LGBT Teachers Forced Back Into the Closet

By David Artavia

Originally published on Advocate.com August 23 2013 10:30 AM ET

As Americans celebrated the June 26 Supreme Court decisions striking down California’s Proposition 8 and a key portion of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, many LGBT schoolteachers may have ended the party a little early or avoided it altogether.

Across the country, thousands of LGBT educators are forced to be closeted for fear of being harassed or otherwise discriminated against by coworkers, parents, and administrators, with the most dire consequence being the loss of their jobs. Their fate is usually in the hands of school board members, or, in private schools, administrative personnel, who generally have only the teacher’s work history and a list of parental complaints to go by.

But while there have been numerous incidents of parents filing complaints about their children being taught by LGBT people, in some cases students have been the first to rally in support of the teacher.

Such was the case with Ken Bencomo. a teacher at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora, Calif., for 17 years. In July a local newspaper printed a picture of Bencomo and his partner’s wedding, prompting the administration at St. Lucy’s to notify the popular educator that because his marriage went against the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings, he was fired.

Following the news, a multitude of current and former students stood behind the man they call “Mr. B.” Brittany Littleton was the most vocal, starting a petition on Change.org to get Bencomo his job back. The petition now has more than 86,000 signatures.

“Mr. B taught love better than any other teacher at the school,” Littleton tells The Advocate, “and that’s the most important Catholic value you can teach. When I was a freshman, I didn’t want to go to St. Lucy’s. But Mr. B refused to let it happen. He called my parents and made me come to class in the morning. He changed my life.”

Stories like Benocomo’s resonate deeply with other LGBT teachers, contributing to paranoia and providing more of a reason to hide who they are. But that shouldn't be surprising, says Diana Cutaia of Coaching Peace, a consulting firm that seeks to foster equality and inclusion in schools and other institutions. In times of crisis, most teachers are driven back into the closet, she says.

“What brings people out of the closet is a welcome environment,” Cutaia says. “People are afraid if they support [a teacher coming out], they are supporting them as a gay person.”

Cutaia is well-known for her work in college sports, having coached teams up and down the East Coast and been featured on the front page of The Boston Globe. In her experience, Cutaia says, coaches have less support from administrators than teachers do. 

“Gay coaches fear stereotypes of the ‘creepy pedophile,’” says Cutaia. “There are more closeted coaches than there are teachers. They struggle because they’re still not accepted.”

In the 21 states (plus the District of Columbia) that currently have employment nondiscrimination laws covering sexual orientation, a teacher’s being gay shouldn’t be an issue. But private schools, especially religiously affiliated ones, often aren’t subject to the same state-level rules as public schools. And for closeted teachers, an invisible mask can become too comfortable to remove.

Spotting another teacher in the closet is easy, says Cutaia. The signs are clear: using gender-neutral pronouns like like “we” or “they” when referring to a spouse or partner, the absence of a family photograph on the teacher’s desk, the sudden change of topics when it comes to marriage, and traveling solo to school dances all begin to connect like puzzle pieces.

Great teachers are in short supply in the U.S., a sad reality documented in a recent global report that ranked the nation 17th in the developed world in quality of education. Depriving students of a good education simply because of a teacher’s sexual orientation is not only discriminatory, it might be one of the worst things we can do for our children, says Michelle Rhee, CEO of educational reform advocacy group StudentsFirst.

“I've seen many situations where members of the LGBT community feel they can't come out because it will be detrimental to their career,” Rhee says. “I certainly have to surmise from that, in some cases, it's stopping someone from pursuing the profession or continuing on, and in the extent that it’s happening with highly effective teachers, I think that's a problem.”

Rhee, herself a controversial figure for her ideas on education reform, has established herself as an ally to the LGBT community. Rhee’s StudentsFirst group recently rescinded the Reformer of the Year award it granted to Tennessee state representative John Ragan, after Ragan proposed legislation that would prohibit public-school teachers from discussing any sexual activity that is “inconsistent with natural human reproduction.” A consequence of the bill, according to opponents, would be to keep teachers from speaking out against antigay bullying. And any school employee counseling a gay or lesbian student would be required to report that information to the student’s parents. The measure did not pass, and after 11-year-old Marcel Neergaard and his family started a petition on MoveOn.org highlighting Ragan’s antigay record, StudentsFirst revoked the award.

The unfounded fear that gay people are pedophiles has often come up in discussions of gay teachers. In 1978 a California ballot proposal known as the Briggs Initiative (named after the proposition’s leading advocate, state senator John Briggs) would have prohibited gays and lesbians from teaching in schools. Its proponents rallied around the myth that homosexuality and pedophilia are linked, despite numerous studies confirming that most pedophiles actually identify as heterosexual.

Gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk campaigned against the Briggs Initative, and even Republican Ronald Reagan, who had recently completed his tenure as California's governor, opposed the measure. President Jimmy Carter also spoke out against the proposal, and in November 1978 the antigay proposition went down to defeat at the ballot box, with 58% of California voters rejecting it.

But more than three decades later, the fear of being recognized as LGBT still weighs heavily on many teachers. A new study, reported on by the U.K's TES Magazine, indicates that LGBT teachers are less likely than straights to challenge antigay bullying in the classroom, out of fear they might be perceived as gay by other students or faculty.

After interviewing more than 350 teachers and principals, researchers found the majority of LGBT educators surveyed would not intervene when homophobic slurs were being used toward students. Sixty percent of respondents said they've heard teachers make homophobic comments, and two thirds had never or rarely seen another teacher intervene in such circumstances.

If LGBT teachers don’t feel they’re able to be open about who they are and who they love, they may be ill-equipped to help a student struggling with the same issues.

The few LGBT educators in a given school often create space between each other to stay under the radar of possibly homophobic parents or administrators, explains Cutaia. Befriending another LGBT teacher can be a double-edged sword, she says. A teacher might have someone in whom they can confide about their personal life — someone who is certain to keep the “secret” of one’s sexuality.

But as soon as there's a question about either person’s sexuality, that confidant is nowhere to be found, says Cutaia. He or she disappears, often making clear attempts to create physical and social distance from the other teacher in the faculty lounge, cafeteria, or hallway.

Cutaia's ex-wife is also a teacher, and at one point they taught at the same school in North Carolina. It was there, during an ordinary lunch period, that one of her coworkers suggested maybe she "shouldn't sit with [her] wife anymore." When Cutaia asked her colleague why, the teacher replied, “a parent saw you holding hands." But the ordeal was just beginning.

Shortly after the lunchroom conversation, Cutaia and her now ex-wife were called into the school administrator's office. The administrator told the couple to downplay their relationship, and, says Cutaia, explicitly told her ex-wife to “go back in the closet.”

Faced with such an order, Cutaia and her former partner decided to leave the school. But even if they had stayed, the couple still would have faced an uphill battle, fighting for change in a possibly hostile work environment.

"The school system has two agendas," says Cutaia. "A principal's responsibility is for teachers to follow curriculum, while the school administrator [or superintendent] manages the public image and integrity to gain public favor. It's a total PR game. They are competing agendas."

If pressure to remain closeted doesn’t trickle down to teachers from the administration, it’s often overtly delivered by parents. John Duran, a City Council member in West Hollywood who is also a lawyer, says that "parent versus parent" scenarios often create more issues than necessary, leaving the students to suffer.

"One of the earliest cases I was involved in was the Vincent Chalk case,” Duran recalls. "He was a teacher for the hearing impaired in [California's] Orange County, and when some parents learned he was HIV-positive, they created a ruckus, arguing that the students were at risk. The school board pulled Vince out of the classroom and gave him a desk job to keep the kids safe, but the parents of his students loved Vince, and what he was doing for their kids ended up being deprived from the other students. It was a parent versus parent case.”

Rhee recalls a similar incident that happened when she was working in Washington, D.C. A teacher had revealed to her students that she was gay and would be traveling out of state to marry her partner. Though school administrators acknowledged she was a phenomenal teacher, the voices of homophobic parents were almost louder than theirs. Thankfully, the administration remained supportive of the teacher.

“It depends on each rung of the administration, how strongly people feel, and how willing people are to do the right thing,” says Rhee.

Rhee, who has often taken stands opposite those of teachers’ unions, believes not only unions but state legislators and others have to be involved if the situation for LGBT teachers is to improve.

“We should be looking broader than just teachers’ unions,” Rhee says. “We should be looking at state regulation and school district policies to make sure they’re not solely dependent on if there’s a union involved. If there is, that’s great, but in some cases that option isn’t there, and we still have to protect those teachers regardless.”

The U.S. Department of Education says it’s already working to make schools safer for both students and teachers. "Our children deserve the best teachers possible, and we should be supportive in providing the best work environments for a teacher to thrive in and educate our children,” says department spokesman Cameron French. “In recent years the U.S. Department of Education has increased its efforts to give parents, educators, and students the tools they need to stop harassment and create safe learning environments for both teachers and students."