Worlds of Education

GEW Queer Committee, Frankfurt, 2023 / Tina Breidenich
GEW Queer Committee, Frankfurt, 2023 / Tina Breidenich

From “private affairs” to a statutory Queer Committee in the union

published 2 March 2023 updated 3 April 2023
written by:

LGBTI rights in the workplace are human rights and therefore a genuine union issue. The conditions and ways to defend them are very different around the globe. For the German Education & Sciences Union (GEW), the path started from grassroots groups after a reform of the penal code in 1972 and led to a queer committee anchored in the union’s statutes.

Grassroots beginnings

The Nazi version of Germany’s infamous section 175, criminalising every male-to-male sexuality, remained in place in post-war Western Germany until 1969. Prejudice remained, but in parallel with the development of the student movement, gay and lesbian emancipation groups were founded all over Western Germany. Among them, a first group of gay teachers formed in West Berlin in 1972 to combat discrimination and criticise heteronormativity in schoolbooks. Gay and lesbian teachers joined a demonstration, but afraid of losing their jobs, many of them covered their faces with paper bags. Indeed in 1974 a gay colleague was sacked because he had come out in public and was said to have behaved “effeminate” at school. The group engaged in a solidarity campaign, asked Berlin politicians for statements, and with legal protection from the union, the colleague was reinstated. After this success, the group dissolved.

Lesbian and gay colleagues hiding faces on queer rally in 1973 (SMU / Detlef Mücke).

In 1978 there was a new effort to build a group, with a signed article in the GEW “Berlin teachers’ journal” and a first move to found a “homosexual caucus”. The proposal was accepted by the West Berlin GEW Board – although there had been resistance by the Chairman who argued that “sexual behaviour should remain a private affair of the members, concerning the union only in cases of legal support”. A first resolution at GEW’s Federal Congress “to combat discrimination of homosexuality and homosexuals in education” followed in 1980.

Starting with an international gay and lesbian “Homolulu” festival in Frankfurt 1979, there have been annual federal meetings for gay teachers, bringing together about 80 participants every year and strengthening local queer teachers’ groups all over Germany. The 44th Gay Teachers Meeting and the 30th Federal Meeting of Lesbian, Intersex, Trans and Agender Teachers are planned for 2023.

Working on the national level

The Berlin Gay Teachers’ Group hosted their 40th anniversary event in Berlin in 2018, featuring addresses and commitments from politicians in education, as did the GEW Lesbian Caucus for the south-western state of Baden-Württemberg with their 30th anniversary in 2022. Both groups have a long tradition of empowering lesbian or gay colleagues, as well as requesting LGBTI visibility and acceptance in educational policies. Both groups helped establish a Federal Lesbian and Gay Caucus by the national GEW Board in 1998, soon renamed to LGBTI Caucus and meeting twice a year.

The Federal Caucus worked on GEW publications, like the legal guidebook “ Show your true colours – out of the legal limbo”, which will soon be updated but that is still appreciated by queer colleagues. In addition, when right wing and religious fundamentalist groups started a heavy campaign against Baden Württemberg’s new directive for sexual diversity in education in 2015, a booklet with arguments “ For a pedagogy of diversity” and explanations on the ideological and organisational background of the opponents was published. The Caucus formulated intersectional criteria to analyse how school books and media represent societal diversity in sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions.

This work was appreciated in the union, but to launch resolutions to the GEW Congress or Board, the Caucus had to rely on allies like the Women’s Committee, the Youth Committee, or the Migration and Antidiscrimination Committee. These allies encouraged the LGBTI Caucus to get established in the union statutes as a committee. This proposal was brought to the 2021 Congress by the allied Committees, and members of the LGBTI Caucus started lobbying their state delegations. Finally the resolution was adopted with a 74% majority!

“The [newly-established] Committee can now pass its own resolutions to the National Board – like adapting the formerly binary (female and male) lists of speakers to a ruling of the Constitutional Court allowing diverse or not specified gender assignments in the registers of births, or urging the state employers to enact guidelines for the integration of trans, inter or non-binary (“TIN”) educators and learners.”

Now that there is an official request to send delegates, the Queer Committee is joined by colleagues from some of the state branches that had not been represented yet. The Committee now passed its own resolutions to the National Board – like adapting the formerly binary (female and male) lists of speakers to a ruling of the Constitutional Court allowing diverse or not specified gender assignments in the registers of births, or urging the state employers to enact guidelines for the integration of trans, inter or non-binary (“TIN”) educators and learners. This is very timely, since more TIN colleagues and students are getting out of the closet – and still each of them has to fight for acceptance on their own. A subgroup of the Committee wrote a booklet for colleagues on how to understand and include TIN students at school – which will be presented in an exchange workshop organized by Education International with colleagues from AEU and NSWTF (Australia), at the conference on “Diversity in education” at the 2023 World Pride, in Sydney (28 february 2023).

Exchange at the National Trade Union Council and at global level

Together with the German public services union ver.di, GEW initiated a resolution at the 2010 congress of the German Trade Union Council to nominate contact persons for LGBTI workers – which was not implemented very well. Finally, after a new meeting of queer caucuses from three unions – education and science, public services, and the newly formed gay network in construction, agriculture and environment - in 2017 a new resolution to the 2018 Congress resulted in the establishment of a National Queer Caucus at the German Trade Union Council. Here delegates from all 8 sectoral affiliates exchange on their LGBTI or at least diversity policies, learning from each other, and working to lobby national legislators in support of queer workers.

Queer GEW delegates participated in the LGBTI pre-conferences to the Public Services International or Education International congresses in Geneva (2017) and Bangkok (2019), presenting GEW LGBTI work and learning from LGBTI work in other countries and unions. On these occasions, it’s clear how different conditions and policies can be [1]. In some countries, queer colleagues have to hide from penal codes. In other countries, there are long traditions of queer union work, or there is a traditional diversity of sexual orientations or genders. By working together and learning from each other, we can make a real difference in the lives of so many colleagues and students.

Editor’s note: If your union is interested in joining Education International in furthering the rights of LGBTI students and teachers in schools and their unions, please contact Lainie Keper (Lainie.Keper[at]ei-ie.org).

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More information about Global Unions’ work and cooperation is available on the website of the LGBTI workers project at the Council of Global Unions (CGU): https://lgbtiworkers.org/

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.