Remember the excitement on June 26 when the Supreme Court struck down California’s Proposition 8 and a key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act? Many of us celebrated on this day, so happy that the U.S. was finally moving forward.
For LGBT teachers, that celebration was premature.
Across the country, thousands of LGBT educators are forced to hide themselves to avoid being harassed or discriminated against by coworkers, parents and administrators, or even losing their jobs.
Teaching is an exhausting job, but what does sexual orientation have to do with it? As a teacher with over twenty-five years’ experience, I’ve worked with many teachers. Some were good and some were bad, but their sexuality was always irrelevant to their job performance.
A recent study reveals that LGBT teachers are less likely to confront homophobia in the classroom, for fear of being labeled “gay” themselves. Gay and lesbian teachers are less likely than their heterosexual colleagues to discipline students when they witness homophobic bullying at school, for fear of drawing attention to their own sexuality and putting their careers at risk.
Teachers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered are also scared to intervene when they hear homophobic language, including when children use the word “gay” as a term of abuse.
They have reason to be scared.
Dismissed for Being Gay
Earlier this year I wrote about Carla Hale.
When Hale’s mother passed away at the end of February, Hale and her brother wrote an obituary for their mom, and in it Hale named her long-time partner, Julie. When she returned to work at Bishop Watterson High School in Columbus, Ohio, following the funeral, school administrators presented Hale with a copy of the obituary and an anonymous letter from a parent, calling the presence of a gay teacher in the school a disgrace.
The 57-year-old teacher was fired less than two weeks later.
Then there is the story of Cynthia Davis: on March 15th, 2012, the school board of Paradise Valley Unified School District in Arizona decided to fire Paradise Valley High School Principal Cynthia Davis after a “concerned community member” sent in a letter stating she suspected Davis was a lesbian and thus living a “questionable lifestyle.”
Students Rally for a Beloved Teacher
On the other hand, while there are numerous incidents of parents filing complaints about their children being taught by LGBT people, sometimes it is the students who are the first to rally in support of the teacher.
At Crossroads School in Santa Monica, where I taught for five years, the entire middle school spent days grieving for their vice principal when he died of AIDs. Students loved to visit Steve’s office and hang out there with his golden retriever. The youngsters all knew why Steve was dying of AIDS, but all they cared about was that they were losing a friend.
As The Advocate reports:
Such was the case with Ken Bencomo. a teacher at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora, Calif., for 17 years. In July a local newspaper printed a picture of Bencomo and his partner’s wedding, prompting the administration at St. Lucy’s to notify the popular educator that because his marriage went against the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings, he was fired.
Following the news, a multitude of current and former students stood behind the man they call “Mr. B.”
“Mr. B taught love better than any other teacher at the school,” Littleton tells The Advocate, “and that’s the most important Catholic value you can teach. When I was a freshman, I didn’t want to go to St. Lucy’s. But Mr. B refused to let it happen. He called my parents and made me come to class in the morning. He changed my life.”
When transgender teacher Lucy Meadows took her own life earlier this year, the staff and children at her school were overcome with grief at their loss. Meadows had been a wonderful, caring teacher and her students responded to that. Her sexuality was irrelevant to her role as teacher.
Instead of allowing parents and administrators to fire teachers, perhaps we should ask the students for their opinion.
Hiding Your Sexual Identity
Spotting another teacher in the closet is easy, says Diana Cutaia of Coaching Peace. The signs are clear: using gender-neutral pronouns like like “we” or “they” when referring to a spouse or partner, the absence of a family photograph on the teacher’s desk, the sudden change of topics when it comes to marriage and traveling solo to school dances all begin to connect like puzzle pieces.
The Guardian reports that the same picture can be found in the UK:
Sue Sanders of Schools Out, a charity that promotes equality for LGBT people in education, estimates that as few as 20% of gay teachers are “out” to their pupils. “There’s nowhere near enough support for them,” she says. “I’ve had teachers tell me their heads won’t let them come out. They should fight it, but people are frightened.”
Teaching is a tough job these days, and good teachers deserve to be praised, not attacked because of their sexuality.
Teaching is also a job that requires my complete, undivided attention every day. Do critics imagine that we teachers are thinking about our sexuality all day? They should try being in the classroom for a few hours. With 35 students to a class, I have no time to think of anything but how best to deliver instructions to my students.
Can we as a society lose this obsession with sexuality, which gives rise to the unfounded fear that LBGT people are all pedophiles, even though numerous studies have confirmed that most pedophiles actually identify as heterosexual?
Can we please just let teachers do their job?
Photo Credit: Thinkstock