Q&A With GLSEN Founder: LGBT Teachers Still Face Barriers
Kevin Jennings, who founded the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (or GLSEN) in 1990, has fought against LGBT discrimination in schools and been active in passing school-based anti-discrimination laws for more than two decades. After leaving GLSEN in 2009, Jennings served as an assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education until 2011. He currently is the executive director of the Arcus Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to global human rights and environmental conservation.
In 1994, Jennings published One Teacher in Ten, the first of what would be three essay collections by LGBT teachers documenting their coming-out experiences in the United States and abroad. The third, and most recent, volume was published at the end of August and reflects the growing ease that teachers have about being "out" in their school communities, even as many LGBT educators still feel forced to live in the shadows.
Commentary Intern Luke Towler recently caught up with Jennings by phone to discuss the essay collections. Jennings shared his thoughts on the barriers LGBT teachers and students face and the evolving climate in urban and rural schools.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
EW: When the first edition of One Teacher in Ten was published in 1994, many of the teachers used pseudonyms to avoid being identified as LGBT by their communities. Now, more than 20 years later, how have teacher and student perspectives about coming out changed?
JENNINGS: I think that the change in the 20 years since the first edition of One Teacher in Ten came out is mind-blowing. To be completely honest with you, to do the first edition in 1994, I pretty much had to twist the arm of virtually every LGBT teacher I’d ever met.
In the new edition, only one person uses a pseudonym in the entire book. And it’s incredible to think how far we’ve come in terms of the fact that LGBT teachers, like their straight colleagues, increasingly feel they can just be open and honest about who they are. Some people say: “Well, why do they need to talk about it?” And my first reaction to that is: “Well, straight teachers talk about what they did on the weekend with their husbands or their wives all the time.” Why should LGBT teachers be living under a double standard?
EW: In the latest edition of your book, One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium, some teachers, but not all, even note the inclusive environments in rural and urban communities. While there is a growing acceptance of LGBT individuals, how can rural and urban communities continue to improve their climate so that LGBT students and teachers feel welcome and safe?
JENNINGS: Well, the first thing that needs to happen is every district needs a policy saying that it does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s very hard for somebody to feel like they’re protected when the policy doesn’t protect them. It comes as a shock to many Americans to find out that in 29 states you can be fired still for being gay or lesbian. And in 32 states you can be fired for being transgender.
So we still have a long way to go just in terms of putting in place basic policies that make people feel protected because in reality, in most states in this country, they are not protected. What I find interesting, though, is the fact that there isn’t always a correlation between the existence of a policy and someone feeling comfortable in coming out. Some of the states in which people [in the book] have come out do not have [anti-discrimination] policies. And some of the states in which teachers were not out or who experienced tremendous problems are places that are thought of as being very “pro gay.”
The two most troubling stories in the [most recent] book come from New York City and from the Netherlands. The Netherlands was the first [country] to approve gay marriage, 15 years ago. And New York City is what I call "a paradise on paper" for gay people. We have all the laws and all the protections you could want based on sexual orientation, although not on gender identity.
So I think that some teachers are held back not just by the lack of policies, but by a more fundamental concern. People go into teaching because they want to make a difference, because they want to help kids. And some teachers are really concerned that their relationships with kids will be damaged, or that there will be witch hunts by parents, or that they’ll be thrown under the bus by unsupportive administrators. And the saddest stories in the book really are ones where administrators usually do throw the LGBT teachers under the bus.
I think if there was one thing that I would like to see happen is it's greater leadership on the part of superintendents and principals.
EW: In 2011, legislation in California required that the contributions to the state and the United States by members of the LGBT community be taught in social studies classes. Since the law was enacted, have most schools in California complied with it?
JENNINGS: I'm betting that it's not been implemented very well. And I'll tell you why I suspect that: The average textbook used in America has next to no—if any at all—mention of LGBT material. The average teacher-training program does nothing to prepare teachers to address LGBT material. So in the absence of curriculum materials that are inclusive and in the absence of training, I think it's unrealistic to think that teachers who are not trained and who have no knowledge or expertise of a subject are suddenly, magically going to start teaching it.
So I think the real challenge is: It’s nice to put a law in the books and say “Oh, you have to teach this.” But if you really want people to incorporate new material, you’ve got to give them training, you’ve got to give them curricular resources, and I don’t know that that’s happened in California.
EW: Are more states trying to pass laws similar to the one in California?
JENNINGS: I think in most of America, we are not at the level right now, sadly, of talking about how we incorporate LGBT material. We’re at the level where we’re trying to pass basic protections for people.
EW: About 10 years ago, you participated in an edweek.org chat. When a reporter asked what the barriers were for students forming a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance—a student-run club in which LGBT youths support each other—you said that "administrative resistance" and "fear" were the two primary concerns. Are these barriers still preventing K-12 students from forming alliances?
JENNINGS: It is truly amazing to me that that is actually still the case. And it goes back to what I learned from editing this book and from the stories of teachers. It is fine for people in Sacramento, Calif., or Washington to pass a law, but the people who really shape the climate in our schools are the people who run the local districts—superintendents—or the people who run local buildings—principals. And some of these people are wonderful, excellent educational leaders, but a lot of them seem to think their job primarily is to avoid any hint of controversy, and they often associate LGBT issues with controversy. And so, they want nothing to do with it.
What they should be doing is thinking: What is in the best interest of my students? But I’m sorry to say that a lot of administrators I’ve encountered in my career in education, and a lot of the administrators you read about in the new edition of One Teacher in Ten, seem to think that their job is to avoid controversy more than it is to do the right thing by students.
EW: Even though the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of gay marriage, county clerks in some places are currently refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on a religious objection. Has religion been a barrier in schools when students are trying to form Gay-Straight Alliances?
JENNINGS: First of all, the great thing about the Supreme Court ruling is we don’t have to call it “gay marriage” anymore; it’s just plain old marriage. So that’s an exciting thing for those of us who are LGBT because we don’t have “gay lunch” or “gay dinner,” and we don’t have “gay marriages” either. We just have marriages and lunch and dinner.
In terms of the religious issue, I find that quite confusing. And I find that confusing for a couple reasons. First of all, we have separation of church and state in this country. And we have a constitutional clause that says there shall be no establishment of religion. So it doesn’t matter if it bothers your religion. It’s a public school that has a responsibility for serving 100 percent of every kid who lives in the community. Some of those kids are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. And it’s your job to serve them, whether you like them or not.
I was a high school teacher for 10 years, and I can tell you: Any teacher who tells you they like every kid is lying. As teachers, we’re human beings. And the fact is that some kids get under our skin and we might not like some of them. But we have to teach them and serve them equally, even if we don’t like them. So, I frankly don’t really care if people say: “Well, my religion tells me this is wrong, and I don’t like gay people.” You weren’t hired to teach the kids you like. You were hired to teach every kid in the community.
The second thing is, that I find interesting myself: My denomination, the Episcopalian church, just voted to recognize marriage equality and extend the same rights of marriage to same-sex couples that it has extended in the past to opposite-sex couples. My church tells me to accept LGBT people. So I get really frustrated when people say, “Well, I really can’t accept this because I’m Christian.” You know what? I’m Christian, too. I go to church every Sunday. And my church tells me to accept people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. So why should your version of religion trump my version of religion?
The fact is, we should be respecting every kid that comes into the school. We should be treating them equally and giving them equal opportunities to succeed. We should be hiring teachers based on how well they teach, not based on their sexual orientation. And it's time to put this whole notion—that a particular religious interpretation should dictate what we do in our schools—to rest.
EW: In the first edition of your book, one teacher mentioned how he endured epithets from students and was concerned he would not get tenure if he openly identified as gay. Although significant progress has been made since then, what still prevents teachers and students from coming out?
JENNINGS: Something I said earlier, I think, is also at work—which is that the reason I went into teaching was I wanted to help young people. And I wanted to be an effective teacher who could help young people achieve their potential and fulfill their dreams. I was nervous about coming out because I was a well-regarded, well-liked teacher, and I was worried: Is that going to change now that they know that I’m gay?
The irony is that I would argue it would actually make me a more effective teacher. I think one thing kids can do is smell B.S. a mile away. And I think they really appreciate people who are authentic with them. Once I was able to be more authentic and more honest with my students, my relationships with them actually improved. And I think I became a more effective educator. And many people who have written in One Teacher in Ten report the same experience. I don’t see a situation occurring anywhere in the book where the students caused the problem for the teachers. When there were problems for the teachers—sadly, as I mentioned earlier—it generally was created by the administration.
EW: Overall, how have Gay-Straight Alliances helped LGBT students feel more accepted and welcome in schools?
JENNINGS: As the faculty adviser to the first Gay-Straight Alliance in the country, the fact that there are literally thousands of them around the country now is incredibly gratifying and exciting to me. And I think it’s a great example of student leadership changing our schools. I think that for so many LGBT young people, it’s one thing to see LGBT people on television in a show like “Modern Family.” I’m sure that has some positive impact on making you feel like you belong, but having something in your own school, where you know there are other people who are like you or who are allies to you, so you have support at home, in your own town, is invaluable and irreplaceable.
And I think what Gay-Straight Alliances have done is reduce the sense of isolation and loneliness that so many LGBT youth feel. When I was young, you felt very alone and very isolated. And I think today’s LGBT youth have a chance to connect with other people like them, to connect with other young people who accept them for who they are, and do not judge them through Gay-Straight Alliances. I think that has literally saved thousands of lives in this country.
EW: Do you have anything else that you'd like to add?
JENNINGS: I did not expect—when I did the first edition 20 years ago—that we would still be doing editions every 10 years, 20 years later, and that we would be up to edition number three. I’m hoping, as society continues to evolve and continues to progress, that someday we won’t need to do a book like this at all. And the positive content of the stories I received for the newest edition makes me believe that that may actually happen in my lifetime, which makes me very happy.
Vol. 35, Issue 03, Page 23Published in Print: September 9, 2015, as Q&A With Kevin Jennings