Remember Briggs? After 20 Years, Gay Teachers Controversial Again

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Sunday Nov 14, 2010

In the midst of what was arguably one of the wackiest midterm election campaign seasons in recent memory, there was a lot of crazy-slinging that may have slipped past the radar screens of the thousands of sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden journalists and bloggers faced with keeping up with a seemingly unending stream of bizarre developments.

Among the strange moments for LGBT advocates was when Tea Party-backed Senator Jim DeMint [R-SC] reiterated a 2004 statement that he believes openly gay people and sexually active, unmarried women should not be allowed to teach children in schools. The statement, which a DeMint spokesperson also stood by as a "moral opinion," elicited condemnation from progressive groups including the Human Rights Campaign and National Organization for Women.

But days later, the story was largely overshadowed by a certain female senate candidate's campaign in Delaware and more competitive races in states like Nevada and California.

The question of whether openly gay or lesbian teachers should be allowed in the classroom hasn't been raised in the public domain in any meaningful way since the 1978 defeat of the Briggs Initiative in California, a statewide measure that would have banned openly gay or lesbian school employees and their supporters from working in public schools. Many prominent Republicans, including then-governor Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford condemned the proposal, which lost by a wide margin.

But DeMint's revisiting of a seemingly obsolete metric of discrimination against the LGBT community is troubling, if not surprising to many advocates for queer educators and administrators. Many advocates on the issue describe education as one of the most conservative fields in the country. In September, Seth Stambaugh, a student teacher in Beaverton, Ore., was removed from his post in a fourth grade classroom after he alluded to being gay after a student asked if he was married.

Though Stambaugh was later reinstated, many other LGBT teachers have not been as lucky. Countless others fear for their job security, avoiding the issue altogether by being closeted in the classroom. Tuesday, David Dixon, a Haralson County High School drama teacher in northern Georgia, was terminated for showing a film called "The Reckoning" to his students. The short film, by Bruce Hart, deals with the topic of anti-gay bullying and harassment.

Fearful adults, fearful kids
Seemingly lost in the recent dialogue surrounding the hostile environment and bullying LGBTQ youth often face in schools is the safety of queer and queer-friendly educators and staff. These staff are perhaps in one of the best positions to support youth who may not know of anywhere else to turn.

And yet, within a political environment that has consistently blocked federal non-discrimination legislation like ENDA while also threatening to cut already endangered funding levels for education, thousands of openly LGBT educators find themselves nearly as vulnerable as the days of the McCarthy era. A Daily Kos/Research 2000 survey released earlier this year, surveying the opinions of 2000 self-identified Republicans nationwide, reported 73 percent of respondents thought gay people should not be allowed to teach in public schools.

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), described both comments like DeMint's and Stambaugh's firing as "very dangerous developments that certainly fly in the face of everything that schools need at the moment."

GLSEN is currently rolling out an ambitious Safe Space Campaign that hopes to place kits containing LGBT-friendly stickers and posters in thousands of middle and high schools nationwide. But Byard admitted to EDGE that many teachers are telling the organization they cannot participate for fear of outing themselves -- both as queer or supportive of the LGBT community. Many school districts around the country sport "no promo homo" or "neutrality policies" that leave many educators feeling unsure what they are allowed to say on LGBT issues in the classroom.

"They feel they can't put the sticker up. They're so conflicted and sad because they want to be helpful but don't feel that they can," Byard said, indicating she is hearing from increasing numbers of teachers who do not feel safe being openly gay or lesbian in their schools.

"It is a reasonable and well-founded fear from many of these teachers that they can lose their jobs," Byard said, pointing to ENDA's stalemate in Washington. "There are thousands of highly decorated and effective teachers out there who are LGBT and our schools need every good teacher they can get. If we move toward an environment where this kind of fear mongering and these kinds of awful personal attacks on professionals stand, I will be thoroughly terrified."

Controversy surrounding openly queer teachers in the classroom was perhaps at its height shortly before the days of Anita Bryant and the Briggs Initiative. According to Catherine Lugg, a professor at Rutgers' graduate school of education who has researched the subject, gay teachers were frequently the subject of witch hunts during the 1950s and '60s, following President Dwight Eisenhower's 1953 executive order that gays and lesbians be barred from federal employment.

In her 2009 work And They Were Wonderful Teachers, Karen Graves outlines the activities of the state-sponsored Johns Committee in Florida, which revoked 71 teaching accreditations of educators between 1957 and 1963. Many queer teachers, unable to reconcile their full identity with their career ambition, even took their own lives.

Next: "The most horrible thing you can have"


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