Sport and the gender order

Annette Pryce examines why PE teachers could be the LGBTQ+ heroes of the future… perhaps.


Education has seen some wondrous and some horrible stereotypes. You probably recognise them from your youth, or various TV programs that depict secondary schools.

There’s the history teacher with the tweed jacket; who sits in his favourite chair and moans constantly, the slightly barmy science teacher who makes students eyes light up with the latest chemistry explosions. There’s the motherly food tech teacher – because of course it’s always seemingly a woman – and the alpha male boys PE teacher, the sultry languages teacher, the bookish English teacher (with the glasses that sit on the end of their nose), and then there is the lesbian PE teacher. It is this last stereotype that I am going to address.

While we smile and laugh at the humorous stereotypes of the former examples, the last instance has deep and long lasting implications for how we address gender inequality in the PE profession, and how this ultimately perpetuates homophobia in sport and physical education.

Women who are PE teachers who like rugby for instance, are probably still bombarded with jokes and insinuations about their sexuality..

As someone who was a PE teacher for 8 years prior to being promoted in another subject, I’m relatively qualified to comment. I finished my training nearly 18 years ago and yet there still doesn’t seem to be any substantial research done on the experiences of lesbian PE teachers. God knows you couldn’t swing a dead cat in a secondary school without hitting a gay PE teacher in most places.

The circles of silence that surround lesbian physical educators are an added burden of the gender ‘double blind’ they have to endure as women. To be taken seriously, they must adopt “dominant and authoritarian positions [and demeanours]” (E.J Rich, Loughborough University Strong words, tough minds, trained bodies), despite never being taken seriously because of their sex. This is a constant battle for female PE teachers.

The triple lock for lesbians, especially those firmly in the closet, is the constant pressure of appearing heterosexual and feminine in a job that requires some degree of strength and assertiveness. Lesbian PE teachers in the closet face tougher challenges as teachers than their non PE counterparts.

It’s depressing when you type “lesbian PE teacher” into Google that several Daily Mail articles about inappropriate behaviour of a relatively small number of them arises, the same with gay men who are PE teachers. Even when you search for “straight female PE teachers” in the same message boards arrive in the search engine entitled “are all female PE teachers lesbians?”. You begin to understand why more don’t come out, and potentially what a few stupid individuals do  to the reputation of a profession. We all know that there are a few bad eggs in every walk of life, regardless of preferences, and they should rightly be admonished.

Homophobia has its roots in gender stereotyping, can you imagine what a difference we could make by addressing that root cause?

But there’s something to be said for the potential hero-like status that PE teachers could hold – if they don’t already. Imagine what a superb role model a gay man who was a PE teacher would be to challenge the toxic masculinity you see in society. If straight men led PE and were interested in dance or other traditionally female orientated sports, what effect would this have on breaking down barriers that exist in a profession still hampered by gender stereotypes, both as pupils and as teachers?

Women who are PE teachers, who like rugby for instance, are probably still bombarded with jokes and insinuations about their sexuality, could be the ones to empower young women to see beyond gender binaries enforced onto sex segregated sports and be the next England women’s rugby captain.

I don’t doubt that in the years that have passed since that there are now more out lesbian PE teachers than there was when I finished my training, and for that I’m totally grateful. Those kids need you to be proud of who you are and the rest will sort itself out. Homophobia has its roots in gender stereotyping, can you imagine what a difference we could make by addressing that root cause?

PE teachers are in a prime position to break down those gender stereotypes and be the heroes of the future… perhaps.

Follow Annette on twitter (@lgbtexec)

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