Gay teachers, like students, need help


When Margaret read the newsletter from the Maryland State Teachers Association a few days ago, she was outraged.

The newsletter had an article on sexual diversity among schoolchildren.

That article reported that the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development had recently passed resolutions asking members and school districts to acknowledge the special needs of gay and bisexual students, provide support services to them and adopt anti-harassment guidelines.

Margaret, 39, the mother of three children and a teacher for 10 years, three of them in Baltimore County, was furious. But not for the reasons you might think.

Margaret is a lesbian. And she thinks that before we develop guidelines to protect homosexual students, we ought to develop guidelines to protect homosexual teachers.

"I love kids and I enjoy the profession of teaching," she said. "But if I had revealed that I was a lesbian, I would have been harassed and fired. And that's ridiculous. With 10 to 15 percent of the population gay or lesbian, out of 30 kids in a classroom at least three are gay.

"And they deserve protection and encouragement. But our gay and lesbian teachers do not enjoy any of these support services or anti-harassment guidelines themselves."

Margaret (which is not her real name) left the school system a few years ago.

"But I know firsthand the fear, the discrimination and repression of gay teachers in Maryland," she said. "The Teachers Association of Baltimore County does not list homosexuals as a protected subgroup. Nor does Baltimore County or the State of Maryland.

"They can't discriminate against you if you are black, or for religious reasons, or if you are disabled or if you are a woman. But they can if you are a homosexual.

"And this teaches you to shut up, look straight, act straight and lie. I wore skirts, kept my hair long and wore lots of jewelry. Other lesbians are careful to wear nail polish and makeup. We don't want to look butch.

"But there are 49,172 teachers in Maryland, which means that if ** 10 to 15 percent are gay, there are from 4,917 to 7,375 gay teachers without legal protection."

How many gay teachers do you know personally? I asked.

"Scores," she said. "Scores and scores. And some are administrators, supervisors. We're everywhere." She laughed. "If gay teachers were to walk out on strike, the schools would have a hard time functioning without us."

What are some of the problems lesbian teachers face on a day-to-day basis?

"We can't talk about ourselves, our loves, our relationships, or what we did over the weekend when we talk to other teachers," Margaret said. "So it's hard to be buddy-buddy with peers.

"We are afraid to have other teachers come over to our homes. When I was teaching, everyone knew I had a roommate, but if they had come to my house, they might have found out we shared a bedroom. And they would have seen a photograph of us together. And, of course, you can't go to school functions with your life partner. And you are harassed by other teachers."

Explain that.

"I was constantly asked why I hadn't remarried," she said. "I was asked what happened in my life to make me so jaded toward marriage. I was set up on blind dates with men and I had to go. I had to go out with men to keep my cover.

"Eventually, you just wall up and people think you are unapproachable or a snot. My lover also taught at my school, and one day we had lunch together and talk started among the other teachers. So she had to transfer to a different school. If I had had lunch with a male teacher, the others would have thought that was cute.

"Also, gay people can never take off to care for a sick lover. I know gay teachers in Baltimore County who couldn't take off to be at a lover's funeral!

"We are constantly asked to support heterosexual marriages and births with faculty bridal showers and baby showers. But we never receive the same in return."

Why do people react negatively to the idea of gay teachers?

"People think that either you are a heterosexual or a child molester," Margaret said sourly. "But most of the people molesting children are heterosexual men abusing little girls. You don't hear about gay women abusing little girls.

"But as a lesbian teacher, you have to be real careful never to be alone with a child of your own sex. You have to be very, very careful.

"Little girls would form an attachment to me as a surrogate mother or role model -- this is common between children and teachers -- but I could never be alone in a room with that child."

Why not?

"What if somebody found out I was queer?" she said. "I'd have been in huge trouble. I was constantly fearful."

Do your own children know about your sexuality?

"Yes! And they are beautiful," she said.

How old are they?

"Middle school age, and they champion me," Margaret said proudly. "They are wonderful."

What happened when you saw a child in your class that you thought might have been homosexual, a child you could have comforted or helped?

"I could do nothing," she said. "I had to pretend that student was straight. I had to be almost more homophobic than straight teachers to convince people I was straight. I could not possibly have helped a gay student."

Besides fears that you might molest their children, what else are parents afraid of when it comes to lesbian teachers?

"I think their worst fear is that we would teach their children to be lesbians," Margaret said. "And that's not true. Nobody taught me to be a lesbian. That's not how it happens. I repressed it for years. I married a man and did the whole thing. But I wasn't happy. And I began to realize that my relationships with women were constructive and my relationships with men were terrible. It took me to my mid-20s to face the fact I was a lesbian."

So what would you tell parents?

"I would tell parents their child either is or isn't gay and it may change back and forth as he or she grows. It is not a matter of

recruitment," she said. "And who cares if he or she is gay? What does it matter as long as he or she is happy?"

What is it that you want?

"Give us gay rights," she said. "Give us the same protection as anyone else in Maryland."

Do you miss school?

"Oh yeah," she said. "Yeah. I miss the kids. Their fun. Their faces. Watching them learn. Watching them struggle. I don't miss the paranoia. But I do miss the teaching."

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