Recently, I met Nate Lyon (@mr_lyon_4th), passionate fourth-grade teacher and LGBTQ advocate, on Instagram. We both feel passionately about LGBTQ visibility in schools, and so we decided to co-author this post to make more stories of LGBTQ teachers visible. Please share this post. It’s important that all people are seen, heard, and known in our schools–especially teachers who identify as LGBTQ.
Social media is an incredibly powerful tool, especially in the education world. We recently met over Instagram, when Nate posted a “follow loop.” For those of you who don’t know, a follow loop is way build relationships and make connections with others who identify similarly to you. In our case, it was #lgbtqteacherfollowloop.
In a matter of days, Nate had over 400 likes for his initial follow-loop post, and it was shared nearly 100 times on Instagram, from what we can currently see.
But what was all the more striking was the direct messages he received (and is still receiving), many of which expressed gratitude, but many of which also expressed their fear of sharing the post, as it would cause them to publicly express their identity as an LGBTQ teacher on social media.
Why is it that LGBTQ teachers are so afraid to make themselves known and seen in schools? It may seem obvious to you why this is the case. But some of the stories we’re about to share may surprise you.
“I didn’t come out to my family until I was 25,” shares a high school music teacher teacher from Kentucky. “I kept [my relationship] secret from my students and community of parents because I knew they were not ok with that. It was later discovered that I was gay because one of my students saw me out to dinner with my [significant other]…
“After that I got bombarded with parent emails about how terrible of a teacher I am and had people going to the principal saying that I should be fired.”
Far too many LGBTQ teachers experience this kind of fear. Some teachers fear of being outed, like the teacher from Kentucky, while others know the mere mentioning of a same-sex partner or their gender identity is not only grounds for cruelty; it’s also grounds for overt and explicit discrimination.
Discrimination may be illegal some states, but all too often, it’s sanctioned by schools. In many states, it’s even legal to discriminate against the LGBTQ population, leaving many LGBTQ teachers unprotected and without advocates.
“When I took a few days off for my very day wedding and honeymoon,” shares a middle school special education teacher from Massachusetts, “I was explicitly asked not to share any information with my students that would lead them to know I was gay….
“There was a meeting called about how I should ‘handle’ the news, even going as far as to suggest I was just going on vacation.”
It’s bad enough that this teacher was discouraged from sharing their true identity. It’s even worse that they were coached on how they should “handle” their news. The worst is when the overt discrimination becomes exceedingly clear.
“A straight teacher got married before the school year started,” this middle school special education teacher continues. “He was able to share his wife’s name, details about their plans, and his excitement with his class before the school year ended and the next class after he was married. He didn’t get called into a meeting.”
It’s hard to believe, but this teacher was lucky. School-sanctioned discrimination against LGBTQ teachers goes even further than this.
“I was denied a position at a Catholic high school that I had been subbing at since September 2014, and was offered a full-time position to begin for the 2015-2016 school year,” shares Tyler, high school social studies teacher now teaching in Mexico. “The school’s bishop commented on the event by stating that my homosexuality was grounds for rescinding a contract offer that I had been verbally granted by the school’s principal.”
Even in Iowa, where the LGBTQ community is protected under the law, discrimination is still condoned. Why? Because too many are too afraid to come forward. Tyler wasn’t, but even he wasn’t able to get the justice he deserved due to conflicting laws protecting religious freedom.
Many teachers have no choice but to quit. Paul had an experience like this in the North Suburbs of Chicago, in a town called Glenview. The mere planning of an LGBT-inclusive lesson (and its communication to parents) resulted in a demerit in his evaluation.
“Once I was at a school where I was the curriculum coordinator,” shares an LGBTQ teacher from Texas. “I was told not to tell teachers because they wouldn’t feel comfortable getting professional development or being alone with me. I quit.”
Others are forced to sit with their shame, like the previously mentioned high school music teacher from Kentucky.
“Comments were made to me about my ‘life choices’ by parents in the community. Some parents took their kids out of my class because they were not comfortable having a gay man teach their child…
“It was all terrible and made me feel less of a person.”
And this lies at the crux of it. Discrimination against LGBTQ teacher in the classroom is not only wrong, it’s dehumanizing. And our classrooms must be places where all children are accepted. They must be places where the learning process is humanized. And this starts with LGBTQ visibility and a sense of belonging.
Visibility and the Importance of School Allies
Despite the stories of fear, shame, and what seems to be school-sanctioned discrimination, we have both received message of support and encouragement (mostly in the form of raising hands emojis), not only from fellow LGBTQ-identifying educators, but also from straight allies.
This is, in fact, another theme we’ve pulled from all of the messages we’ve received: LGBTQ allyship is of utmost importance in our schools, and it can take on many forms.
A teacher who formerly taught in North Dakota, but now teaches in Minnesota, experienced the importance of allyship when a parent complained about a project she did in the class that allowed students to choose a same-sex “spouse”.
“A parent called the school to complain to the principal [about the project],” the teacher reported.
“The parent claimed that I was pushing my gay agenda to her daughter by encouraging her to work with a same sex friend and pretend to be married. The principal fully backed my activity in the class. The student to continued the activity and completed it with her partner. And I never heard anything from the student. Or parent.”
When LGBTQ-identifying teachers are supported by administration, it can make all the difference.
At the end of the day, there is power in visibility. Many LGBTQ-identifying teachers have taken small steps to make themselves more visible to their students, and have seen positive results.
“I have pictures of my wife and I at our wedding day on my desk,” she says. “Often times I’ll catch them looking at the pictures and then [they] come to me to ask a question about my wife such as what does she do for a living or where did we meet.”
When teachers engage in those conversations, the LGBTQ experience is normalized. This also instills a sense of belonging for young students who may be closeted or questioning their identity. Some kids think they’re the only ones. As a result, visibility and a sense of belonging is important. The fact of the matter is this: regardless of whether parents are okay with it, there are so many LGBTQ teachers out there educating children. And turning a blind eye won’t make us go away.
But LGBTQ teachers don’t have the power to change things on their own. As an invisible minority, allyship is incredibly important in our schools. Wondering how you can help? Here are a few ideas for what you can do:
- Do a family study. Families are critical to student identity, and studying them should be part of the start of every school year. What’s more, when kids see the breadth of what different types of families can look like, we take a very powerful step towards advocacy for diversity.
- Include LGBTQ children’s literature in your classroom library. This doesn’t have to be stories about the struggle for gay or trans rights. Stories can be powerful if they normalize LGBTQ characters through their visiblity. Take The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, for instance. The story’s main characters have two dads who’ve adopted them. While the story is focused on the boys’ experiences with fitting in at school, the dads’ visibility helps to normalize the experience of having same-sex parents.
- Rethink the way you address gender identity in your classroom. So much of the shame and ostracization around sexual orientation starts with gender identity. These may be subtle changes, but getting rid of gender-specific practices and being more mindful of language that promotes a gender binary can make a huge impact.
We know there are more ways to address this in the classroom, and if you have more ideas, please feel free to comment below!
Also, if you’d like to share your story of being an LGBTQ teacher on this blog, please fill out this form. You are welcome to remain anonymous or share your contact information with us. Straight allies, you are welcome to share stories, too!
Thanks for reading, and please share this. It’s too important not to.