The Plight of Being a Gay Teacher

LGBT educators walk a fine line between keeping their jobs and being honest with their students.

Very early in his career teaching in New York, Glenn Bunger witnessed a student getting called "faggot" in between classes, but he hesitated to respond. As a gay teacher who hadn’t come out to his students or staff, he felt hamstrung.

"I worried: If I get involved, what will others think? Will they associate this with me? Is my reaction right now really about me? Or about the student? I was always processing these questions and insecurities that prevented me from speaking out."

Bunger remained silent that day but later brought up the issue to his supervisor. It was clear from the conversation that the supervisor felt students like this didn’t need any sympathy but, rather, just some "toughening up," Bunger said.

Bunger never came out to the school's leadership or any of his students during his first two years teaching. Many other LGBT teachers in the United States have long struggled with this same decision of whether to make their sexual orientations public—and the "extra layer" of worries that comes with it. The country's long history of discrimination towards LGBT teachers could help explain why so many of these educators are afraid to come out. In 1978, the state of California proposed a law—a ballot measure widely known as the Briggs Initiative—which would've prohibited openly gay and lesbian teachers from working in the state’s public schools. Years before that, a group of Florida legislators known as the "John's Committee" prompted the firing of more than 100 LGBT teachers between 1957 and 1963. Though the committee officially folded in 1965, the Florida Department of Education continued to regularly purge LGBT teachers through the 1970s.

Currently, federal law protects people from workplace discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion, sex, age, and disability. But the law fails to specifically address sexual orientation. A recent executive order by President Barack Obama protects any federal employee or contractor—around 28 million workers, or one-fifth of the American workforce—from discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, it doesn't cover teachers, who are subject to state and local laws.

About 20 states and the District of Columbia have taken matters into their own hands, developing laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, including California, Illinois, and Massachusetts. Curiously, the simultaneous push for legalizing same-sex marriage has left some states with ideologically conflicting laws. In five states—Indiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Virginia—gay people can get legally married but also legally fired by an employer for being gay, a Washington Post map shows.

Without legal protection, the decision to be honest about sexual orientation can change an LGBT teacher’s entire career trajectory. NPR recently reported the story of a Catholic school teacher in Georgia who was fired after announcing on Facebook that he had gotten engaged to his longtime partner. His school responded in a statement, "We have to consider an employee's ability to teach Catholic doctrine when making staff decisions." But that wasn't an isolated incident. Several other stories have surfaced in recent years with reports of LGBT teachers who were fired after their sexual orientation was exposed. In San Bernadino, California, for example, a lesbian teacher challenged her school district in court with help from the American Civil Liberties Union, alleging that she was fired after attempting to help the school’s Gay Straight Alliance chapter. Meanwhile, in Columbus, Ohio, another Catholic school teacher was fired after a newspaper obituary announcing her mother’s death listed her partner’s name among the survivors.

As a former teacher with Teach for America, I'm disturbed by these situations and the difficult decisions they force LGBT to make. I spoke with several colleagues I had met during my stint as a teacher to explore how they've contended with these challenging decisions, often knowing their careers are on the line. Many of them have opted to keep their sexual orientations secret if they suspect their jobs are at risk.

"In the years before I had tenure, there was no way I was going to let someone’s else’s homophobia jeopardize my career," Bunger said. "My advice to any LGTBQ teacher would be the same: Stand and be counted, but only if it’s legally safe to do so."

Even teachers in states with legal protection worry that homophobic school leaders can still find a way to fire them regardless. "There is always the fear that if you were to share this, it could color how staff and administration view your performance, skew their evaluations of you, or otherwise influence whether you stay hired or not," said Jasmin Torres, who directs leadership development efforts for Teach for America in the Chicago area and oversees the office's LGBT initiatives.

Unsurprisingly, teachers working in more conservative communities feel particularly anxious about exposing their sexual orientation.

"My students mostly come from Caribbean descent, where homosexuality is traditionally frowned upon," said Lamar Shambley, a sixth-grade math teacher in New York who hasn’t come out to his students. "I wish that I could really open up to them and talk about my specific experiences … but if I tell them, they may tell their parents, and their parents may no longer want me to teach their child."

Paranoia surrounding LGBT teachers in part traces back to unfounded theories linking homosexuality and pedophilia. Although the American Psychological Association and numerous other research organizations have concluded that homosexuality does not make someone more likely to sexually abuse children, Conservative organizations such the Family Research Council and the American College of Pediatricians—a group that requires its members to "hold true to the group's core beliefs of the traditional family unit" before joining—argue that homosexuality is a threat to children.

That could help explain why LGBT teachers who are married or in committed relationships sometimes enjoy a level of legitimacy and acceptance that single gay teachers often fail to secure.

"I find that it’s easier to come out to students and families with a partner because people already have a sense of what a family structure is," said Emily Taylor, who taught for two years at elementary schools around Brooklyn. "The more [homosexuality] can fit into the schema that people already have about families, the easier it is for others to understand ... being gay and single and not relating to people’s notions of family is harder and somehow not as easy to trust."

But even people with generally tolerant views toward homosexuality sometimes question the necessity of coming out, particularly in a school setting. Many wonder why conversations about sexual orientation are relevant to the classroom at all—and why such personal details can’t be kept private.

"I never really felt like I was hiding something, because when you teach kids, there’s a part of your life that’s personal and you don’t really share it with them," Taylor said. "It’s not like they ever knew everything about me. This is just another thing about me that they don’t know."

"Ten times a day, people share things about their private lives: 'my husband is sick’, or 'I have to pick up my kids,'" Bunger said. "But I couldn’t participate in these casual interactions when I was in the closet. Instead, LGBT teachers have to constantly play a pronoun game when you talk about your partner, and have to constantly be careful how you engage with people. Like many other people, I have a photo on my wall of my husband. I want to turn that into a normal conversation."But many LGBT teachers argue that conversations about personal matters do happen in classrooms all the time, that it's only because society promotes heterosexuality—versus homosexuality—as normal that discussions related to a teacher's sexual orientation are kept out of class discussions.

Torres, of Teach for America, agrees that for herself and her colleagues, being in the closet comes with an extra layer of work—and stress. "During my first few years teaching, I was lonely," she said. "You are constantly thinking about what you’re saying, what you’re not saying, whether you’re giving anything away. You become hyper-aware of how people perceive you, and you worry that you’re not allowed to be your genuine self at work."

Torres eventually came out during her third year teaching, after switching to a school that she found to be more progressive. Bunger also came out after earning tenure, inspired by a fellow gay teacher who never had any qualms about discussing his sexual orientation with his students.

"It was only after I saw how this man taught—with no apologies, no guilt—that I realized that I could do the same," Bunger said. "If a kid ever used homophobic slurs, he’d open up the discussion. And even students who didn’t like it still respected him."

Now, Bunger is honest when students ask about his orientation: "I don’t announce it, but I also don’t hide it. And any questions about it can happen after class."

For other LGBT teachers, coming out to their students is far more deliberate—and even political. Jacob Lazar, an 11th-grade English teacher at Achievement First Brooklyn High School, has come out to his students every year for the past three years on National Coming Out Day in October.

"I look up a hate crime the night before from a newspaper," he said. "I share it with my students and tell them, 'This week, a man was assaulted because he was texting his boyfriend, or holding hands in public, or kissing at a party. And these crimes happen because of fear and ignorance, and I never want any of you to feel afraid or ignorant, so I’m going to share my story with you.'"

Lazar hopes that by coming out to his students, his classroom can be a safe environment for other students who want to do the same. The dismal statistics of LGBT youth make clear that these spaces are needed: A new Williams Institute study of youth shelters found that nearly four out of every 10 homeless children identify as LGBT. "Family rejection" was cited by nearly half of these homeless LGBT youth as a reason for them running away. A 2009 survey of more than 7,000 LGBT middle and high school students found that in the past year, eight of 10 students had been verbally harassed at school because of their sexual orientation and one in five had been the victim of a physical assault. More than 60 percent reported feeling unsafe in their school environment and over 25 percent reported missing classes or days of school because of it. Overall, the stresses experienced by LGBT youth also put them at greater risk for mental health problems and substance use: A national study from 2008 found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers.

"If we ever want to get to a place where people aren’t being killed for who they are, it’s important that students know people who are gay and are learning that difference isn’t inherently threatening," Lazar said. As an English teacher, Lazar’s first unit focuses on American literature through the lens of marginalized communities, including LGBT authors. "The bigotry people experience on a daily basis happens because certain voices are not being heard. Teaching like this and being out as a teacher exposes my students to a voice that they might not hear otherwise."

In 2010, Bunger began teaching at a high school with many open LGBT students. During his time there, Bunger remembered conservative church groups picketing outside the school with signs that said "Faggots" in large, bold lettering. Through that experience, Bunger realized even more clearly the need for students to have LGBT teachers as positive role models in the classroom.

"Kids and teachers need to know that someone they know is gay, that it’s not a hypothetical, that this is about real people who they know," Bunger said "Being visible to these kinds of kids—kids who make dangerous decisions because they’re afraid to talk—is crucial."

Lazar believes that hiding sexuality can also hinder the academic discussions in his classroom: "As a literature teacher, sexuality is a really powerful symbol. It shows up in a lot of classics, with authors like Shakespeare, or James Baldwin, or Walt Whitman. You can’t get into texts in depth without talking about it in some way. Their sexuality is a big part of what they’re writing," Lazar said. "Because I don’t have to worry about 'giving myself away to my students' I can focus on the teaching and making sure my students go to college prepared to talk about sexuality in a mature, academic way.'"

Many teachers agree that coming out to students can actually help them manage a classroom better instead of creating an extra distraction.

"I used to think that my personal life would be a weakness, or would get in the way of education," Bunger said. "But now I think I lose more authority by not being real."

Since Bunger began coming out to his students, bullying and homophobic remarks in his classroom have stopped. Now working in South Africa where he helps train fellow teachers, he has a picture of his longtime husband posted above his desk.

"Every day you make 100 different choices," he said. "Telling the truth shouldn’t have to be one of them."