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Witness: A Teacher Unable to Protect LGBT Students

How US Laws Leave Educators Fearful, Students Vulnerable to Bullying

LGBT Rainbow Flag © 2008 Ludovic Berton (Wikimedia Commons)

Ellen A. just wanted to be a good teacher. But she felt she couldn’t help all of her students.

It was fear that stopped her. Fear of discovery, fear of being fired. It stopped her from being herself day in and day out.

Ellen, who is in her 50s, was assigned male at birth, but identifies as female. Before March 2015, there was no law in Utah protecting her from being fired for being herself should anyone discover her secret.

That changed when the state legislature passed Senate Bill 296, which banned discrimination in employment and housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Ellen began her transition shortly after the bill was passed, after first speaking to her school’s administration, who offered their full support.

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NARRATION / TEXT ON SCREEN “No promo homo” laws are on the books in eight US states. These laws restrict how teachers can talk about LGBT issues in the classroom. Arizona forbids portraying homosexuality as a “positive alternative life-style” and bans teaching “safe methods of homosexual sex.” In South Carolina, instruction “may not include a discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles” except “concerning sexually transmitted diseases.” Alabama schools must teach that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public.” Utah’s law prohibits “the advocacy of homosexuality” in schools. It’s also the first state where a “no promo homo” law is being challenged in court. We spoke to teachers, students, and parents there. Bonnie Owens After School Program Coordinator Many teachers, because the law is vague, understand it as a gag rule, meaning they can't say anything about homosexuality at all. And what that means is that a lot of teachers aren't actually fulfilling their responsibility to keep children safe, because they don’t think that they can intervene in anti-gay behavior. Joshua Greer High School Student “No promo homo” does affect how they deal with bullying in the classroom or even in the hallways. Just because they think that they can't even talk about it in school. Last year it was like pretty much every day. It was like, “You’re such a queer, you’re such a fag.” I got pushed into walls and called a gay or a fag. Rose Greer Joshua’s Mom They can't be safe because they have very few people to talk to and until we get rid of laws like “no promo homo,” they're not safe. Kimberlee Irvine Teacher The biggest bullying issues are centered around LGBTQ issues and right now we don’t have the tools or the ability or the freedom to be able to have the discussions that we need to have. These laws keep kids from learning the basics of sexuality and safe sex in health class. Bea Giauque High School Student When I went into 10th grade Health, with the knowledge of "I'm bisexual," the entire thing was "Hey, men and women go together. Girls and boys are going to have sex. That's how it is." Troy Williams Executive Director Equality Utah The “no promo homo” law originally was designed to only apply to health and sex ed class. But we're seeing the effects of “no promo homo” in history classes, in English classes, et cetera. For an assignment on family history, Josh tried to do a presentation about his uncle, who’s gay. But his teacher wouldn't allow it. Joshua Greer High School Student She was just saying like, "We can't talk about that. Gay is not something that we can actually talk about.” So it was kind of hard for me because that's my family and I'm gay. If I can't talk about my family members, then how am I supposed to feel? Bea Giauque High School Student It's absolutely ridiculous that I can't talk about my own sexuality. I can't talk about who I am as a person without feeling like I'm going against the law. And every time I tried to bring it up with a teacher, they also brushed by it and said, "Sorry, we can't help you here. Go to the internet." “No promo homo” laws are discriminatory and harm kids. They should be repealed. Rose Greer Joshua’s Mom There are kids who want to fall in love, who want to date, who want to go to prom, who want to be just as anybody else is in the school system. There's nothing wrong with being gay, and when we don't talk about it in the school system we create a perception that there is something wrong with it. Kimberlee Irvine Teacher If the “no promo homo” law were repealed, it would send a powerful message to our students. It would send the message to these students that they are valued, that their voice is being heard. That we care about them and that they have a place in our classroom.

“[The law] saved my life, it changed my family’s life,” Ellen told Ryan Thoreson, a Human Rights Watch researcher. “It was a lifetime coming.”

A new Human Rights Watch report “‘Like Walking Through a Hailstorm’: Discrimination against LGBT Youth in US Schools,” shows how states that do not protect LGBT teachers from employment discrimination hamper their ability to be resources for students and to intervene when bullying occurs.  

For the report, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 350 students and 145 parents, teachers, administrators, and service providers in Alabama, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah. Utah is the only one of these states with a law that explicitly protects LGBT faculty and staff, and none of the five states have anti-bullying or anti-discrimination laws that expressly protect LGBT youth.

Ellen’s story, however, is a positive one. It shows the power legislation has to help LGBT adults, and in turn LGBT youth.

Ryan and Ellen met in the club where Ellen and her wife had been members before she came out and began transitioning. The smartly dressed waiter called Ellen “ma’am” with an easy, friendly smile as he took their order. There was no hostility, even in this traditional club decorated with dark wood and old leather, just down the road from the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.

“I think the impact [of the law] is not yet completely realized,” Ellen said, noting that after being put down for so long, the transgender community still doesn’t trust that it can be okay to come out.

Life before the legislation came into effect was sometimes devastatingly hard for Ellen. It wasn’t helped by an openly homophobic principal, who has since been replaced. Nor was it helped by the lack of support from school staff in disciplining students who used homophobic slurs.

I can take discrimination – I don’t like it, and it hurts – but a child shouldn’t have to. There’s nothing worse than seeing a child with their self-esteem destroyed.
Ellen A.

Teacher, Utah

Ellen, whose name has been changed, felt that defending pupils being bullied for their sexual orientation, or even standing up for LGBT rights in general, might expose her to scrutiny. She feared she could ultimately lose her job.

She could not forget a “terrifying conversation” she had years ago with the school’s now former principal, who said, “I don’t want to be having any of that [gay] stuff on the playground.”

After that conversation, she felt helpless and unable to defend a boy who seemed like he could be gay who came through her elementary school. “There was nothing I could do, and it killed me. It not only broke my heart for him, because I saw the bullying and teasing – but I was also terrified for me. I didn’t want to risk exposing myself.”

As she spoke, Ellen held her hand over her heart, voice wavering slightly. But as with the rest of Ellen’s story, things got better once she felt she could be open about her life. She even reconnected with that pupil years later at an LGBT center called OUTreach.

“He said, ‘do you remember who I am?’ And I said, ‘of course, and I’m sorry that what happened to you happened to you.’ And now he knows … I’ll be there for him.”

Ellen feels that her visibility as a transgender person, afforded her by SB 296, has helped many younger LGBT people in Utah, both by showing that someone in a similar position is out and happy, but also as a source of information.

“The topic of being transgender in my life has been an open book,” since the law allowed her to make the transition openly, she said, “so when the conversation is allowed to take place, it’s so kind and respectful and discreet – it’s not promoting anything, it’s not promoting the lifestyle. A gay person, lesbian person, transgender person is not promoting anything, it’s who they are.”

“There’s a young lady at the junior high school, and when I was doing the parking lot [duty] she passed a message through my classroom aides that she wanted to speak to me. So I met her at one of the pillars by the flagpole, and that did begin a conversation.”

Ellen said the girl asked her questions about LGBT people, but said she was “asking for a friend,” so Ellen wasn’t sure if the queries were about the student personally.

“I can take discrimination – I don’t like it, and it hurts – but a child shouldn’t have to,” Ellen said, adding that the bullying endured by children wasn’t always physical and had moved online with the rise of social media.

“There’s nothing worse than seeing a child with their self-esteem destroyed.”

The Human Rights Watch report also features the stories of LGBT teachers who feared being driven out of their jobs by state “no promo homo” laws, which restrict discussions of LGBT topics in schools. When teachers feel unable to voice support for LGBT students, it can leave those students without any authority figures to talk to.

“School should be a safe place,” Ellen said. “If you put me in a place where I am terrified, I’m not going to learn. When I was terrified of being discovered, I wasn’t nearly as effective as a teacher as I could have been. And people have told me that this year. And I think what applies to me applies to kids.”

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