A new study has found that gay, lesbian and bisexual teachers are less likely to confront anti-LGBT bullying in the classroom — but why is this?
The study, conducted by Doctor Tiffany Wright and team from Millersville University in Pennsylvania surveyed 350 teachers and principals through a process of in depth interviews.
Approximately two-thirds of those surveyed said they had never seen another teacher protest homophobia if it came from other members of staff, while 59% said they had heard anti-gay comments made by other teachers.
The survey also found that half of gay teachers were reticent to challenge students who uttered anti-gay slurs.
Why is this?
“Often, LGBT educators are less likely to say something in response to homophobia, because then they might be perceived as gay,” Dr. Wright is quoted as saying. She went on to say that in turn, teachers felt that self-identifying or being perceived as LGBT might endanger their jobs.
Her team found that a majority of interviewees had reservations about coming out at school and many went so far as to say that they did not feel it was safe to do so. Many also felt it wouldn’t be safe to come out to parents.
A third of respondents expressed concerns about losing their jobs if they were to come out to other teachers, while a sizable 62% of teachers worried that they would lose their jobs if they came out to students.
When we are frequently hearing that LGB and to a certain extent trans rights are gaining ground, this reticence and fear may seem peculiar but, Dr Wright argues, it has to do with the heightened emotions surrounding America’s kids.
“A lot of folks, theoretically, might be in favor of gay marriage and have liberal views,” Dr Wright said. “But when you’re talking about their kids, that’s a little different. Then, suddenly, people’s prejudices come out.”
To put that in context, we know that the 2008 California ban on marriage equality found most fertile ground when it started talking about how gay marriage would be “taught” to students. Similarly, we know that opposition to the Employment Non Discrimination Act finds more willing ears when the opposition uses disgusting fear-mongering over transgender teachers being in the classroom.
So, while we can certainly say that the sample size in this study is small and therefore limited in that regard, the views expressed in the study aren’t that surprising. Furthermore, the media is rife with stories of teachers being fired for disclosing their sexuality or for being outed by others.
Take Carla Hale, a 57-year-old teacher who was fired from a Catholic high school earlier this year, not after disclosing her own sexuality but after her mother’s obituary outed her by making a reference to Hale’s same-sex partner. A parent contacted Bishop Watterson High School and called Hale’s presence at the school — her 19 years of service, in fact — a disgrace.
Or take the case of “beloved” Paradise Valley High School Principal Cynthia Davis who was fired for no other reason than a “concerned community member” sending a letter to the school’s board stating she suspected Davis was a lesbian and so was living a “questionable lifestyle.”
To be clear, this is just one study and is only a general indicator of attitudes.
However, it might be fair to inquire if the study were only applied to public schools (as opposed to private religious schools that are able to set their own behavioral codes) whether the modest but still significant anti-discrimination protections that exist for LGBT teachers would make them feel more comfortable about tackling anti-LGBT bias or whether without explicit LGBT federal protections, teachers still feel unable to take the lead on this.
What we can certainly say is that this study fits in with our understanding as established by wider research.
The Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network’s 2011 national school climate survey shows that nearly 85 percent of students report having heard ‘gay’ used as a slur, and more than 70% report hearing homophobia frequently in school. More than 70% also report having been the target of anti-LGBT verbal harassment.
What appears to be the issue here is that a systematic failure has occurred that is rooted in a lack of robust federal and state level protections, such as a failure to pass the Employment Non Discrimination Act and the Student Non Discrimination Act.
In turn, this creates a climate of uncertainty and in that climate, where anti-LGBT prejudice can thrive, LGBT teachers are fearful of coming out and of challenging anti-LGBT attitudes. The end result is that the climates persists and LGBT students are often the ones to suffer.
Thankfully, with a new $2 million drive behind the Employment Non Discrimination Act and with several states taking a more robust stance on anti-LGBT bullying, there is substantial progress to be made if only we can turn potential into action.
Image from Thinkstock.