School Climate & Safety Opinion

Throwback Thursday: Fired for Being Gay

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 07, 2014 3 min read
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This #tbt we celebrate and share a story that shows we do, in fact, grow and move forward, make progress, and learn from our mistakes. In 1975 the Supreme Court of the State of Washington upheld the decision of the Tacoma School District to fire a teacher for being gay. The teacher, James Gaylord, was reported to be a successful teacher and the terms of his dismissal were only that his being gay would affect his ability “to function efficiently as a teacher without risk of harm to the school or to the pupils.”

Both the district’s decision to dismiss Mr. Gaylord, and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold that decision were positions reflecting the thinking of the time. Forty years later, in the Tacoma district, it would not happen again. This fact is an important example of the progress we have made. In a July 10th Huffington Post article, it was reported that the Tacoma School District apologized to Mr. Gaylord. Yes, the district that had fired Mr. Gaylord 40 years ago, and won the court case upholding their decision, apologized. How remarkable...for the courageous ownership of its past and for the public acknowledgement of a mistake that ended a teaching career.

The current information available to us is complicated. A 2013 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) reports on a sample size of 34,557, that less than 3% of the respondents reported themselves as gay. Whether this is an accurate representation, too small a sample, or a reflection of remaining hesitation to claim one’s sexual orientation, has no bearing on what our responsibility is to each other as human beings. The bias that raged in the 20th century proved to serve no purpose other than to cause damage. As we have moved away from the exaggerated bias, fear mongering, and exclusion of those considered different from the majority, inclusion offers some healing. And, in a rare moment for organizations in our nation, the Board of Education President issued an apology. As in South Africa, there is much to be said for truth and reconciliation co- existing.

What does the act of this apology for a wrong, committed 40 years ago, mean for us and for the teachers and students in our schools? Although we make decisions with the best of information and intention that we have at the time, we may be wrong. We may even cause harm. What harm did the dismissal of Mr. Gaylord do to adults and children in that community at that time? It perpetuated a bias and probably made Mr. Gaylord private life more public than he ever wanted. Who among us wants that?

Harm done to one, affects us all. If we work in an environment that can and does reject (in this case, fire) a person for any reason other than not performing his or her job, on some level, it supports the dear belief that anyone can be next. Fear is not a positive motivator for risk takers or creativity. A fearful environment is often not a safe one.

No matter the relief some may have felt at Gaylord’s dismissal at that time, there surely were others who felt differently. Surely any gay leaders, teachers, parents, students, community members battened down their hatches having seen a gay teacher considered as presenting “risk of harm to the school or to the pupils.” Time marched on and rights were won. The apology, albeit 40 years later, had to have a positive impact.

But it is also important we note, a recent Washington Post article stated, “While 21 states have laws that would protect Gaylord if the same thing happened today, there are 29 more where workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is legal.”

All these years later, what are we teaching students? Schools, knowingly or not, have gay leaders, faculty and staff members, students and parents. The actions we take... each action we take... is regarded as a model for accepted behavior. What effect do we want to have on the communities in which we teach and lead? The Tacoma School Board apologized for making and defending a decision previous district leaders made 40 years ago. And, although, it took forty years, a painful part of their history can now teach and lead the rest of us. Bravo....

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