Alex Blaze

LGBT teachers still fear being fired for coming out

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 14, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality

I posted recently about Beaverton, Oregon, firing a student teacher because he came out stambaugh.jpgwhen a student asked him why he wasn't married. I wrote:

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 the local paper has article on just that, how local LGBT teachers are getting worried about their jobs after they saw that the administration is willing to pull the trigger on teachers who come out of the closet:

[Beaverton Education Association president David] Wilkinson says that many gay teachers choose not to be open in the workplace in Beaverton, and recent events have given these teachers more reason to feel uncomfortable.

"I have been contacted by many teachers who are deeply concerned about their vulnerability in light of this incident," Wilkinson says. "This incident and the district's response to it has brought a bright light to the lack of clarity around what is allegedly age-appropriate or reasonable to discuss with students.

The paper tried to get some clarity, and the responses they got were terrible. They asked two education professors from the Portland area, although what they said is what we'd put in the mouths of a stereotypical Alabama Baptist preacher, showing how once again education is one of the most homophobic industries in the US:

When the teacher does not identify as heterosexual, "it gets complicated," says Randy Hitz, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University. "Unfortunately, it is still the case that some people view the homosexual lifestyle as being inappropriate somehow."

This means that teachers need to be careful.

"You don't go out of your way to talk about it," Hitz says. "You don't flaunt it."

Mark Girod, chairman of Western Oregon University's Division of Teacher Education, likens the open statement of a teacher's sexual orientation with other forms of free speech.

"You have the right to live your life," Girod says, mentioning such behaviors as having a tattoo or a nose ring. "But when you're acting as a teacher in a school, sometimes it's not appropriate to wear the nose ring."

They're both university professors from the Portland, Oregon, area. And they're saying that it's not appropriate for a teacher to share a basic part of their identity with their students, parts of their identity that even they admit straight teachers are allowed to do.

And I'm sure they don't consider themselves homophobes, that they may even have gay friends and be pro same-sex marriage and vote for gay politicians, but there's just something about gay people and kids being in the same room that just breaks something in their brains. Meanwhile, they're educating the next generation of LGBT teachers, telling them not to come out, because, heaven forbid, maybe they can set a decent example for LGBT students and help make a dent in teen suicide. They're also educating the next generation of school administrators and letting them know that it's completely appropriate to have two sets of rules about discussing one's personal life at school, one set of rules for straight teachers and another for not-straight teachers.

The Beaverton administrators are grappling with that right now:

[Beaverton superintendent Jerry] Colonna says the district is planning to use the controversy as a learning experience.

"We want to look at the incident as greater than one person in one classroom having one discussion," he says.

The district will consult with gay and lesbian staff members, as well as Basic Rights Oregon. "I really believe we have policies in place, but policies are paper and words. These things are in the gray, not black and white," Colonna says.

As long as they don't explicitly describe what's appropriate and what's not while they're willing to fire people over "one discussion" in "one classroom," LGBT teachers are going to be worried about losing their jobs. Without explicitly guidelines, a straight teacher saying he's not married because his girlfriend is still in college will be appropriate, while a gay teacher saying he's not married because he can't in the state of Oregon will be inappropriate. A straight teacher talking about her trip to England with her husband will be perfectly wholesome, while a lesbian teacher talking about her trip to England with her partner will be treated as if she were explaining the ins and outs of cunnilingus to kindergardeners.

All the while, an important resource to fight isolation and social ostracism and homophobia in schools will go to waste, while good LGBT teachers will continue to say "fuck it" and leave the profession for greener pastures. And who could blame them?

In related news, it's important to mention that in all the hubbub surrounding New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino's comments about homosexuality, that he was specifically referring to LGBT teachers:

1.jpgI didn't march in a gay pride parade this year, the gay pride parade this year, my opponent did. And that's not the example we should be showing our children, and certainly not in our schools.

And don't misquote about wanting to hurt homosexual people in any way. That would be a dastardly lie. My approach is live and let live. I just think my children and your children would be much better off and much more successful getting married and raising a family, and I don't want them brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option -- it isn't.

No word on whether he's willing to stand up against brainwashing children into thinking gay people are unacceptable and appropriate targets of violence, both self-inflicted and otherwise.

He later explained that he opposes all anti-gay job discrimination, except when it comes to those who work in schools:

In the "Today" show interview, Paladino said he is not anti-gay and that he would "absolutely" recruit gays to work in his administration. "You name it. Wherever their expertise may be, we'll put them in our government."

Asked about the "brainwashed" remark, he said that comment had "to do with schooling children. My feelings on homosexuality are unequivocal. I have absolutely no problem with it whatsoever. My only reservation is marriage."

He said that "children should not be exposed to that at a young age. They don't understand this. It's a very difficult thing. And exposing them to homosexuality, especially at a Gay Pride parade, and I don't know if you've ever been to one, but they wear these little Speedos and they grind against each other. It's just a terrible thing."

"Wherever their expertise may be, we'll put them in our government," unless their expertise is education. In which case, you don't want people showing up in "little Speedos" and grinding "against each other" while they teach addition to third-graders? Just think about that, hold that image of gay people having butt sex in front of your children... and then go vote.

But don't say that he's homophobic, because that would obviously be ridiculous.

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This is so representative of many people who are in charge of credential programs. There is a huge amount of unacknowledged homophobia and, especially transphobia. Obviously, if a woman teacher had her husband visit the classroom or even had her baby in the classroom, no one would complain for one second... so it has nothing whatsoever to do with 'what's appropriate.'

Yet these "educators" (like the Randy Hitz from Portland State) are able to talk about gay lifestyle and feel justified that they're speaking as informed professionals. These are also the same morons who have made companies like Scholastic (with a 50 HRC score) to have monopolies in spite of their poor corporate records on equality (and even banning/censoring books with 'gay content'... which Scholastic has). The world of elementary and secondary education has been hugely left out of many equality initiatives and this needs to change. Elementary education is a bastion of repressive attitudes and that's the worst possible place for it.

It really is, and I agree that we keep on ignoring this. I think a lot of us have just accepted that we have to stay away from the children to be accepted. Not that it matters to the right, they'll still accuse of being pedophiles/recruiting anyway.

Steve Ribisi | October 14, 2010 7:25 PM

I am a HS teacher, new at my school this year. I taught summer school in June and July. The kids I taught were curious about me and kept asking me about my wife. Finally I told them that I was gay and that I had a husband (we live in MA). The kids were surprised, but otherwise it was not a big deal to them. A few weeks later the Principal asked to speak with me in his office. He thanked me for doing a good job with the kids over the summer and he asked me if I had told them I was gay. I said that I had indeed told them in response to several questions about my marital status. I assured him that I did not discuss anything remotely sexual or inappropriate with the kids and that I felt that honesty was the best policy. He asked me (as nicely as he could) to NOT come out to my students in the fall. I asked why and he said that he wanted me to have a good year and he was worried that some students, especially the freshman, would lose respect for me and make my life difficult. The conversation was cordial, a bit strange, and perhaps had an unspoken subtext - namely that he was worried that parents would call to complain about the gay teacher. So, as of mid-October I am not out to the kids. I am out to the administration and to the other teachers. I joined the Gay-Straight Alliance as a faculty member (I sit in on meetings and smile reassuringly at the kids) in September. Through the GSA I now know of several students who are having a hard time at school due to their perceived or actual sexual orientation. I am feeling a very strong pull to come out to the student body. I feel really bad about NOT being out when there are kids who could (in my mind at least) see me as a role model and perhaps as someone to whom they could talk. I am in a really uncomfortable position now. Do I honor my Principal's wishes that I do not come out to students, or do I put myself out there so that the LGBT kids know that there is a gay teacher at the school? I think I know what I have to do. I just hope that it does not cost me my job.

Before I came out as transsexual, I had a job as a caseworker with families. After I had a job with the homeless and people living with HIV/AIDS. Co-incidence?

I had talked to one of my professors about the few areas with nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation. She had two suggestions: 1. Find a job doing advocacy or political work to change it (or, don't teach) or 2. Stay in the closet until I'm tenured.

When I student taught last semester, my first placement's teacher would mention her husband almost daily, if not her son. It made me cringe to think that I could not, in the same position, let personal information roll off the tongue. She has a great rapport with her students, and while I built a good rapport with them too, the personal questions they asked me were about going to college. This was an elementary school, so I don't know if I would be out to the students (maybe one of the sixth graders who came for resource math and reading), but I was out to the teacher.

It's something I still struggle with as I search for a job. What if a principal has seen my Facebook page, or online petitions I've signed, or posts I've made online? What do I say if it's brought up in an interview? My part of the country does not have sexual orientation included in nondiscrimination policies. Could I shut the closet door again? I've been out to just about everyone for nearly a year and it's been marvelous. I've forgotten how to bite my tongue.

I wish ENDA hadn't died.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. We're not that far away from the day of Harvey Milk. We're still fighting the same war, just a different battle.