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.