Splitters, Knitters, and Quitters

School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom

By Catherine Connell

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015, 193 pp. $29.95, paperback

Reviewed by Pam Chamberlain

Teaching is a difficult job for just about anyone, but for LGBT people, the classroom is a charged environment, where one is forced to decide whether to hide or share a part of one’s self, at the risk of harassment and job loss. School’s Out adds to a growing body of research and analysis about LGBT teachers and the challenges of being out in kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade schools. The author did field work for her dissertation in sociology in 2008, interviewing 51 educators in California and Texas. School’s Out is an expanded version of the result.

Connell deliberately chose two very different states, to provide cultural comparisons and to ensure the diversity of her subject pool. Unfortunately, her sample includes only one bisexual and no transgender teachers, but her interviews provide insight into the various ways gay and lesbian teachers cope with coming out.

Perhaps the most useful contribution Connell makes is the system she devises for classifying coming-out decisions into three types. The splitter stays in the closet at school, and keeps his or her sexuality wholly outside of the teacher persona. The knitter figures out a way to bring his or her personal and professional lives together at school. And the quitter decides it is in the end easier to leave teaching altogether than to wrestle with being in or out of the closet. Connell provides poignant examples of each type.

Chelsea, 28, from California, is a knitter. “For me,” she says, “not to be open would just be defeating the purpose of going to work…. I just think that teachers need to be out and open in order to support their kids.” For some knitters, this personal decision is challenging and infused with compromise. Karen, 46, a Los Angeles teacher, says, I haven’t explicitly said, “I’m a lesbian,” but I do say, “my partner,” and they know I’m the head of the GSA [Gay Straight Alliance]. …No students ever ask me, because if they’re curious, they go to GSA. I’m trying…to be a role model and not have that my sole identity, just have that be another part of me.

Splitters, in contrast, believe their sexual identities are incompatible with teaching. Mauricio, 40, teaches in a central Texas middle school and is certain he will never come out to his students, even though he realizes the importance of positive gay role models for his students. “I believe my job here is to be your science teacher, not your gay science teacher,” he says. Still, he is aware of his own contradictions: This is going to say a lot about me, but I wish there were more openly gay men and lesbians in the field. I don’t remember a single teacher when I was growing up that I even suspected of being gay or lesbian. We definitely have to be role models. I’m not one of them…. But that’s important, though. Wow, listen to myself.

And then there are the quitters. Unable to reconcile their sexual orientation and the classroom, they either move into other rolesor leave education altogether. Of course, many teachers cannot afford to invest in a career change.

Connell summarizes: “Keeping their sexuality out of the workplace is a wholly reasonable survival strategy.” But it is a sad reflection of the state of schools, especially compared to other kinds of workplaces, where being openly LGBT has become less challenging. Teachers’ decisions about whether to come out at school often depend on factors such as the existence of legal protections against discrimination, the culture of the school and its community, and the presence of a support system for risk-takers.

Legally, protections for gay and lesbian teachers are a patchwork. Some form of antidiscrimination law for LGBT people now exists in thirty states. But homosexuality remains grounds for dismissal in eighteen states, although some localities within those states have passed nondiscrimination laws. Teachers in independent schools, especially those that are religiously based, have even less protection, as we saw in February, when San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone inserted a “morality clause” in his district’s Catholic high school teacher contracts, requiring teachers to conform to Church doctrine that condemns as “gravely evil” gay and all other “extramarital sexual relationships.” The archbishop faced wide criticism, including demonstrations, petitions, and calls for his dismissal.

Historically, of course, support for LGBT teachers was not as strong. In 1969, the California Supreme Court ruled on a case, Morrison v. State Board of Education, in which a male teacher’s certification was revoked after another male teacher with whom he’d had a brief affair reported it to his school district. The court found that a teacher could not be fired simply for “moral turpitude” or “unprofessional conduct.” He also had to be “unfit to teach.” Although Morrison inched LGBT rights forward, Connell points out that it framed the right to privacy as an individual concern rather than, as she puts it, “a public issue of social justice.” In addition, it was a narrow decision, applying only to California.

Backlash followed. In California, the Briggs Initiative of 1977 would have made it illegal not only to be a gay or lesbian worker in the state’s public schools but even to discuss the subject of homosexuality. Organizing by LGBT activists, including campaigns in which individuals came out to friends, colleagues, and neighbors, defeated the initiative. In 1978, the Save Our Children movement, organized by the Christian singer and former Miss Oklahoma, Anita Bryant, mobilized conservatives to repeal a lesbian and gay nondiscrimination law in Dade County, Florida. Other local laws fell after that, including in Wichita, Kansas; Eugene, Oregon; and St. Paul, Minnesota.

In 1998, Glover v. Williamsburg Local School District determined that an out gay teacher in Ohio, who was harassed when a false rumor circulated that he had held hands with his partner at a school dance, should not have been fired. The defense successfully argued that he had been discriminated against, in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This case established the right to be publicly gay or lesbian in a school context. Other cases confirmed this right—although still others disagreed, leaving LGBT teachers in legal limbo. While a hodgepodge of local and state laws that protect LGBT teachers exists, there is still no federal Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA), despite the act’s repeated introduction, since 1994, to Congress. Given gay and lesbian teachers’ continuing lack of clear, consistent legal rights, it’s no wonder so many of them remain in the closet.

The history of opposition to gay and lesbian teachers has been shaped by the peculiar relationship between schools and sex. Since the nineteenth century, children, even high school students, have been perceived in the US as innocents who must be protected from the sins and corruption of the adult world. Educators and parents feared that if students learned about sex, they might decide to try it. Even today, policy makers often turn a blind eye to public health evidence showing that nearly two-thirds of high school students have had sexual intercourse before graduating. Many people still believe that sex and sexuality have no place in schools, and remain oblivious to schools’ “hidden curricula” about these topics, which may include the celebration of proms and the crowning of homecoming kings and queens, sanctioning heterosexuality and traditional gender roles. Unspoken assumptions about gender, as well as about race and social class, make it tough for teachers and students to break out of outdated and limiting molds. Educators are expected to hide all sexual behavior except that between married adult heterosexuals—and even those who conform must carefully maintain their appearance as upstanding adults with approved sexual lives. When I first started teaching high school in 1970, my unmarried colleague concealed her pregnancy until the end of the school year to avoid dismissal for “moral turpitude.”

You might think that “morality clauses” in public school teacher contracts have become outdated, but a Sarasota teacher lost her job in 2002 under just such a clause (and of course, in Archbishop Cordeleone’s district, Catholic school teachers have been required to adhere to church teaching). The curious practice of including behavioral expectations in teacher contracts still exists, although the language is often vague, because community standards vary so much; such morality clauses have generally been upheld in court.

In addition, conservatives conflate coming out with being openly sexual, as if identity and behavior were the same. This creates problems for LGBT teachers that their straight counterparts never encounter, since their heterosexual identity is not automatically seen as “flaunting” their sexual behavior. Connell criticizes the trend among some in the LGBT community toward “homonormativity,” or presenting a consciously “straight appearing” public persona. She argues that a “we are just like you” attitude reinforces the “hidden curriculum” and penalizes LGBT teachers who do not conform to traditional gender expectations.

Legally, under the concept of in loco parentis, schools stand in for parents; this means that teachers are expected to be moral educators, including helping students to tell right from wrong and to behave appropriately. LGBT teachers often face the challenge of reconciling community standards with their personal beliefs.

Connell introduces an idea at the beginning of her book that she comes back to again and again. She suggests that a closeted teacher’s dilemma is in choosing either to be open about her sexuality or to be a responsible educator. Connell calls this the choice between “pride and professionalism.” By professionalism, she means the expectation, often written in the teacher’s contract and reinforced by the community, that the teacher will be an exemplary role model for students.

But this is a false dichotomy. It assumes that a teacher cannot simultaneously be a good teacher and open about her sexual identity. While it is true that gay and lesbian teachers regularly report misgivings about coming out, they do not describe it as being “unprofessional.” Rather, in the quotes from Connell’s interviews, they reveal an internal moral dilemma about what is right for their students versus what is prudent for them. And some feel guilty about remaining closeted because they believe this makes them less effective teachers.

Connell calls out the LGBT community for negatively judging people who choose to remain in the closet. She describes how closeted teachers feel pressure from that community to risk losing their jobs for the sake of being proud and out. But to me, it seems that the process of coming out is governed less by expectations of “political correctness” than by individuals’ internal struggles about what is right both for them and for their students.

It is tempting to extrapolate evidence of other oppressive aspects of school culture from these interviews, and Connell does use her sample as a starting point for commentary on race and gender as well as sexuality in teaching. School’s Out raises important questions about our schools and the profound challenges they create for LGBT teachers—and anyone else who is concerned about sexual justice.

Pam Chamberlain began her career as a high school teacher and community college instructor, moving into state-level educational administration. She studied conservative trends for Political Research Associates for fifteen years.

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