Remember Briggs? After 20 Years, Gay Teachers Controversial Again

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday November 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.

Remnants of that period linger on today as educational theory through the 1980s often spread a message that openly queer teachers were pedophiles presenting a problematic distraction for public school districts.

Last year, conservative pundits attempted to link GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings, an Obama appointee to the Department of Education, to NAMBLA, the North American Association for Man-Boy Love Association. Many social conservatives called Jennings a "pervert" and called for his dismissal.

"The perception is that our mere existence in the classroom is a contamination," Lugg told EDGE. "Public schools have been some of the most conservative social institutions that we have and that homophobia has been so potent and lethal that it doesn't just go away."

Since that time, gay-straight alliances have sprung up in schools in all 50 states. Many regional groups have formed to bring LGBT teachers together, including the National Education Association's Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Caucus and smaller, regional groups like the Lesbian and Gay Teachers Association of New York.

The fact remains, however, that without a federal ENDA protecting their careers, many teachers and administrators who lack any sort of tenure can be ousted for little to no reason, including their sexual or gender identity.

"There are generations of professional socialization where teachers and administrators are told that having queer teachers is bad, that we're the most horrible thing you can have in your public schools. I would suspect a certain percentage of folks still believe that," Lugg added. "Just because you take away the legal support for witch hunts doesn't mean they all stop."

More subtle but still there

Discrimination today appears to be more subtle for queer and queer-friendly teachers. Late last year, a parent in Washington, D.C., filed a complaint with the Horace Mann Elementary School over her child's first-grade class being allegedly told by their female teacher that she was planning to marry another woman. According to the parent, Margaret Hemenway, her child's teacher stole "[her] child's sense of innocence."

Last month, Jay McDowell, a teacher at Michigan's Howell High School, was allegedly suspended for one day after asking a student to leave his classroom after wearing a Confederate flag belt buckle and proclaiming to his classmates that he did not accept gay people. That same day, many other students marked Spirit Day to remember the lives of victims of anti-gay bullying by wearing purple and pro-LGBT clothing.

Trans teachers' especially tough road

Transgender educators often face unique challenges in their own quest to pursue teaching careers, such as when they transition while employed by a school.

Last year, New Jersey transgender high school substitute teacher Lily McBeth resigned from her job, reporting a massive drop-off in assignments following her 2005 transition. Many opponents to ENDA, including a group called the Traditional Values Coalition who helms, often cite the example of transgender teachers in the classroom as an example of why such legislation should not be supported.

"Do you want your children being taught by men wearing dresses or women who think they're actually men? Would you want one of these bizarre women as your son's athletics coach? Will your daughter want to use a school restroom frequented by a man in drag?" reads the Traditional Values Coalition's action alert.

"ENDA will force every public school in America to comply and hire these troubled individuals and schools will force teachers and students to affirm and accept these individuals as normal," continues the alert from the self-billed "largest non-denominational, grassroots church lobby in America."

Michael Silverman, executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF), said many transgender teachers contact the organization for advice regarding discrimination in the classroom, to which TLDEF says honesty is the best policy to the extent that any information shared is both necessary and age-appropriate.

"Teachers should be judged by their ability to do their job and not based on who they are," Silverman said. "Schools that embrace this basic principle end up having a more diverse staff, from which the students at this school learn the importance of diversity and inclusion and how to function in a diverse society."

"It can't be the case that we deny people jobs because we think we have to protect children from the reality that there are gay and transgender people in the world," Silverman added, "when in fact those people are perfectly capable and have always proven themselves to be capable of being extraordinary teachers and educators."

Heading toward acceptance?

With public support for issues including marriage equality on the rise and LGBT issues reaching unprecedented levels of visibility in the media circle, advocates for LGBT teachers are cautious in their hopes for an accompanying increase in acceptance for openly queer adults in public schools.

According to Byard, the increase in visibility can actually carry more negatives than positives for LGBTQ students in some school environments -- and the same can be said for teachers. As of the latest National Climate Survey from GLSEN, nearly two-thirds of students still report feeling unsafe in school and experiencing high levels of physical and verbal harassment.

"Visibility in culture is only good if it doesn't lead to a backlash against students in their own lives. It takes a school culture that supports everybody to really provide the healthiest context for people coming out," Byard said. "And being out only works where you don't risk losing everything by doing so. Until the day comes where there are actual protections for people who overcome these kind of prejudices, our gains will be tenuous."

And those protections under a newly gridlocked Washington, D.C., will not be easy to achieve. In addition to the struggles ENDA has faced in gaining traction, both the Student Non-Discrimination Act and Safe Schools Improvement Act aimed at making schools a safer place for all students -- including LGBTQ students and, by extension, teachers -- do not face a much better prognosis for passage anytime soon.

Nevertheless, Byard is hopeful that advocates for both LGBTQ youth and queer educators and administrators will heed DeMint's comments as a ringing alarm for activism as legislation alone is unlikely to undo the damage done by decades of discrimination.

"It is incumbent upon us to really dig in our heels and do the hard work it takes to make sure people like him cannot impose their personal prejudices on individuals across the country," Byard said.

"The whole point of going to school in this country and having protections of freedom of speech and freedom of religion is that we're allowed to be who we are," she added. "Dialogue across lines of difference is central to that. If we can't handle that dialogue in public school, we're completely undermining the core of our own political culture."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.