Education

How LGBT Teachers Deal With Intolerance Across The Country

CREDIT: Courtesy of Omar Currie

Omar Currie, 25, said he built a good reputation while he taught at Efland Cheeks Elementary School.

“I spent time tutoring kids for free and test scores were great, so I built a reputation for being a great teacher and parents were trying to transfer their kids into my class,” Currie said.

But Currie chose to resign — a decision that made national news — from his job teaching third grade last Thursday after outcry from parents about Currie’s decision to read a book to his class that featured a king falling in love with another man at a ball where was supposed to meet his future queen. It was a fractured fairy tale, a story that subverts the norms of a fairy tale but keeps some of its structure and familiar characters, and Currie thought it would be in keeping with other fractured fairy tales he was reading his class at the time.

That wasn’t his only reason for reading the book, however. A child in his class had been harassed during P.E. class. When another classmate tried to defend him, she was bullied as well.

“One of the male students was crying and he said students were calling him a girl and saying, ‘Hey, girl come here’ and ‘Hey woman, throw the ball’ and things of that nature, and they called him gay in a way that hurt his feelings,” Currie, who is openly gay, said. ‘That really triggered my reading of King & King.”

King & King and parent outrage

Parents sued a school in 2006 when a teacher read the same book, a fact Currie wasn’t aware of. At the time, the federal judge ruled that parents’ rights to exercise their religious beliefs weren’t violated. Currie said his reading of book first became an issue when parents of children in his class said they wanted prior notice before he read the book, but soon other parents, whose children weren’t in his class, got involved in the discussion over his decision to read the book.

“The other families were saying that as a gay person, I shouldn’t be in the building, and as a gay person, I might be pushing some kind of homosexual agenda and the book should not be in the building or read at all,” Currie said.

Currie chose to resign because he didn’t feel he really had the support of the administration, which cited a policy that the book fell under “controversial topics” that require parental notice. His situation is one many LGBT teachers fear. Whether teachers are out or not, many of them are worried that intervening too much in the bullying of a student, especially one who has had homophobic or transphobic slurs hurled at them, will make them look too much like an advocate and somehow undermine their professionalism.

Despite major progress on LGBT rights in the past few years, the school environment for LGBT teachers varies widely depending on the size of the district, the region and the administration’s approach.

Although some administrators are very supportive and don’t ask LGBT teachers to handle parent complaints over their sexuality or gender, others put teachers in a situation where they have to defend themselves in a forum, as Currie did. In some extreme cases, teachers are harassed relentlessly. A trans woman teaching in Milwaukee committed suicide last year. Her mother said she was bullied, not by her students, but by other educators. In addition, a lot of states don’t have the nondiscrimination laws in place to protect teachers. A Catholic school teacher, Tippi McCullough, was fired after getting married to her partner in 2013 (photo above).

“Nondiscrimination laws provide LGBT educators with much-needed protections, which sadly they lack in 29 states, meaning that, no matter how great a teacher you are, you can still be fired in most of the United States just because of your sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Kevin Jennings, the author of One Teacher in Ten: LGBT Educators Share Their Stories and executive director of the Arcus Foundation. But even such nondiscrimination policies aren’t 100 percent effective.

“In too many places in the 21 states that have legal protections, LGBT teachers still feel they must hide who they are. Many are afraid parents will turn on them and their administrations will stand idly by as they are hounded out of their jobs. Others are concerned that their relationships with students will be damaged and their effectiveness impaired as a result,” Jennings said.

Some LGBT teachers still feel uncomfortable being out

Emily, a first-grade teacher, who works at a rural school district in the South, said she feels the need to hide her sexual orientation because the culture is fairly hostile to LGBT people. She’s been married to her partner for three-and-a-half years but uses a male pronoun when discussing her spouse with colleagues and once introduced a friend and former co-worker as her husband to avoid suspicion.

“We have been out with friends, and it’s so crazy, but I live in such fear. When [a group of friends and I] were out to breakfast, one of my coworkers came up and I presented one of them as my husband. Because he understands where I teach and the culture and everything. I hate it. It’s very depressing,” she said.

The town she teaches in is fairly small, with three or four stoplights, four fast food restaurants, and a couple fine dining establishments. Teachers were given Bible school pamphlets to pass out and had a local pastor come in to pray with the teachers.

“It wasn’t mandatory, but then again it was mandatory. You could see people were looking around the room to see who was there and who wasn’t. People are Southern Baptist predominantly, and we found an Episcopalian church we can go to,” Emily said. “When people ask where you went to church, because that’s one of their get-to-know you questions here, I was honestly looked at as if I were the devil. I grew up in the South but this is still very different from where I grew up.”

Luckily, Emily will move in a just a little more over a year to start a new position, and she hopes to find a more accepting school district. For now, she tries to do what she can to help kids who are being bullied and create an accepting environment for kids for aren’t conforming to gender roles or are negatively labeled as gay.

One child, who has two mothers she says parents frequently gossip about, wears his hair longer and has been bullied as a result. However, she tried to do so in a way that protects his masculinity rather than challenges gender norms.

“People talk about how he’s very feminine and he looks like a girl and I’ve heard people say, ‘His voice is a little bit higher,’ and he’s six. He’s nowhere near hitting puberty, so listening to people talk about him like he’s a girl, I’m being defensive of it,” she said. “But I’m being defensive of it, in a way that’s stereotypical Southern Georgia, and I say, ‘Oh he plays with the guys at recess” and that sort of thing and that shuts them up.’”

Instead of asking for acceptance in every situation, she picks her battles.

“But I have at moments said, ‘There shouldn’t be boy things and girl things.’ In my classroom, teachers have heard me say that and I’ve gotten looks,” Emily said. “I have a girl in my class who is obsessed with Batman and I learned through her she’s not going to want pink and do the girly things so I try to give freedom of choice, so there’s a choice of flowers and teddy bears, so boys can pick flowers.”

How LGBT educators try to move both children and adults from tolerance to acceptance

An administrator at a very large school district, who wished to speak anonymously, said he is out to parents, administrators and students. With a high school of 2,500 students and five administrators, he oversees a lot of kids – 500 to be exact.

When asked if he is ever concerned that he will look too interested in anti-gay bullying, he said, “I stay in my lane. If a kid in a different range with different administrator has been harassed my interest is piqued but I stay in my lane, even though that administrator often comes to me with advice about how to handle it,” he said.

He’s seen a huge shift in how gay students are treated, however.

“When I went to school, ‘faggot’ was being thrown around left and right, and ‘That’s so gay,’ and now it’s done less and less. I see us moving from an era of intolerance and we have moved to era of tolerance, but also, who the hell wants to be tolerated? You tolerate a 3 year old screaming on an elevator. We’re moving from tolerance to acceptance.”

Greg Smedley-Warren, an openly gay kindergarten teacher who has a popular blog called The Kindergarten Smorgasboard lives in Tennessee, a state without LGBT nondiscrimination laws. He’s been married to his husband since 2012.

“We’re in the process of having a baby and [co-workers] are very excited about that so I haven’t had any pushback, none of my administrators have ever come to me and said this parent had a concern,” Smedley-Warren said. “Nashville is definitely more progressive and tolerant and I think I’ve probably been lucky but I think it’s also because it’s not a big deal and I haven’t kept it hidden. It’s a combination of that.”

Greg Smedley Warren in his classroom.

Greg Smedley Warren in his classroom.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Greg Smedley-Warren

Despite his good fortune, he says he hears from teachers all over the country through his blog, and many of them don’t have as positive an experience, especially in rural communities. Smedley-Warren says he approaches bullying by making broader statements about acceptance to his students, as opposed to centering the conversation on sexual orientation or gender. When a boy was negatively called gay, he had to control his temper a little.

“My first reaction was to lose it and say, ‘No, that’s not okay,’ but you know I pulled it in and we had a class conversation about bullying and name-calling and being different,” he said. “I said, ‘Some people might have two mommies and two daddies and some people may have a daddy and a mommy and some people may have no mommy or no daddy, but we talk about how we all look different and talk different and dress different’ and so we talked about it in a broader sense.”

Ryan, a transmasculine English language arts teacher living in Northampton, Massachusetts, came out as transgender three years into teaching, and said the news was well received by the administration.

“My administration has a last name policy — Mrs. whoever and Mr. whoever. After my third year, I told the principal I couldn’t come back next year as Mrs. Anything,” Ryan said. The principal was receptive and agreed to have students call Ryan by last name only since Ryan does not prefer gendered titles.

Ryan says the school environment Ryan’s in is very supportive and parents and students have, overwhelmingly, been accepting of Ryan’s transgender identity. Still, there are occasionally times Ryan is careful not to upset or overstep certain boundaries with parents.

“I’ve had a few trans students whose parents weren’t supportive. They never specifically confronted me or expressed a problem to the administration, but I could tell that their students’ connections to me made them uncomfortable. As a result, I was a little more guarded with what I said or did,” Ryan said. “A lot of the students know I’m trans, but the depth of my conversations about gender is based on my getting to know a student and also having a sense of the environment they’re in. I always want to support trans students and show them they aren’t alone, but sometimes it can get political to mentor a trans student as a trans teacher, so I’ll connect them to other local resources.”

Relationship with the administration

When asked how he has approached interviews in the past, Smedley-Warren said that he makes a practice of simply mentioning his spouse in passing rather than deliberately asking if a prospective administrator if they accept his sexuality.

“When I’m sitting in an interview, I don’t say well, ‘I’m gay, is that OK?’ I talk about Jason, who is my husband. So I’ll talk about him casually and make it not a big deal, so if it’s something they want to discuss and it’s an issue then we can talk about it,” he said.

Robert Rigby, 51, a Latin teacher at West Potomac High Schools in the Fairfax County Public School District, said he knows few LGBT teachers who are out to everyone.

“There are more openly gay teachers than there used to be, but they’re still pretty rare. Out of six gay teachers I know, some are out to their friends, some are out to faculty and administration, but I’m the only one who is out to students and parents,” Rigby said.

Rigby said a good administrator will talk to parents who have problems with a teacher being gay but that hasn’t always been the case at other schools he has worked at throughout his career. He has changed schools twice because he didn’t think the administrations were supportive of his being gay.

“I did have an administrator come to me and said a parent didn’t like their child having a gay teacher so I met with the parent and I was radically uncomfortable, and it being Fairfax and my having several endorsements I changed schools. But I have that flexibility because it’s a big system and I have a lot of experience and endorsements,” he said. “I think about a teacher in a small school system they would just have to quit and go someplace else because you have an administration that isn’t supporting you.”

Rigby has made career decisions he otherwise wouldn’t have in order to change schools.

“It doesn’t look good on your resume if you change schools too often. When I left that school I applied for any job I could get and took any job I could get, which was teaching to kids with learning disabilities,” Rigby said. “That wasn’t my intent but it was what I could get, so if you have a situation you have to get out of your options are limited so even me, with a large system, I’ve got to pay the bills and you’ve got to keep your health care you have to feed your family.”

Rigby said he has seen a shift in how LGBT teachers are treated, however. One of the administrators who was uncomfortable with his sexuality invited him to an event welcoming more LGBT people into his church.

“Since he retired I got invited to a Baptist church to speak. They were in the process of becoming a welcoming congregation and wanted to know how to work with LGBT youth so I spoke to them and he was there and he said, ‘I’m here to learn,’” Rigby said. “I did not persuade him. He did it on his own by talking to his pastor and his family and all of that. It was very nice to see.”

Ryan had concerns about whether parents and others would doubt Ryan’s professionalism after coming out as transgender. After students began scoring well on tests, whatever doubts were there were surely laid to rest, Ryan said.

“My students’ performance made it so people couldn’t say, ‘Your identity makes it so students can’t learn in your classroom.’ As much as I don’t think that state tests are a good measure of ability or meaningful learning, scoring highly gave me a little space to be myself. I had enough quantitative data on my side where students were improving two, three, four, five years of reading in one year,” Ryan said. “Because I was young when I started coming out, I really felt like people would perceive my authenticity as immature or unprofessional. It wasn’t until I started getting numbers that I felt like I could relax because I had data on my side.”

When asked how Ryan would approach a job interview as a transgender teacher, Ryan said the approach now would be much different than in past years.

“It’s been different at different times in my career. At this point, I’d be clearly out as trans and would not teach at a school that could not handle that. At my first job, I said nothing and did not come out because I wanted a job and was afraid. At my second job, I didn’t talk about being trans specifically, but in the interview I said, ‘Is there anyone I can talk to about the climate for LGBT teachers?’” Ryan said.

Even if an administration doesn’t know everything it needs to know about how to talk about being transgender, Ryan said the most important thing is that the administrators are willing to learn.

“And I think as I’ve moved through my career, I’ve gotten much more confident and feel like I can assert what I need. I haven’t always taught in liberal places and I don’t feel limited to them now. I just need a faculty and administration that is open,” Ryan said.

But Ryan pointed out that the experience is different for white transmasculine teachers compared to for example, trans women of color. Trans women of color face greater hurdles to securing jobs, deal with police violence and harassment and often live in fear for their lives. Globally, 226 trans women were murdered with the majority being trans women of color. In the U.S., seven trans women have been murdered this year so far, with six being trans women of color.

“I, as a white, middle-class transmasculine teacher in a fairly liberal area, am going to have a very different experience. My privilege mitigates a lot of things for me and I think that’s really important to discuss,” Ryan said.

For many teachers, however, their place at the school depends on the right administrators, and administrations change. When Currie first interviewed with the school, the school had a different principal.

Omar Currie in his classroom.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Omar Currie

“After I completed my student teaching they spoke with me about staying and we had a regular interview and one question I asked was, “I am an openly gay man and within a few minutes of talking to me, any family is going to know that I’m gay,” Currie said. “I want to know what your response is going to be when that becomes a problem for someone.’ And she made it very clear, and said, ‘I am hiring you because of your ability to teach at the end of the day and I support you 100 percent, regardless of what parent concerns are.’”

Currie first became frustrated with the administration when the same child who was bullied in gym class had been called names on the playground and he brought his concern to the principal.

“I spoke to the principal and she said they didn’t really understand what they were doing and there was no reason to have any kind of disciplinary action or conversation,” Currie said. “To me it was extremely frustrating. As a gay black man, who grew up in rural North Carolina, I was bullied every single day in middle school and there were teachers who saw it and gave it a pass.”