Posted by: outandequal | September 6, 2011

Out at Work: Teachers & Educators

by Judi Baker | Being out at work typically means that one is open about their sexuality and/or gender identity with their coworkers, constituents, supervisors, etc. But, what does being out at work mean for a school teacher, coach, or someone who works primarily with youth? Is it different? Should it be different?

“Not in My School!”
Just in the past month, on her radio show, Mission America’s Linda Harvey insisted that LGBT teachers should not be out, and if they were out, they were not fit to teach.

“Kids should not be put in the confusing position of having a teacher they like and respect in many ways who’s also known to be practicing homosexual behavior….The fact is that no homosexuality should be in our schools, period. When people leave that behavior behind, then they might be qualified for a job involving children. Out and proud homosexuals should not have jobs that involve children.”

When this type of rhetoric is used to cause concern and panic among parents (and students), teachers come under scrutiny. Their credentials and qualifications, along with their ethics and core nature, are called into question.

And, in addition to interacting and working with adult colleagues and supervisors, teachers have the added pressure of being monitored by parents–some of which may have strong anti-gay beliefs. And, when teaching older youth, teachers are then dealing with young adults that are forming their opinions and viewpoints about sexuality—their own and others.

Personal Stories. Personal Decisions.
I recently asked a friend of mine, a teacher at a charter school in the SF Bay Area, what her experience has been like, in terms of coming out. She is currently teaching high-school aged youth, but over the past eight years has taught various k-12 classes.

“I am out to kids that ask,” she said. “I wanted to be out to kids forever but was a little scared–more because of their families’ reactions, not the kids themselves. The families don’t know me, and unfortunately some people still think you can ‘make’ their kids gay. Some of my kids came out to me before I came out to them. When I was teaching the younger kids, the effeminate boys and gender neutral kids flocked to me. These kids always found a home with me, even though I was not out to them.”

A few years ago, before she made the conscious decision to come out to students that ask, she was put in an uncomfortable situation when a student directly asked about her sexuality.

“I did have a student ask me if I was a lesbian. And I said, ‘where did you hear that?’ She had heard it from a teammate’s parent, someone very gossipy, and I wasn’t ready yet. I didn’t feel safe yet. At the time I had two principals, and I told them. One of them, a gay man, said, ‘this isn’t okay; this is your story to tell.’ The other one, a straight woman, said, ‘let me be honest with you, if this gets in the way of teaching, you will lose your job.’”

In this article by Jody Sokolower on the Rethinking Schools website, Jody, a 7th grade teacher in Oakland CA, the author discusses her decision to come out.

“I knew I didn’t want to teach from the closet. I started teaching at the middle school level partly because it is such a difficult time for kids struggling with their sexuality and there are so few role models….To me, the overwhelming reason to come out is to make school a safer place for youth who know, think, or fear they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Adolescence is hard enough without positive role models for every aspect of who one is or is striving to become.”

This teacher came out to each of her classes by telling her story, passing around pictures of her family, and by answering questions. And, when the question of religion came up?

“Several kids told me that their church says homosexuality is wrong; I simply acknowledged that I know many churches have that perspective.”

Jody offers a thoughtful response to the question of, “why come out?” An answer that reaches beyond the classroom:

“Having it out in the open makes it easier for kids struggling with their own sexuality, but it also makes it easier for kids with lesbian/gay parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. There are a lot of us, so there are a lot of kids affected one way or the other. It also is an important piece of education for students who are being raised in homophobic families or communities. There is nothing quite as strong as a living example to counteract stereotypes.”

But, Jody also acknowledges that “Each situation is different: each school, each district, each personal situation. In some places the risks are greater than the benefits, and I certainly don’t want to push anyone to come out to their students who isn’t ready.”

In this New York Times article, Alta Kavanaugh, a teacher in a conservative community, finds comfort in coming out. And as the title of the article states, it is “not as cataclysmic as she had feared.”

“It was a gathering of events a few years back that persuaded Ms. Kavanaugh, a teacher for more than two decades, that it was time to reveal her secret at school, the setting where, the American Civil Liberties Union says, gay employees are most susceptible to dismissal or discrimination because of the abiding myths that homosexuals molest and recruit children.”

While still in the closet, Ms. Kavanaugh recants a time when she encountered an out teacher, who gave her some poignant advice: “Honey, it’s your civil right.”

During a lesson on prejudice, she decides it is the right time to tell her students:

“She interrupted the regular lesson and wrote ‘homophobia’ on the board, followed by a list of some ugly words common in the schoolyard. Then, she took a deep breath. She told the students: ‘When you use those words, you hurt people deeply. And you hurt me. Because I’m a lesbian.’”

Though a few parents complained, and some (closeted) staff members chose to distance themselves from her, many fellow teachers were supportive.

Religion, History, and Public vs. Private School
As you may know, The FAIR Education Act, which amends the Education Code to include social sciences instruction on the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and prohibits discriminatory instruction and discriminatory materials from being adopted by the State Board of Education, was recently passed.

And, as you may have read in one of our previous blog posts, the conservative Capitol Resource Institute is gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to challenge the Act. They claim that the bill requires public schools to “teach provocative material” and “use all social science curriculum … to teach children as young as five not only to accept but also to endorse transgenderism, bisexuality, and homosexuality.”

So, on the heels of the passing of the FAIR Education Act, we continue hear stories that make us realize that the classroom is still a sensitive, and unique, workplace environment.

For instance, in the past few weeks, a story emerged about a teacher who was suspended when he aired his anti-gay views on his facebook page.

“Last week, Andrew posted about Jerry Buell, a Florida teacher who was suspended for remarks he made on Facebook saying he “almost threw up” in response to a news story about same-sex marriage in New York. Buell also called the marriages part of a “cesspool” and said they were a sin.”

Buell posted this on his personal facebook page, on his own time. The anti-gay Liberty Counsel stepped in to defend him, and the ACLU joined Liberty Counsel in defending Buell. Upon further review, The Lake County School district discovered that he was including religious comments on his class syllabus and school website.

According to the article, “Buell was allowed to return to the classroom on Thursday, but the superintendent gave him a list of things she wanted him to correct.”

Discussing this with my teacher friend, she had this reaction:

“If you are a parent and you are sending your school to a private school, then you can send them to a school affiliated with religious teachings, and that’s fine. But in public schools, it is irrelevant. There is, and should be, a separation of church and state. And, you should be able to say whatever you want to on your own private facebook page, but your views shouldn’t affect your teaching.”


Share Your Thoughts

Are you a teacher? Are you out? If so, what would your advice be to teachers that may not be out? If you are not out, what have been your experiences that have influenced this decision?  Even if you are not a teacher, we’d love to hear your stories and thoughts on the topic.

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