By Nathan Whitman
When I became employed at my first and present job as an English teacher in 2012, I knew that I was in for a culture shock. I had graduated from a 6A KSHSAA (Kansas State High School Activities Association) division high school of more than 2,000 students, and now I was going to teach in a 1A school of a few more than 200. However, upon having one of my first meetings with a school employee, I realized that Burrton was in for an equally stark culture shock from me.
I’d read the state data reports. I knew that the majority of my students would be white. I knew that a handful were of various minority and cultural groups. Nevertheless, when I inquired of a staff member about how many students in the school were LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) and if there was a GSA (gender and sexuality alliance), I was told, “We don’t have gay students at this district.”
With that perspective – no wonder! I was certain that these kids did not feel like they had a welcoming culture to be themselves. Clearly, this “educator” either did not know, did not care, or chose to be in denial of the hard fact that 4.5% of Americans are LGBTQ, and that number represents only the self-reporting to a Gallup poll. Those in the closet are surely even greater in rank. In my head I’d done the numbers: at a school of around 250 individuals (staff and students) – and I may be rounding up – 11-12 had to be LGBTQ in a given year. Knowing those statistics, I was determined to chop that closet door down: Here’s Johnny!
Throughout the course of my studies at Wichita State University, not only did I become certain of my career path as an English educator, I also realized that as much as I wanted to be a queer role model for my students and ally, I still had to play my cards carefully and closely to the chest. At the time, Kansas had no workplace protections for LGBTQ individuals unless they were written into the employment nondiscrimination clause (to no one’s surprise: sexual orientation was not and still is not covered by many districts’ contract language – my own included). Furthermore, with Kansas being an at-will state, I’d have to document anything I did in support of LGBTQ students or advocacy for myself (for legal reasons), as I could – and still can – be terminated from my job at my employer’s whim with no reasons given. While the at-will language states that “your employer can fire you for any non-discriminatory and/or non-retaliatory reason,” unless I had proof that my firing was discriminatory or retaliatory, I would and still can be sunk. This blog post could even be cause for termination, and I’d never know. Luckily, I’ve had fantastic administrative support, but I know that others are not so lucky.
I would like to think that LGBTQ educators can feel more at ease with their own personal lives and advocacy of LGBTQ students as of June 16, 2020, which is when I am writing this new draft of this blog post. For those unaware, in an unprecedented motion, two conservative Supreme Court justices sided with the four liberal that Title VII protects LGBTQ employees from workplace discrimination and termination. Hooray! I can now put up a picture of my husband and me after our wedding this summer and not be fired – I hope.
I preface the core of my post with these anecdotes and current events because we LGBTQ educators may now have more protections in our employment, but our students still lack protections of the most basic kind in their school policies. Check yours: Does it include a nondiscrimination clause on student sexual orientation and gender identity? Now is the time to use our newfound privilege to advocate and lead by example because, even with the Supreme Court ruling, there are political ploys at play to undermine trans youth via Title IX. I say this with resolve and guilt, for I know that I haven’t always been the best example and that I could have done more for many students, but I didn’t because I was afraid.
Instead, I did minor things to advocate: I put more LGBTQ affirming texts in the school, counselor’s, and my classroom libraries; provided Safe Zone training and signage for teachers who were interested; encouraged students who asked to bring same-sex dates to dances; made sure to highlight queer writers in the school-approved curricula. It wasn’t until the last few years that I dared to even show my partner in the beginning of the year “About Mr. Whitman & His Class” slideshow. But, I digress.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has an enlightening list of ten – often bizarre – myths about LGBTQ persons employed by those who wish to discriminate or do harm to that community. One thing that all teachers need to recognize is that these myths are still believed and used to justify discrimination toward LGBTQ students and educators. Three of them – in my opinion – form the core of what many students experience in their schools in Kansas, and if we’re going to truly support our students, we have to be willing to confront these misconceptions head-on.
Myth 1: LGBTQ Persons are Pedophiles or Perverts (SPLC no. 1)
This myth often appears when it comes to bathroom and locker room usage – particularly with trans students and educators. While more awareness is finally being afforded to the trans community, many still don’t understand that trans people just want to go to the bathroom, that they aren’t wanting a peep show, that they already feel out of place in their body and want nothing more than to be left alone and to be themselves. LGBTQ youth are one of the highest risk groups for suicide because of so many factors such as rejection from family and homelessness. With LGBTQ students already facing so much stress and pressure, allowing them proper bathroom privileges is the least a community can do to alleviate some of that stress. I personally know the hassle that bathroom usage can bring, as I choose to use the staff unisex bathroom. One homophobic accusation is all it takes to ruin a career.
Myth 2: It’s a Sin (SPLC no. 9 & 10)
According to the Pew Research Center, 76% of adults in Kansas identify as Christian. As much as we love talking about the separation of church and state, you’d have to be an absolute fool to say that religion plays no part in Kansas’ political or educational landscape. Two respectable professors from state university education programs have told me stories of teachers in training who said that they’d refuse to use a trans student’s pronouns or accommodate LGBTQ students in other ways if it conflicted with their religious beliefs – and they’re not the only ones. For students from all walks of life to have a welcoming climate in a public school, all students must be welcome, loved, and validated, regardless of the staff’s private religious practices.
Myth 3: It’s a Choice and/or It’s an Illness, and You Can Change (SPLC no. 9 & 10)
I have a hard time deciding which myth is the most damaging, but I’d say it’s a safe bet that telling LGBTQ youth that they’re broken (this ties to the sin myth) and need to change is pretty close to the top of the list. Ex-gay and conversion therapy have done irreparable damage to LGBTQ youth and spread like wildfire in states like ours: my own brother survived it, and I narrowly escaped having to participate. Now that scientific studies and mental health professionals even confirm that trying to change one’s sexual orientation can lead to lasting mental health consequences and even suicide, many states are banning the practice. If we as educators truly value the buzzwords “social-emotional wellness,” then we better damn well do our best to crush this myth for our students.
This leads to the inevitable question: What can you as an educator do? That’s easy. Educate yourself. Attend a Safe Zone or Safe Space training. Help start a GSA. Advocate for unisex bathrooms and nondiscrimination policies in student handbooks. Call out anti-LGBTQ comments and microagressions in staff meetings. Watch queer cinema and television. Read queer YA literature. God-forbid, meet and befriend an actual queer person without asking prying, borderline-fetish questions. It’s amazing how human we are. Use your power and privilege to advocate for LGBTQ equality.
At the end of the day, I don’t want any student to feel the way that I felt – to be told that they’re hopelessly broken, that God doesn’t love them, that they didn’t pray or try hard enough to change. High school is hard enough as it is. One of my most formative memories originates from high school when I was arguing with my brother – also gay – regarding his sexual orientation. I told him that I wished he was “normal” because deep down inside, at that time, I wished I was “normal.” What I didn’t realize, and what’s taken me close to over a decade to come to understand, is that I truly am that: normal. And all my queer students are, too. And, what a difference it would have made, if just one adult had told me, “You’re fine just the way you are.”
About the Author
Nathan Whitman is the current Kansas Association of Teachers of English President. He teaches 9-12 English at Burrton High School USD 369 and is also an adjunct professor at Hutchinson Community College.
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