Alex Blaze

The war on LGBT teachers is about controlling what kids think of themselves

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 04, 2010 6:00 PM | comments

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The solution to LGBT teen suicide, specifically death-by-bullying, should be about the students. There's a lot of attention being paid to gay teen suicide right now, and I hope that it doesn't get misdirected to other projects that people want to push, legislation that would make adults feel better but wouldn't do much to concretely change the way LGBT kids are raised. It's easy to focus on big-ticket LGBT legislation as the solution to everything, but even states that have same-sex marriage still have an anti-gay bullying epidemic and gay teen suicides.

gay_teacher.jpgAnti-bullying programs would help alleviate some of what LGBT teens go through, as would good sex education that explained that human sexuality is diverse. Accountability for bullies and schools that don't care about bullies would help, and resources for homeless queer youth who are also contributing to queer teen suicide would alleviate some of the problem.

And supporting LGBT teachers would too. I didn't know a single openly gay adult before I left high school, and I didn't have an openly gay teacher until my second year of college. There's a reason for that: being out and working with kids is inviting attacks, so many of us avoid the profession or keep our identities in the closet just to avoid possibly career-ending confrontation. According to British LGBT people, education is one of the most homophobic sectors of the work force there is (I don't know of a comparable American survey), and the only one that topped the list that wasn't a macho job.

I've done plenty of work with kids - camp counseling, tutoring, substitute teaching, working study halls, and, most recently, teaching English here in France - and depending on where I was working the homophobia was at times palpable and always created hopelessness. I lost one job because I was out. A school I worked in refused to allow a GSA to meet on campus (after I stopped working there) on the grounds that some parents would be upset. And anti-gay insults were always being tossed around with almost no one willing to confront the casual homophobia.

Such an environment is a direct result of institutional action; there's something about kids meeting real-live queer people that signals distress in seemingly friendly parents and that makes less-than accepting parents' brains burst.

Consider this story from just last week:

seth-stambaugh.jpgSeth Stambaugh told a fourth-grader who asked if he was married, that he was not. When the student asked why, Stambaugh, who is gay, replied it was not legal for him to get married because he would choose to marry another man. The student then asked does that mean you like to hang out with other guys? and Stambaugh responded yes, said Lake Perriguey, Stambaugh's attorney.

The parent of a student who overheard the conversation complained, Perriguey said, and district administrators asked Stambaugh's advisors at Lewis & Clark College to find him another school. [...]

Beaverton School District spokeswoman Maureen Wheeler said the decision was not discriminatory.

It was based on "concerns about a conversation he had with a fourth-grade student," Wheeler said. "Our concerns were about the professional judgment and age appropriateness."

Wheeler said the district's "policy and practice is non-discrimination. We train on this issue." But student teachers, also known as interns, are not employees and the district does not have policies dealing with them.

I'm sure Maureen Wheeler isn't a red-in-the-face, "God hates fags" sign-holding homophobe. I'm sure she considers herself a good person faced with a tough decision. There's just something about a gay person letting a 10-year-old know why he's not married that bothers her, and she's doing what it takes to keep an openly gay person from interacting with children. She thinks that's "age appropriateness," the little gay kids at her school will take that as a sign that they're the only ones in the world that are like that, that there's something inherently wrong with them.

But think about all the steps that led to us knowing that Stambaugh had been dismissed. First he had to want to be a teacher, when there are many potentially excellent LGBT teachers who avoid work with children for this exact reason. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to not just say "fuck it" and go into another line of work.

Then a student asked why he wasn't married; he said it's because he's gay. He could have come up with another excuse like that he's too young or hasn't met the right person yet. It's really not too hard to lie to a 10-year-old about that. I could see quite a few normally out-n-proud LGBT people just not wanting to deal with that situation and the potential consequences of being an out teacher (like false accusations of child molestation).

Last, he had to make a stink about it to the media. Lots of gay teachers don't. They need a job in another district. They feel ashamed of their actions. They just want it to go away. They don't really have any proof so who's going to believe them? They just don't want to be in a newspaper for a variety of reasons.

Either way, Stambaugh is just the tip of this iceberg, one of the few teachers willing to do what he did and volunteer himself as a positive role model for gay youth and an administrator stamped that out. I'm sure the other LGBT teachers in his district got that message loud and clear, and he may have as well since he has no legal recourse. The gay kids at that school have no recourse either, even though they'll suffer too because of this decision.

This is an old fight for conservatives - the original anti-gay ballot initiatives weren't about keeping us from marrying, but keeping us from teaching. Anita Bryant toured the country to keep us out of schools. Harvey Milk didn't work on the Briggs Initiative to get us to serve in the military or to get anti-discrimination protections, but to just protect our right to work professionally with children at all. People actually felt the need to pass laws banning us from classrooms, and there are still some who do:

jim_demint_1.jpg[Sen. Jim] DeMint said if someone is openly homosexual, they shouldn't be teaching in the classroom and he holds the same position on an unmarried woman who's sleeping with her boyfriend -- she shouldn't be in the classroom.

"(When I said those things,) no one came to my defense," he said. "But everyone would come to me and whisper that I shouldn't back down. They don't want government purging their rights and their freedom to religion."

That's a US Senator who's just casually advocating witch-hunts in schools to purge them of people who don't have sex in ways he prefers. And that won't get much media coverage since that level of homophobia is completely acceptable in our culture.

jennings.jpgA gay teacher talking to a gay student was the central "scandal" in the faux controversy Fox News, The Washington Times, and other conservative media outlets focused on when it came to trying to get Kevin Jennings (former GLSEN head appointed to the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools), that he once talked to a gay teen who thought his "life isn't worth saving anyway" and helped him work through those feelings of worthlessness. Media Matters found the teen and here's his version of his conversation with Jennings, who was a teacher at the time:

However, since the Republican noise machine is so concerned about my "well-being" and that of America's students, they'll be relieved to know that I was not "inducted" into homosexuality, assaulted, raped, or sold into sexual slavery.

In 1988, I had taken a bus home for the weekend, and on the return trip met someone who was also gay. The next day, I had a conversation with Mr. Jennings about it. I had no sexual contact with anybody at the time, though I was entirely legally free to do so. I was a sixteen year-old going through something most of us have experienced: adolescence. I find it regrettable that the people who have the compassion and integrity to protect our nation's students are themselves in need of protection from homophobic smear attacks. Were it not for Mr. Jennings' courage and concern for my well-being at that time in my life, I doubt I'd be the proud gay man that I am today.

The mere fact that he talked about being gay with a teacher was enough for right wingers to try what they could to get rid of Kevin Jennings and send a message to LGBT people: stay away from all children, no matter their sexuality or gender, no matter what they're going through.

The fact that gay teachers are still getting fired, in 2010, and that many more are closeted or avoid becoming teachers in the first place because they don't want to deal with that mess should be troubling to everyone. Controlling knowledge is power, and using the educational system to make a segment of the population feel inferior and to privilege certain identities above others is a leg in the table of homophobia.


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People so often forget about queer teachers, so I'm really glad to see this. This is also a really good reason to support unionised public schools - private and charter schools don't support unions (though there is a move here in Chicago to help charter school teachers unionise), and we've seen plenty of cases where queer teachers have been "let go" because of their sexuality, and without any legal recourse.

Anti-bullying strategies and legislation can be helpful as well, but the problem, often, is that they end up criminalising already vulnerable youth in schools without effecting structural change in schools and communities.

Thorny issues all around.

I love two things about my life right now- I am a teacher and I am a part of a union (for the first time in my life).

I've been on the job for... um... 4 hours and I already sent the president of the college I teach for a letter requesting he speak to the LGBT students. this is a crisis. a serious crisis.

since I've been a teacher for... 4 hours... it's going to take some time for this to filer through.

you better believe I have my big dyke badge on and I'm going to do everything I can do help any student who feels different.

one of my students? is 17. that's only two years older than my son. I'm going mamma bear on this.

and I teach at an incredibly progressive institution. where we really need the voices? elementary schools. not to teach about sex, you stupid ass haters who will read this, but to teach about tolerance.

acceptance.

because I don't want to lose one more kid. gay, straight, whatever... I don't want to lose one more.

"not to teach about sex, you stupid ass haters who will read this, but to teach about tolerance."

I'm not singling you out here, but we often feel the need to add disclaimers like that in there. A gay man might say "I love working with children (not like that!)" or a lesbian might say "I keep my personal life to myself because school isn't about that." We have internalized this so deeply that even for us "gays + kids = inappropriate" is a reflexive thought.

I didn't know a single, in-the-flesh trans person until I was 19. I didn't even know they existed until I was 16. Even after I knew what I needed to do to be happy it took four years of agony and guilt before I could even think to act - and I'm one of the lucky ones. This is a travesty of epic proportions.

Alex, if I remember correctly we grew up in approximately the same area, geography-wise, and I think I can safely say that I know where your zeal for LGBT youth comes from. I did a year as a teacher and washed out, partially because I knew for fact that I'm pretty much undesirable in the teaching industry as I am now. It would only take one loud parent to get me tossed from the school - a precautionary measure, of course!

DADT is nice, and ENDA would sure be sweet. Marriage would be a cherry on top as well. But if I could trade all our political capital to put honest-to-God LGBT people (Or even open allies!) in schools, I'd gladly trade it all away, right here, right now. A few good teachers would do what a mountain of Gay Inc. lobbying cash cannot; give our queer youth hope and a valid identity.

I remember what it was like to feel alone and ashamed. No kid should have to feel that way.

DaveinNorthridge | October 4, 2010 9:56 PM

I'm out to my classes, but I teach in a major urban area on the college level, so it's not as much of a risk for me as it is for a high school teacher anywhere. This just confirms the importance of coming out, because the more people who know us the better off we'll be, even legally.

I teach (in a very large, very conservative state), and I love my job. Thank you for writing what I've so often felt/said.

Sara- you rock! May your next four hours be as productive as your first!

The big bugaboo is teaching young children. I taught 2nd-3rd graders and was, in effect, given the boot around the time I was transitioning in what's supposed to be the most progressive city in the US. The reality is, most parents aren't that paranoid about their 16-17 year olds (although right wing school board members will use queer/trans teachers to get wingnut brownie points) but many parents (even 'progressive' ones) feel totally justified protecting their little ones by not allowing imagined undesirables near them. This issue needs to be spelled out exactly as it plays out in life, because that's the source of the wound.

When Paige was in elementary and middle school, almost every year we'd have to hear the "But we don't want Paige to talk about her family because it will make the other kids' parents uncomfortable."

I always pointed out that was the worst excuse I'd ever heard. "Tell your kid to shut her fucking mouth because one of the other kids might tell their homophobic parents and they'll make our lives difficult." That about sums up that thinking.

Why do they do it? Because they can't even seem gay-friendly most of the time.

I can't imagine what it's like for a teacher who actually -is- gay.

I teach in a conservative, rural school district in central New York State. I am also transsexual and transititioned in the same district where I presently teach. The support from my union, students, administration and parents has been wonderful. I realize that I am one of the fortunate few.

Still, I know that there are a number of faculty and staff personel who are lgbt. A few are know to be lgbt because their kids go the same school. Many keep quiet about it. Others are deep in the closet while on school grounds.

Two tough gigs combined into one - being an lgbt teacher - is difficult.