by Catherine Connell
“This is going to say a lot about me, but I wish there were more openly gay men and lesbians in [education]. I’m not going to run out and out myself because I still believe my job here should be to be your science teacher, not your gay science teacher. But, no, that’s important though. Wow, listen to myself.” In these few sentences, Mauricio, a junior high science teacher, grapples with the contradiction at the heart of being a gay or lesbian schoolteacher. How do such teachers reconcile the dictates of gay pride, which expects them to be role models for queer and questioning youth, with the sexually and politically neutral demands of teaching professionalism? My book, School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers In The Classroom, demonstrates how this struggle plays out in the lives of public school teachers in the disparate policy contexts of California and Texas.
Gay and lesbian teachers like Mauricio face a no-win choice. Be “out and proud” but do so at the risk that your sexuality will overshadow your teaching accomplishments, or keep your sexuality hidden to preserve professional esteem but contend with the feelings of guilt or shame associated with the classroom “closet.” This dilemma is further complicated by race and gender and by the inadequacy of nondiscrimination protections – without a federal mandate barring employment discrimination on the basis of sexual identity or gender expression, teachers can be legally fired for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in states like Texas. Even in stronger policy contexts, like California’s, teachers often don’t know their rights or (rightly) fear covert retribution for coming out. These high stakes make gay and lesbian teachers an especially vulnerable group of workers in these already unstable economic times.
In the wake of the recent gay rights victories, from the declaration of the Defense of Marriage Act’s unconstitutionality to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, it may feel as if LGBTs in this country have already won the battle for full equality. Yet looking at the experiences of gay and lesbian teachers shows just how many legal and cultural roadblocks still stand between here and the end of sexuality discrimination. For true progress, both the discriminatory atmosphere of workplaces like schools and the increasingly one-size-fits-all demands of the gay pride movement must be addressed.
Catherine Connell is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University. She is the author of the forthcoming book, School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom (December, 2014).