Supporting LGBTQ Students and Faculty

Fall 2018

By Circe Dunnell

A headline like one this past March in Newsweek, “Texas Elementary Teacher Suspended After Discussing Sexual Orientation with Students,” sends chills down the spines of LGBTQ teachers. According to a statement the teacher’s lawyer made, the ordeal for this 31-year-old art teacher, who’d recently been voted “Teacher of the Year,” “began when she spoke with the students about her family, which includes her wife.” Can you imagine being in class and not able to say, “My wife and I took our son to see Black Panther this weekend,” or, when asked what you did over spring break, not being able to say, “We spent a week visiting my wife’s parents in Oregon”? Can you imagine having to make up something else to say? Teachers in heterosexual marriages do not have to censor themselves when talking about everyday activities they enjoyed with their spouses or special events in the lives of their families. LGBTQ educators in some public, private, and independent schools still do. 
Despite marriage equality, there is currently no federal protection from employment discrimination against LGBTQ people. Only 20 states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting discrimination based upon sexual orientation. Eight states have adopted “No Promo Homo” policies prohibiting teachers from affirming or teaching about homosexuality. 
This Texas schoolteacher’s suspension is among most LGBTQ teachers’ greatest fears. Many, perhaps most, independent school administrations have worked diligently to support their LGBTQ students and teachers, but it would be a mistake to think that teachers in independent schools do not fear complaints from parents, alumni, or trustees who don’t share their schools’ supportive policies. If mentioning one’s own spouse can be construed by a parent as “teaching about homosexuality,” teachers have reason to worry.

How Far Have We Come? 

Having taught for almost 30 years in independent schools, I have seen a momentous shift in independent school culture. Attitudes toward and about the LGBTQ community have evolved as people have become better educated, and the difference now in education is palpable. Much of this change is rooted in the work of educator Kevin Jennings and his students at Concord Academy (MA)  who created the first Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in the late 1980s. Slowly LGBTQ students developed a sense of safety and modicum of comfort. Now, most independent schools have students and faculty who are out, and more and more schools are acknowledging and trying to meet the needs of transgender students.
No doubt, with the advancement of GSAs, protective rights afforded by Title IX, and anti-bullying, harassment, and intimidation laws, LGBTQ school students are safer now than when I was a student in the early 1980s. Teachers, however, do not universally enjoy these same protections. And if LGBTQ teachers still fear being honest with our students about our lives, how can we provide our students the role models that are crucial components of their education, and how can we, as educators, develop the integrated identities that are understood to be crucial to effective teaching? 
Providing support for LGBTQ students, while at the same time subtly reinforcing heterosexual norms for teachers, creates a distinct disconnect between a school’s espoused theory and its actual practice of supporting diversity. And students do sense the disconnect. As GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools suggests, schools remain far from safe—physically and emotionally—for LGBTQ students, and even less so for their faculty and staff. 
While clear progress has been made, there are also forces working to erode these advancements. In the current political climate, there’s been a backlash against recent gains in civil rights for LGBTQ people, such as North Carolina’s elimination of existing LGBTQ protections. Other states have passed religious rights bills. LGBTQ educators and staff are not unwarranted in their caution and fear. 

A Journey Toward Hope 

I have spent most of my life in independent schools and much of my life aware that I was not part of the heterosexual norm that surrounded me. I was brought up as a faculty child on the campus of a New England independent boarding school that I ultimately attended. In elementary school, I learned the word “faggot.” It remains a visceral memory; the word was used as a derogatory statement about two males engaged in something beyond platonic friendship. I had a crush on someone of my own gender, and even though the word applied to males, there was something I perceived as terribly wrong about my crush, and thus with me. This shame, which was immobilizing at points, brought about a sense of being both worthless and powerless; I spent all of middle and high school hiding. 
After graduating from college, I spent a year teaching at a boarding school, and I was scared to death. Actual teaching seemed to be the least of my worries; squash and lacrosse coaching and running a dorm seemed far more challenging issues to navigate. Good teachers would forge strong connections with students who were on their teams and in their dorms. I also considered these connections important, but how could I connect if I was not honest about who I was when my students asked? I left boarding school education, and for the next 16 years I taught in day schools, a less intimate educational environment, and successfully suppressed my identity. When I joined my current school, Rutgers Preparatory School (NJ), in 2001, our faculty handbook did not include any language about sexual diversity and hiring practices. Five years later our student handbook assured our students protection against discrimination; two years after that, the faculty handbook echoed the same language. When our health insurance policy finally included the word “partner,” I realized that the school had made a significant shift in its attitude toward LGBTQ faculty.  
Eleven years ago, after realizing that I was one of five LGBTQ faculty members in the upper school, I stopped giving my female partner a male name when students asked about my personal life. Around the same time, some students in the upper school began to push for and created a GSA (now called, more inclusively, a Gender Sexuality Alliance). Nonetheless, despite working in a relatively supportive environment, moments still occur almost every day when I stop and consider whether I can say this or discuss that. While I feel free to discuss civil rights issues as they pertain to many communities, I fear that my discussion of civil rights issues as they pertain to the LGBTQ community could be perceived as proselytizing. I often hold back. I wish to spare my students the same debilitating experience I had as a student, and yet, as an LGBTQ teacher, I often feel I should watch what I say about my own healthy and happy life.

Still More Work to Be Done

As educators, our focus is on students, their progress, and outcomes. Critical to meeting a school’s goals for its students is the role its teachers play as models. Many or most of our schools have statements that include ideas such as tolerance, integrity, and social responsibility coupled with empathy, engagement, passion, confidence, and creativity; further, schools discuss the importance of teachers modeling these values. This is crucial to ask: Does a school’s espoused theory align with what it actually does? Chris Argyris, an organizational theorist, revealed in his 1974 research that alignment between the two theories is essential for real learning. One of the strengths underpinning independent schools is their work to become increasingly diverse. My recent dissertation research reveals that there is at least one out LGBTQ teacher in a small group of independent day and boarding schools in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions. This development is in stark contrast to the pre-1980s faculty when sexual identity diversity was not acknowledged, much less embraced. In schools like these, LGBTQ students now have the opportunity to know at least one teacher who reflects their identity. And yet even in these schools, the few LGBTQ teachers who are out report sensing their schools’ expectations that LGBTQ teachers remain in a “glass closet,” visible yet not really acknowledged.
Among the educators I interviewed, one male LGBTQ boarding school teacher reported, “After my husband moved in with me on campus, I began to realize and [my husband] noticed...we weren’t invited out anywhere. Whenever there was a [personal] party on campus, we were never invited.” Another teacher testified to an implicit “undiscussable”: While his heterosexual colleagues regularly discussed with one another their personal lives and weekends spent with their partners or spouses, no one ever asked him about his. Yet another teacher put it this way: “[Heterosexual colleagues] are OK with the gays and queers as long as they stay over there [and] don’t disrupt.” 
“I think that [students] respond to people who are authentic,” one teacher told me. “If you have any pretense [you’re just not] an effective teacher [or] community member.” “I don’t think you can be your best self,” another said, “if you’re putting time and energy into self-monitoring or keeping track of who knows what.” More than the students, it’s usually the adults in an independent school community who seem uncomfortable with explicit presentations of LGBTQ identity. One teacher said, “The adults are definitely more challenging in a lot of ways ... especially adults who have been in these communities forever, for such a long time. These places are built on and survive on tradition, and the way things are...this is the way things have [always] been.” One teacher said, “There’s open discrimination that is tolerated on the part of some administrators, and that drives me up a wall. I’ve raised it with several people ... It’s been denied, obviously, and that’s a real source of anguish for me.” Several teachers reported that openly homophobic faculty are tolerated and remain supported as community members.
In addition to implicitly expecting LGBTQ teachers to remain silent about their partners and spouses, some schools also fail to acknowledge the activities of these teachers and allies who are engaged on behalf of LGBTQ civil rights. In contrast, they highlight and honor other teachers’ activities, related to the environment or the economically disadvantaged or immigrants. This lack of recognition of the important work on behalf of LGBTQ equal rights is indicative of the kind of silencing and marginalization that LGBTQ teachers still experience. 
As participants in my dissertation research reported, there are schools in which a GSA’s retired faculty adviser was not replaced, there are no visible LGBTQ student couples, or students hide that they have LGBTQ parents. There are schools in which hateful rhetoric against LGBTQ people goes unquestioned while similar prejudices against blacks, Muslims, or Jews would not be tolerated. In some cases, LGBTQ students ask to be moved out of a class because of a teacher’s frequent derogatory comments. We can safely assume we have more work to do. And that work must include support for LGBTQ educators expected to serve as healthy and authentic role models for our students.
Circe Dunnell

Circe Dunnell is visual arts instructor at Rutgers Preparatory School in Somerset, New Jersey.