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Unsure of your equality rights or the law? We can provide advice and assistance for people who feel they have been discriminated against.

Sexual orientation

Education service

What you need to know

How we can help

The Legislation


Have I been discriminated against because of my sexual orientation?

If you have been treated unfairly because of your sexual orientation or your perceived sexual orientation, this may be unlawful discrimination.

You are covered by the law if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight.

The law also covers individuals who are treated worse than others due to incorrect assumptions about their sexual orientation or because they associate with people of a particular sexual orientation or their parents are same sex couples or bisexual parents.

If you are treated worse that another person in a similar situation on grounds of sexual orientation, you can challenge the treatment under the law.

What is covered?

The law applies to:

  • Grant aided schools including special schools,  controlled schools, controlled integrated schools, voluntary (maintained schools), grammar schools, grant maintained integrated, Irish medium schools.
  • Independent schools
  • Further and higher education colleges, universities and teacher training institutions.
  • Bodies responsible for educational establishments such as Education and Library Boards, Boards of Governors, and CCMS (Council for Catholic Maintained Schools).

Is all sexual orientation discrimination the same?

No, there are different types of sexual orientation discrimination, and it doesn’t have to be intentional to be unlawful. The main forms are:

  • Direct discrimination is where you are treated worse than others because of your sexual orientation.  

For example: You are refused the chance to be a prefect on grounds of your sexual orientation.
For example: A gay pupil is told that he cannot go on the school trip as there are no places left. His parents had sent in the deposit as requested by the required date. No other pupils are denied a place on the trip.

  • Indirect discrimination is where an organisation unjustifiably operates a rule or policy that looks the same for everyone but in effect places people from your particular sexual orientation at a disadvantage.

  • Victimisation is where you have made a complaint of sexual orientation discrimination in good faith or helped someone else with a complaint under the sexual orientation law and suffered as a result.

For example: A teacher constantly picks on a pupil because she supported another pupil’s sexual orientation harassment claim against a teacher at their college.

  • Harassment is where a person behaves in a way, on grounds of sexual orientation, which violates your dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Under the employment sexual orientation law, harassment against employees and office holders in institutions of further and higher education is unlawful. These institutes may also be liable for any discriminatory conduct of their employees towards students on grounds of sexual orientation.

Under the sexual orientation law that prohibits discrimination in the provision of education, harassment is not specifically included, but you can make a complaint under the direct discrimination provisions. However the Education and Libraries Order places specific duties on schools to safeguard and promote the welfare of pupils at all times and to consult with pupils and parents on making changes to disciplinary policies and measure to encourage good behaviour and to prevent bullying.


What about teaching and sexual orientation?

The law does not apply directly to the school curriculum. The courts have held that ‘articulating the orthodox religious view on homosexuality in the classroom does not relate to any access, benefit or detriment’ under the law.  However, if it is conveyed in such a manner as to harangue or bully a pupil, or group of pupils this would be unacceptable and could be unlawful under the law. 

The Department of Education has produced guidance on Relationships and sexuality (RSE) education in schools. This guidance is being reviewed in 2014.

How am I protected against sexual orientation discrimination?

You are protected from sexual orientation discrimination in education under the following circumstances

  • The admissions policies of an establishment as regards the terms of admission or if they refuse or deliberately omit to accept an application
  • As an existing pupil/student you are denied access to classes, courses or other benefits, facilities or services provided by the school or college. For example: a student who is perceived as being gay is told to change separately from other pupils/students.
  • As an existing pupil/student you are excluded or subjected to any other unfavourable treatment.

What are my options?

What can I do myself?

1. Contact our discrimination advice officers who will provide you with free and confidential information and guidance. Should you decide to take your case to court, you can ask for us to provide legal representation. Remember the need to notify the Department of Education if your complaint concerns certain public sector education.

2. Raise your complaint directly with the education body and seek a resolution. If your complaint relates to homophobic bullying you will find that most schools, colleges and universities will have an anti-bullying/harassment policy which sets out how they will investigate and deal with your complaint and support victims.

3. Go directly to court with your own legal representative to lodge a complaint of discrimination.


How can the Equality Commission help me?

1. We provide advice and assistance.

2. We provide legal representation in a limited number of cases.

Only a court decides whether the treatment you have complained of is unlawful discrimination.  It is separate to, and independent from, the Equality Commission.

Contact us
If you require assistance or would like to make a discrimination complaint, complete our
online form or telephone 028 90 500 600.


Useful publications


Time limits apply

Complaints of unlawful sexual orientation discrimination in education must be made to the county court within six months of the act complained of.

Where your complaint relates to certain public sector education there is a requirement to give two months notice to the Department of Education and in these circumstances the time limit is extended from six to eight months.

Even if you are attempting to resolve problems, the statutory time limits still apply.  You may wish to issue proceedings to protect your legal interests if the matter has not resolved close to the expiry of the time limit.

If your time limit has expired the tribunal has discretion to extend the time for you to lodge your claim; this is used sparingly and it is unwise to assume that an extension will be granted.

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Ask for advice
If you require information or advice please complete our online form. All information you submit is confidential – and if you wish to be contacted by us, please let us know the best way for you. You don’t have to share any personal information with us – we will not be able to identify you if that is your preference.

Make a discrimination complaint
We may be able to provide you with legal assistance. If you want to find out more, please use our discrimination complaint form to tell us the nature of your discrimination complaint and whether it is related to your age, disability, gender, race, religious belief/political opinion or sexual orientation.

Tell us what happened and we will contact you to talk through your complaint further.

SoMe - Sexual orientation More equality
We recognise there is an under reporting of sexual orientation discrimination and have developed a dedicated presence on social media to raise awareness of rights and how to take action:


So Me logo

SoMe (Sexual orientation More equality):


Equality Commission NI
Alternatively, contact us:

Telephone: 028 90 500 600

Equality House
7-9 Shaftesbury Square
Belfast  BT2 7DP

We have listed below current legislation relevant to sexual orientation discrimination. You should note that equality and anti-discrimination law may be changed or updated. The law is also complex and can require interpretation. Please feel free to contact our discrimination advice team if you need clarification or guidance on what the law means. Email: or tel: 028 90 500 600.

Main law:

Amending laws:


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