I have long since forgiven the eighth grader who, during my first year as a school counselor, called me a “f-ggot.” But I could never forget what that jarring moment taught me about the importance of institutionalizing inclusion.
As a novice educator, I had envisioned such a scenario unfolding with me throwing on a superhero cape and “coming out” as a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community. Yet, in the blink of an eye, I was at a loss for words.
Bias against LGBTQ+ educators typically goes unnoticed. While many schools nowadays focus on curbing anti-LGBTQ+ bias among students, most continue to overlook or neglect their obligation to also affirm and protect LGBTQ+ educators.
Our presence is often highly visible but routinely ignored. So much so that we sometimes resign to voicelessness.
Over the course of a lifetime, LGBTQ+ folks working in most occupations will be extremely lucky to stumble across just one workplace that affirms their gender identity/expression and/or sexual orientation. The field of education is no exception. Historically, schools have treated LGBTQ+ educators just as awfully as LGBTQ+ students.
FIGHTING A LEGACY OF OPPRESSION
A report by the Williams Institute at UCLA reveals that throughout the 20th century, numerous state legislatures proposed or ratified legislation aimed at purging LGBTQ+ public employees, including public school teachers. A faction of Florida legislators succeeded in firing over 100 LGBTQ+ teachers on the basis of “immoral conduct,” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, for example. California proposed a ballot initiative to ban LGBTQ+ folks from teaching, as recently as 1978.
Today, a legacy of structural oppression continues to haunt LGBTQ+ educators and plague schools. In the last few years alone, schools have reprimanded and/or fired LGBTQ+ teachers for coming out to administrators, getting married, posting pictures of their partner on social media, reading children’s books on gender identity, and reporting harassment by students. Not to mention, anti-LGBTQ+ bias often strikes down gender nonconforming and transgender educators doubly hard. In fact, I’ve found no demographic data on transgender teachers, to date.
Yet, even when schools do take a stand against anti-LGBTQ+ bias, their approach often seems reactive, not preventative. This pattern results in bias incidents occurring again and again, until a systemic solution is set in place. Damage control is simply not sufficient.
Furthermore, no matter how good a declaration of inclusion reads on paper, educators and students won’t take it to heart if espoused values are not embodied in everyday practice.
MY LIVED EXPERIENCE
The first time I confronted homophobia from a student, I feared that I might be labeled as high-strung or overly-sensitive. The school’s lack of ongoing inclusion work around LGBTQ+ identity signaled that claiming my personal stake in calling out homophobia might backfire.
But since then, I’ve realized that my personal stake in promoting equity and inclusion is exactly what makes me an asset to any school community. I don’t have to be sold on the importance of empathizing with students targeted by bias, because transcending prejudice is a part of my lived experience.
These days, I am committed to combating anti-LGBTQ+ bias in schools not only by coming out but by reminding students I am a proud advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. Responding to bias with dignity and self-respect might sound unconvincing—and admittedly, it’s easier said than done. But it works for me every time.
Slowly but surely, I gain students’ respect by being comfortable in my skin and standing firmly in my truth. It all starts with affirming to myself that feeling invisible doesn’t mean I have to be.
So, to all of my fellow LGBTQ+ educators out there: Advocate for yourselves, empower yourselves, and challenge any system that silences you.
In the words of Maggie Kuh, “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.”