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Education

Homosexual teachers suffer in Germany

Homophobic taunts often ring across the playground. Homosexual teacher Alexander Lotz is a victim of abuse from pupils. Being gay or lesbian at German schools is still a constant battle.

"Insults are a common occurrence," says Alexander Lotz. He teaches biology and chemistry at a Frankfurt secondary school, the Goethe-Gymnasium, and has been in many disputes since he came out. He told the boys and girls that he is gay because he was annoyed by a casual comment made by a student: "This is all so gay."

Teenagers in Germany use the word "gay" as a synonym for "bad" or "lousy." Lotz told the student in question that he disapproves of the expression, in part because it affects him personally.

And he's not the only one who is affected. At many schools in Germany, teachers think twice before admitting to their homosexuality at school. Estimates show that 90 percent of homosexual teachers are privately out as gay, but only 10 percent have come out at school. Some merely don't want to give too much of their personal life away at school, but many are simply afraid of how their pupils would react.

Alexander Lotz
(Photo: Alexander Lotz)

Teacher Alexander Lotz, 30, has been open about his sexuality at school

Even colleagues don't always support such public comings-out. "If you hadn't come out, you wouldn't have these problems," Alexander Lotz has been told, even though he also emphasizes that other colleagues support him as much as they can. Still, homosexuality is usually not spoken about openly at German schools. Pupils as well as teachers usually avoid the topic.

Taking to the streets for tolerance

And that is despite the fact that homosexuals have been fighting for equality in the German education system for decades.

"Even as late as 1974 a homosexual teacher was fired because he was open about his sexuality," says Detlef Mücke, a retired teacher from Berlin.

At the time, Mücke protested for the popular colleague along with parents and pupils and finally managed to get him reemployed. Up until 1969, teachers in Germany weren't legally permitted to be open about their sexual orientation.

20 homosexual teachers take to the streets to protest against discrimination in 1973. They were masked so as not to lose their jobs.
(Photo: AG schwuler Lehrer in der GEW BERLIN)

In 1973, 20 homosexual teachers protested against discrimination wearing masks marked "teacher"

Legally, a lot has happened since then, and many people's attitudes towards homosexuality have also changed. But even in cities like Cologne, which is known across Germany as a gay city, tolerance is quickly at its limit.

The same thing applies to Europe: A recent study has shown that in the Netherlands, which has been an international trailblazer when it comes to creating legal equality for homosexuals, only five percent of pupils have no problem with homosexual teachers or pupils.

"Particularly in schools many start their lives in fear," European Commissioner Viviane Reding confirms. "They make themselves invisible, that is their survival tactic."

Regional initiatives

Björn Kiefer struggled against that invisibility. The teacher from Bergisch Gladbach near Cologne has campaigned for his school to be a "Diversity School" ("Schule der Vielfalt"). The scheme, which promotes acceptance of homosexuality in schools, has existed for several years and is supported by the ministries of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Homosexuality is supposed to be a topic of discussion at such schools, for example in afternoon extra curricular activities or at stands at school fairs. Björn Kiefer also covers the subject of homosexuality in politics classes. However, he points out that "schools are slow to join the project." In North Rhine-Westphalia only six schools take part in the scheme.

Björn Kiefer 
(Photo: Privat Björn Kiefer)

Björn Kiefer is fighting for more tolerance towards homosexuals in schools

"Maybe that's because there needs to be someone supporting it at the school, someone who can promote it," Kiefer adds. The program is still in its early stages.

Other German states are more progressive, when it comes to promoting diversity - like Berlin, for example. There is supposed to be a representative of "sexual diversity," that people can turn to at every school there. Berlin's openly gay mayor Klaus Wowereit actively promotes the issue.

Other states aren't so forward-thinking: For example in Hessen, where Alexander Lotz teaches. Lotz blames the regional government, which is a coalition of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

In North Rhine-Westphalia the same coalition of conservatives and free-market liberals put a stop to a school brochure about homosexuality in 2005, a brochure which had European Union support. The brochure was only adopted in the state three years ago under a new ruling coalition made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green party.

A heterosexual norm

Homosexual teachers at a demonstration carry a banner that reads Openly gay teachers are role models
(Photo: AG schwuler Lehrer in der GEW BERLIN)

The exception: openly gay teachers

"Because education is in the hands of the 16 individual states in Germany, gay and lesbian teachers have to organize in separate groups in each state. You have to do everything 16 times, it's all very tedious," Alexander Lotz told DW.

In many cases, the groups have united via the German Education and Science Workers' Union (GEW). Some meet regularly to report on their experiences and to make new plans. Many think it's important for the topic of homosexuality to be discussed more in class.

"Even in current school books the topic hardly figures," Björn Kiefer comments.

Alexander Lotz thinks that teachers need to be trained differently. If biology class exclusively covers heterosexuality, Lotz says, then you are pretending that there is one sexual norm that everything should conform to.

"Teachers need to be receive further training so that they don't fall into that trap," he said.

The pressure on homosexual students might even be greater than on homosexual teachers. Björn Kiefer came out to his pupils just over two years ago, after careful consideration. But Kiefer has never come across a pupil who came out.

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