How are schools able to truly create safe, inclusive environments for LGBTQ+ students if public school employees are not safe to be out? Last week it came to light that the Oregon State 2014 #TeacherOfTheYear, Brett Bigham, was ordered to not say publicly that he is gay. Brett was successful enough to be honored as an extraordinary educator (on a national stage!) but was told to stay closeted about an important piece of his identity. In education there is a lot a talk about equity and access for students. Yet in practice LGBTQ+ teachers, administrators, and support staff are subjected to major gaps in inequity compared to their heterosexual colleagues.
It’s all fine and good for districts to have anti-discrimination policies on harassment, intimidation, bullying (HIB) for students. But if the adults tasked with implementing these policies are working in conditions of HIB and retaliation for who they are how effective is the policy?
Take a moment to think about a person who bullied you. Recall their name or names. Reconnect to the situation and scenery. How old you were and how you felt.
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Could you defend yourself?
Were you able to ask for help?
Did an adult listen and respond?
Now imagine that these are your bullies:
- Principals and Teachers
- Law Enforcement
- Legal system
- Doctors and nurses
- Shelters/Foster Homes
- Family Members
How many other educators like Brett have been threatened and fired for who they are? Only twenty-one states have anti-discrimination employment laws for LGBT employees in the U.S. Many of these existing laws are being challenged, or undermined by Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, and the Department of Justice. Secretary of Education, Besty DeVos, is working in synch with Sessions, and the Trump administration, to remove all protections and rights for LGBTQ+ students and adults in our country.
Even in states that have anti-discrimination laws protecting sexual orientation and gender identity, a culture of don’t ask/don’t tell drives school culture and climate. This is even more so for the adults than the students. Those setting policy seem to miss the link to how safe, inclusive work environments for their employees transcend to students in their care.
My Purple Umbrella is conducting a Climate Survey for LGBTQ+ Public School Employees. The purpose is to provide insight and information to address the gaps. For the protection and privacy of the participants, the survey is anonymous (no IP address are collected either). The information gathered will assist the work, through My Purple Umbrella, to increase the safety and inclusion of LGBTQ+ youth and their families by helping to inform and guide school districts, policy makers, and administrators.
Are public school employees fears due to no policies and guidance?
Is poor implementation of inclusive policies for LGBTQ+ employees an issue?
Does our societies’ broader unacceptance for LGBTQ+ people influence how safe they feel?
The 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year, Nate Bowling, and I met at a closed, round table meeting with Senator Patty Murray, early this year. Both of us talked about the urgency to protect students; whether undocumented, immigrants, LGBTQ+, black or brown. Nate personally promised to do everything he could do protect my own trans daughter, a moment that brought me to tears.
In August, I presented a workshop at the Whole Child Institute for Tacoma Public Schools on LGBTQ+ safety and inclusion. Forty-five percent of the attendees self-identified within the LGBTQ+ spectrum. None of them felt safe to be out to students without threatening their job. Several believed they were not safe being out to their administrator, colleagues, or parents. It didn’t matter if it was at an elementary, middle or high school. The fears were the same.
Tacoma Public Schools has invested intentionally to set and implement inclusive policies for LGBTQ+ students. It’s been a privilege be involved, as a parent and community partner, to help accelerate this goal. There is a big gap that needs to be addressed.
Nate repeatedly drives home the point that students cannot learn while living in fear. Neither can the adults responsible for educating them.