I am an educator with 30-plus years of experience. Fostering authenticity, life skills and resilience has been the foundation of my instruction to thousands of middle-level students.
Yet, as an LGBTQIA+ educator here in Wisconsin, I cannot always be authentic myself.
Twenty-nine states including ours lack comprehensive statewide laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination against LGTBQIA+ people. Fifty percent of LGBTQIA+ individuals live in these states. That’s why it’s so important that Congress passes the Equality Act.
In 2008, I was given permission from my administrator to share my orientation with my seventh-grade students. As a health educator, my students questioned me about my relationship status, but before 2008, I simply declined to answer. I felt it was time to model the authenticity I taught. The lesson went well.
The following day I received an email from a parent, who copied my administrator and the superintendent. The parent said that I should have asked permission to share that information with the students and that I had not followed district protocol. This parent took the information to the local newspaper and that began months of community discrimination and a verbal threat from administration that if I disclosed my orientation again, that I would lose my job. The school year ended on that note.
In 2010, a student in my class said, “I don’t know anyone that is gay.” I needed to make a decision: Do I go back in the closet or do I speak authentically? I answered, “You do know someone who is gay. I am.” I then continued the lesson about oppression with no further mention about myself.
That student’s parent called the superintendent. While I was out of the building for a conference, they interviewed my students. Upon my return to school, I was greeted by my administrator, who told me to report to her office in an hour after I was done teaching my first class. When I went to the meeting, my story aligned with my students’ interviews. Later, I received formal documentation stating that I could not speak about my orientation or answer the question “Are you gay?” This began another series of district meetings with union representation and the district’s legal team. I was told to keep it quiet, otherwise I could face professional ramifications, including the loss of my employment.
As an educator, it is vital for me to advocate for all my students; this role is especially important where LGBTQIA+ students are concerned. The 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health revealed that 40% of LGBTQIA+ youth in America have seriously considered suicide. Additionally, the most recent National School Climate Survey reported that nearly 70% of LGBTQIA+ students were called names or threatened at school based on sexual orientation in 2019, and more than 25% were physically harassed (for example, pushed or shoved) because of it.
These statistics make it clear that LGTBQIA+ educators are needed as advocates and resources for students. This becomes more difficult if I fear being fired simply because of who I love. My point is not that schools and school districts are staffed by people eager to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ educators and students. It is that nondiscrimination policies must be enforceable by the law; we cannot leave it to the whims of individuals who may have biases and phobias they are unaware of.
It is 2021, and things are different for me now. My administration supports my authentic teaching, including the disclosure of my orientation within my curriculum. This is not the case for every educator and every district. The Equality Act would update federal law to include express and enduring nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQIA+ Americans in key areas of life. It would also help protect people who are marginalized and treated unjustly like I was. Students need to see themselves represented in their learning environment – whether through race, orientation, gender identity, ethnicity or socioeconomic experience. I ask your help to encourage our senators, Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson, to stand up for fairness and vote for the Equality Act.
Rowe is a middle school teacher in Eau Claire.