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.
“[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.
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.