When Utah Principal Dixie Garrison was deciding whether to tell her supervisor she was gay, her friends, colleagues, and mentors advised her not to.
Coming out could jeopardize her career in the largely conservative community about 15 miles north of Salt Lake City, they counseled her.
“Folks told me—out of care—that ‘I would not let anyone in the district know that,’ ” Garrison said.
But she did anyway. It was an imperative for her, especially after her brother, who was also gay, died by suicide.
“I didn’t want to live a façade,” Garrison said. “There are certain aspects of [themselves] that heterosexual people share freely. They say ‘my wife’ this or that. They have pictures of their families on their desks. Things like that. They’re able to just freely flow with their identities.”
Garrison, who was the state’s Principal of the Year in 2018 for her work turning around West Jordan Middle School, is now helping to spearhead a national LGBTQ+ Principal and Assistant Principal Network.
Organized through the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the network is expected to provide LGBTQ+ school leaders a supportive forum to get insights and resources on navigating such a public-facing position and “to talk about issues more relevant to them and the challenges and opportunities they have,” Garrison said.
“I say challenges and opportunities for sure,” she said. “I do think that I have an opportunity to be a mentor to youths in a different way than other colleagues because of my identity. I’m not characterizing being an LGBTQ+ administrator as a burden. It’s kind of a mantle placed on me now.”
Dustin Miller, a former high school principal in Dublin, Ohio, is working with Garrison to set up the initiative. He said part of the network’s goal is helping LGBTQ+ school leaders know they are not alone.
“Representation matters,” Miller said. “It can be extremely lonely if you don’t know that other people are walking the same walk that you’re walking.”
Miller, who is gay, spent 20 years in Dublin, most of them as an administrator. And while he said he’s never had any negative experiences during his tenure, it would have helped to be part of a broader community of school leaders in the same position.
Garrison found that support from Miller after she came out, but a larger professional community would have been doubly helpful, she said. While her supervisor appeared initially disappointed, the district has been supportive, she said.
“There is no other network like this—a national network for gay administrators,” Garrison said. “They are all interested in advocacy work and how to help their kids, but Dustin and I are also interested in how to help them as administrators.”
As a member of any marginalized group, LGBTQ+ principals sometimes worry about bias and discrimination, but they also sometimes face scrutiny that their heterosexual colleagues may not, especially when supporting and working with LGBTQ+ youths and students, Garrison said.
As an LGBTQ+ principal, you’re “navigating your intersectionality between being a school leader and also identifying as LGBTQ+ yourself, and doing advocacy work that really any principal should be doing,” said Garrison, who served on Utah’s suicide prevention board, with a heavy focus on LBGTQ+ youths. “But we don’t feel as protected being LGBTQ+ administrators ourselves.”
“Our straight colleagues who are school leaders can do all the work that they want around LGBTQ+ issues without fear. But someone like myself could be seen as pushing a self-serving agenda.”
Garrison and Miller hope that allowing school leaders to open up about their authentic selves will have a ripple effect in their school communities—from teachers and students who may also be struggling with whether to be open about their identities.
“There are teachers who have a lot of stress and anxiety about being out in the classroom even in 2020,” Miller said. The more school leaders can provide examples of LGBTQ+ role models in positions of authority, “that is going to allow teachers to feel more comfortable in their own walk, which then subsequently allows students to feel more comfortable in their own walk.”
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that firing a worker for being gay or transgender violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which makes it illegal for employers to fire workers based on their sex.
Strong Response From LGBTQ+ Principals
It’s unclear how many principals and school leaders are members of the LGBTQ+ community. And, for some, the decision to be open could be fraught with anxieties about job security and promotions.
Miller, who has since moved from his high school job to an assistant professor job at The Ohio State University, is hoping to dig into some of that as part of his research.
The network was expected to be launched this month at the NASSP’s annual National Principals Conference, but that was cancelled because of the pandemic. The group will instead hold its first meeting virtually later this month.
Since sending out the introductory email to the NASSP membership, Garrison and Miller have received about 70 responses. They came from early-career and veteran principals, rural, urban and suburban school leaders, and from administrators in different regions of the country, Garrison said. Some indicated that they were not yet out.
“That’s validation that this group is needed,” Garrison said.
Garrison was initially fearful about coming out—having lived her life until then as a married heterosexual woman with children. But she said she felt it would be disrespectful to her brother’s memory, and she recognized she could serve as an example for her students.
One of her students, a 7th grader, initially didn’t want to come to West Jordan Middle when school boundaries changed. But when he heard that Garrison was gay, “he jumped for joy because he knew that I would understand him,” she said.
“That’s a very emotional story for me,” she said.
“My school has a very inclusive culture,” Garrison said. “So, on one hand I worry about bias or discrimination towards me. That I would not be seen as a good person because folks disagree with my lifestyle. But, on the other hand, I have those wins where I know that I’m making a little kid out there go, ‘hey, my principal is a gay woman, I’m OK.’ That’s what’s the most important to me.”
Photo: Dustin Miller, left, and Dixie Garrison, have formed a national support network for LGBTQ+ school leaders. Photo courtesy of Dixie Garrison.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.