seen what a cultural change can do. Under the previous principal we had, I didn’t fear for my job but I also didn’t go around telling people about my personal life either. 

“By comparison, now we have a new principal who is very much about being proactive and starting a Pride group and letting the community know that homophobia is not okay.

“I’m so excited! It’s just getting started this year and we’re going to launch for Wear It Purple Day in August. I’m going to get up and share my story publicly. It’s all systems go. It’s going to be awesome. 

“At the end of the day, I love that I can be my authentic self and that’s the goal in life. To be who you are.”

“Discrimination in Good Faith”

There are over 200,000 jobs in Australia today - including at least 38,564 jobs in Victoria alone - that a worker can be fired from for coming out as LGBTQ. These include teachers, school staff, doctors and health workers.

The reason for this is the carve-out for religious organisations who are allowed to “discriminate in good faith” (an actual phrase in the Sex Discrimination Act) “in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.”

[Image description: a large group of people, many carrying rainbow and union flags, march through a Melbourne street. In the foreground, two women carry a banner that says “We Are Union” on a rainbow backdrop.Unionists marched in Melbourne’s annual Pride March earlier this month

[Image description: a large group of people, many carrying rainbow and union flags, march through a Melbourne street. In the foreground, two women carry a banner that says “We Are Union” on a rainbow backdrop.

Unionists marched in Melbourne’s annual Pride March earlier this month

So many questions come out of this one short clause. What constitutes such an injury? What are these “susceptibilities”? Who gets to decide on that? Who are the “adherents”? Religious texts, much like the law, can be subject to interpretation. The phrase “not set in stone” comes to mind.

And of course, where there is ambiguity there is room for individuals to push their own agendas that may or may not align with those of the broader religion. Bigots rush in where angels fear to tread.

To complicate matters, there is also Victorian legislation which echoes what the federal laws say. 

“This is a huge issue for our members,” says Deb James of the IEU. “We’ve seen contracts that mandate a strict maintenance of faith as an employment condition, as well as cases where employment has been threatened or terminated for clearly discriminatory reasons, even just for the expression of a view which is seen as contrary to the faith principles of the employer.

“This exemption from anti-discrimination law is outdated and out of step with community attitudes. The IEU has been campaigning and lobbying for years to close this loophole, and we are confident that the state legislation, at least, will be amended in the very near future.”

Sam has no doubt in her mind what should happen to the law that allowed her to be treated the way she was.

“Get rid of it! Fundamentally, why do they have a right to act like this? It tears me apart to think that it’s okay and totally legal.

“What really gets me down is that even through the IEU Pride Group meetings we have, the number of staff who are still living in that fear and having to protect themselves. They need a job, and they mostly really like the schools and the kids, but they can’t be themselves and it’s horrible.”

Change is Vital, but Morrison Unlikely To Take Action

While the IEU has been able to work with the Andrews Government, the Morrison Government appears unmotivated to change the federal laws. 

The Victorian Pride Lobby is calling on both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader to commit to changing the laws that allow this discrimination to occur. They have started this petition to send a clear message that the broader community thinks these practices anachronistic and harmful. 

In 2018, around the time that Sam was being torn apart by her treatment in the workplace, Scott Morrison announced that he was interested in making it illegal for faith-based schools to expel students on the grounds of their sexuality. 

When asked if he would support similar changes in the treatment of staff, he gave a classic Scott Morrison answer

“Let's just fix that [the student expulsion issue] and I'm sure there are plenty of other issues to discuss and we can do that I think in a very civilised way down the track,” he said.

He has, unsurprisingly, made no moves to discuss such changes at all, and he still has not followed through with his commitment to protect students from discrimination.

Sign the IEU’s petition to protect LGBTIQ+ workers from discrimination

If any of the above has raised issues for you as a worker in a faith-based school, you are encouraged to contact the Independent Education Union. The union runs regular Pride Chats aimed at providing a safe space for workers to speak openly about their struggles (and their joys) working in faith-based schools. But they’re also a great place to meet new friends and comrades, too.

There is a parable in Christianity that one should never hide one’s light under a bushel. We had to Google what a bushel is, but it made sense eventually. 

There’s also a popular hymn that you might be more familiar with. Sing it with me, now: 

This little light of mine

I'm going to let it shine

Let it shine, all the time, let it shine

There’s a good message in that for everyone. Be yourself. Share your light with the world. Not everyone is able to live like this, however. Many workers in faith-based organisations have no choice but to hide their light, lest they face discrimination and termination.

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