The Pressures Faced by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Teachers and Staff
In an unsigned article published in the Advocate in April 2000, a Massachusetts teacher wrote, "You don't know me, and I can't tell you who I am. . . . I'm afraid that if I come out as a gay man in a forum this public, I will risk losing my job."253
A 1998 study of thirty-four gay and lesbian teachers from across the United States found that only nine had disclosed their sexual orientation to their current or former principals. While this study is by no means comprehensive or necessarily representative of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender teachers nationally, it reinforces the impression that many teachers are not comfortable being identified as gay or lesbian to their supervisors.254
The failure of states to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teachers from job discrimination has several ramifications for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. At worst, teachers and counselors, regardless of their sexual orientation or sexual identity, may refuse to intervene to stop harassment of the gay students out of fear that they will then be, correctly or incorrectly, perceived to be gay themselves or to be "promoting homosexuality." Furthermore, school districts lose input from a knowledgeable group of adults who could potentially educate their peers on what lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth are experiencing and help them devise intervention strategies. Finally, discrimination against adults based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is readily apparent to the youth themselves. Abusive youth justify their harassment by pointing to societal and governmental support for discrimination, and abused youth get the message that even adults in positions of authority can be attacked because of who they are.
We repeatedly heard school employees make remarks similar to those of the Advocate columnist or the Georgia teacher quoted at the beginning of this chapter.
"I couldn't put a pink triangle up," another teacher in Georgia told us, referring to the common symbol of gay pride. "I'm out when I walk out the door,"he added. Asked what it would take for him to be out at school as well, he replied, "If I had the knowledge that I'd keep my job, I imagine I would be out."255
Many school employees told us that they were out selectively but risked losing their jobs if knowledge of their sexual orientation or gender identity were more widespread. A counselor in West Texas told us that her immediate supervisor knows that she is a lesbian. "[He] doesn't have a problem with me, with the fact that I'm a lesbian," she said. She does not intend to disclose her sexual orientation to her regional director. "I have a feeling that if [he] figured out what the rainbow sticker on my car was, there'd be a way I wouldn't be employed any more."0
Most states do not prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Eleven states and the District of Columbia protect employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Only Minnesota and the District of Columbia also provide protection from discrimination in employment on the basis of gender identity.1 In addition, local measures may protect teachers and administrators in individual cities or counties. In California, for example, Berkeley, Brisbane, Daly City, Laguna Beach, Long Beach, Pacifica, Santa Barbara County, and the city and county of Santa Cruz prohibit discrimination in public employment on the basis of sexual orientation. In Utah, similar measures were in force in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.2
At the federal level, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), which would have prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and which was introduced by Sen. James M. Jeffords and Rep. Christopher Shays, was narrowly defeated on the same day that the Defense ofMarriage Act was passed overwhelmingly.3 Two attempts to reintroduce ENDA since 1996 have been defeated, as the bill has died in committee without coming to a vote in either house of Congress. Federal employees, excluding members of the military, are protected from employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation by executive order, although the measure protects virtually no teachers, nearly all of whom are employed by state or local governments.4
The lack of legal protection against discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation leaves teachers and administrators open to attack if they are supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund notes, "One tactic is to target educators who attempt to incorporate gay content into class instruction-for example, by referring to sexual orientation discrimination issues in diversity classes, or by including discussions about historical figures who were also lesbian or gay."5 In Michigan's Plymouth-Canton School District, for example, two gay teachers were ordered to take down a bulletin board for gay history month four days after they had put it up. Lambda reports that similar displays had been posted in previous years by staff members who were not gay; the administration expressed no concerns over the bulletin board at that time.6
In states with laws that criminalize private sexual conduct between consenting adults, teachers and administrators reported that they felt an increased sense of vulnerability. "We had a sodomy law. When I started work, I signed a thing saying that I'd uphold the laws of the State of Georgia," noted one teacher. "I feel I can go further in terms of being out since the repeal of the sodomy statute."7
Teachers could often point to specific examples that indicated to them that their school was hostile or unwelcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees. "I know of a teacher who asked if she could have a safe room," a West Texas teacher told us. A "safe room" is one in which the teacher will not permit harassment. "She was told, `We don't do that here.'"8 A teacher outside Boston told Human Rights Watch of the difficulties she and her partner had when their daughter was born. She took off a total of six days from work, telling the school that she was taking care of family members. Her partner also worked in the same school district. "Word got back to me to cut it out. They were saying, `We know what she's doing and we don't want to know what she's doing.' I'd spent ten years in that school system."9
"[D]iscussions about homosexuality continue to evoke a high level of discomfort, and as such, administration and school boards sanction a policy of `official invisibility,'" writes Dr. Gerald Mallon.10 Reflecting this unspoken policy, many school employees echoed the Georgia teacher's statement that he was out as soon as he left school grounds. "I'm not openly gay in my profession, but people see me with my friends all the time," a teacher in West Texas said. "It's a nonsubject. That's the best way to describe it."11
Youth understand the pressures that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teachers face. Matt P. told us that at his New Hampshire school, "There was one teacher who was gay and out. She was quiet for her own sake." Melanie S., a student in Massachusetts, said, "I know a teacher, a guidance counselor; she's not out, but she's out to me and the people in the GSA. . . . She didn't come out. She wanted to wait three years, some sort of thing so she couldn't be fired."12
Students at a youth group expressed a similar recognition of the risks lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teachers run if they choose to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity. "In my school, there's this one gay teacher. Everybody knows, but he's never said anything," remarked Javier R. "That's hisjob, man," replied Paul M. "That's his way of paying the bills. He's scared." "That's his personal life. What he does at school shouldn't be about that," Miguel S. agreed.
Despite their recognition of these pressures, youth expressed disappointment in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teachers who would not provide them with support privately. Before our conversation turned to a different topic, Paul M. added, "Teachers should help us out if they're gay, one-on-one. There are some who won't even talk to us."13
As a result of these pressures, some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teachers are hesitant to offer support to students who suffer harassment based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Katrina Avila of the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth observed, "In some schools, we've seen straight teachers push for it because teachers who weren't out wouldn't push."14
Asked about the potential impact of federal employment nondiscrimination legislation, Gail Goodman replied, "Huge. It would make a huge difference, especially to teachers."15 A Michigan teacher told us, "Frankly, the role model thing won't change until gay teachers are protected from discrimination."16
But others were less optimistic. Asked what it would take to make it safe for teachers to be out, the Georgia teacher replied, "For some, never. Especially for the older teachers, it's just not going to happen."17 Brenda Barron, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network's assistant field director for southern organizing, remarked, "Its passage would have a small impact, but I don't think the closet doors will fly open," she said. "There needs to be a lot of education, training, and visibility first . . . . The fear will still be there unless there's a dialogue."18
Harassment of Teachers by Students
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teachers who are open about their sexual orientation or gender identity also risk becoming targets themselves for harassment and violence. In some cases, teachers are being harassed by their peers and in other cases by students. If the harassment goes unaddressed, regardless of who is doing the harassment, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students get a clear message that even adults cannot protect themselves from bias attacks.
"This one teacher we had was getting harassment from students," Alex M. said, referring to a teacher whom the students suspected of being gay. "He couldn't do anything. Students know by law the teachers can't touch them. I'm not sure where he is now, but he left because of the harassment."19
Chance M. reported, "We had a gay man, a substitute teacher. People would throw things at him. He was much older, but he had the guts to wear a rainbow chain. I got nervous being seen with him, but I talked to him. I remember him almost breaking down telling me that he had stuff thrown at him."20
In some cases, students actually end up defending the teachers, a role reversal that both underscores the vulnerability of gay-identified adults and the lack of a coherent policy for addressing bias-based harassment in the school system.
Clayton Vetter, who taught at Skyline High School in Salt Lake City, revealed that he was gay at a press conference organized to challenge a bill which would have severely restricted speech by teachers outside the classroom. He coached the debate team and after being publicly identified heard from a student on the debate team that a group of football players were planning to beat him up. They planned to use bars of soap in socks which they thought would break bones but not leave bruises. It was his student who confronted the players and told them that Vetter had never done anything to deserve being attacked. Vetter reports that the student was then challenged about whether he had ever been touched by Vetter. Vetter expressed concern, saying, "My students were scrutinized by other students and were treated as suspect just because of their association with me. It felt wrong that I couldn't protect them and yet they were put in the position of defending me." Vetter eventually left teaching. Although he was not fired, he felt immense pressure after being identified as gay. "I had to be the best debate coach ever," he told us.21
Most of the youth with whom we spoke agreed with Chance M., the student who described having an openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender teacher as "the perfect remedy."22 For students to trust that they will not suffer discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, they need to see that adults too are protected from harassment and discrimination. When students perceive, as they often do, that teachers are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but also perceive that it is not safe for them to be open about their identity, the youth again receive a message that how they identify is unacceptable.
"It definitely helps to have teachers who are out," said Erin B. "You know you're not alone. You see how people treat a teacher. So if you're not out, I would look to see how the students treat the teachers, and that would affect whether I'd be out."23 "I think there should be more gay teachers," said Greg Z., citing similar reasons.24
Having a teacher who is openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender does not help only students who are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. A 2000 study found that having a personal acquaintance who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual is linked to holding fewer negative attitudes toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals.25
Students repeatedly told us that having even just one adult in the school system who supported them was critical to them surviving the otherwise hostile atmosphere. Teachers need not be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender to be supportive of students, of course. Greg Z. said, "My French teacher is my mentor. She knows about me. Young gay men need that moral and emotional support."26 The same can be said of young lesbians and bisexual girls.
Youth told us that small things, such as a few words of acknowledgment, a gesture, or the tone of a teacher's voice, were immensely helpful to them. MelanieS., a Massachusetts sophomore, described her reaction after a teacher mentioned having gay acquaintances:
When I was in eighth grade, one teacher said, "I know gay people; I know a gay couple." She didn't have a negative attitude. She only talked about it real quick. I suppose she was even scared to talk about it. I heard that word. Just hearing that word, not even in a positive sense, just not in a negative sense, it was astounding. It made my month.27
Similarly, Lauren M. told us, "I went to the gay prom and wrote about it for class. My English teacher wrote on my paper, `That sounds like a really wonderful thing-I'm glad you went.' Another teacher never addressed it directly, but he said hi to a girl I brought to the theater banquet. He spent time talking with her."28
Ron P. told us that it made a difference to him that with the exception of one teacher, he generally heard positive things from his teachers on gay issues. "My freshman year, we were having a discussion of homosexuality in class," he recounted. "The teacher was very supportive of homosexuality, though the class wasn't."29
And Burke D. spoke of his principal's reaction when he attended his prom with his boyfriend. "The administration didn't know about it in advance. When we got there, the principal came over to us. There were a lot of bewildered looks, but he was graceful about it. I was incredibly nervous. He asked to be introduced. He showed approval. That made a big difference. He took us over to the line for pictures. That's when people decided it was okay."30
While it is clear that students benefit from being supported by teachers and school officials, what was striking was how little support most students expected. Most students are so accustomed to being denigrated or ignored by their teachers that even a gesture as neutral as allowing a student to stay in a classroom during lunch to escape harassment was seen as significant. "I needed a safe place to stay during lunch-my English teacher would let me stay in her classroom and read. It saved my life," explained Nikki L., a fourteen-year-old lesbian who eventually left school in favor of independent study.31
253 Anonymous, "Teaching from the Closet," Advocate, April 11, 2000, p. 9.
254 Sixty-five percent of those questioned had come out to one or more fellow teachers, however. See Gail K. Bliss and Mary B. Harris, "Experiences of Gay and Lesbian Teachers and Parents with Coming Out in a School Setting," Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services, vol. 8 (1998), p. 18.
255 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.
0 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 20, 2000.
1 The jurisdictions that prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation are California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. See National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "GLBT Civil Rights Laws in the United States," April 2000, www.ngltf.org/downloads/civilmap0400.pdf (accessed on January 29, 2001). See also Chapter XI, "Right to Nondiscrimination and Equal Protection of the Laws" section, "State Protection from Discrimination" subsection.
2 See Wayne van der Meide, Legislating Equality: A Review of Laws Affecting Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered People in the United States (Washington, D.C.: Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2000).
3 The Employment Nondiscrimination Act was defeated 49-50, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which passed 85-14 on September 10, 1996. The Defense of Marriage Act allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions, arguably in violation of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which provides, "Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State." U.S. Constitution, art. IV, § 1. See Robert L. Cordell II, "Same-Sex Marriage: The Fundamental Right of Marriage and an Examination of Conflict of Laws and the Full Faith and Credit Clause," Columbia Human Rights Law Review, vol. 26 (1994), p. 247.
4 See Executive Order No. 13,087, 63 Fed. Reg. 30,097 (1998). This executive order remained in force as of April 2001.
5 Myron Dean Quon, "Teachers Under Fire: Educators Caught in the Cross-Hairs of the Radical Right," Lambda Update, Fall 2000, p. 8.
6 See ibid., p. 9.
7 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.
8 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 20, 2000.
9 Human Rights Watch interview, Boston, Massachusetts, May 8, 2000.
10 Gerald P. Mallon, "It's Like Opening Pandora's Box: Addressing the Needs of Gay and Lesbian Adolescents Within Educational Systems," The Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders Monograph: Highlights from the National Symposium on Understanding Individual Differences (Reston, Virginia: Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders, n.d.), p. 2.
11 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 20, 2000.
12 Human Rights Watch interviews, Salem, Massachusetts, May 24, 2000.
13 Human Rights Watch interview, Bergen County, New Jersey, October 31, 1999 (group discussion with six youth).
14 Human Rights Watch interview with Katrina Avila, director, Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth, Boston, Massachusetts, May 8, 2000.
15 Human Rights Watch interview with Gail Goodman, executive director, Out Youth, Austin, Texas, March 3, 2000.
16 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, November 20, 2000.
17 Human Rights Watch interview with Brenda Barron, assistant field director for southern organizing, GLSEN, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.
18 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.
19 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 1, 2000.
20 Human Rights Watch interview, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, May 10, 2000.
21 Human Rights Watch interview with Clayton Vetter, Salt Lake City, Utah, May 23, 2000.
22 Human Rights Watch interview, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, May 10, 2000.
23 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, March 2, 2000.
24 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 18, 1999.
25 See Annie L. Cotton-Houston and Bradley M. White, "Anti-Homosexual Attitudes in College Students: Predictors and Classroom Interventions," Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 38 (2000), p. 127.
26 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 18, 1999.
27 Human Rights Watch interview, Salem, Massachusetts, May 23, 2000.
28 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.
29 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.
30 Human Rights Watch interview, Decatur, Georgia, December 15, 1999.
31 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, November 18, 1999.