LGBT Teachers Forced Back Into the Closet

Thousands of LGBT educators in America live in fear every day of being fired.

BY David Artavia

August 23 2013 10:30 AM ET

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."

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