Law & Courts Opinion

Teacher: I Was Fired for Being Gay. Now It Can’t Happen to Anyone Else

By Brett Bigham — June 23, 2020 4 min read
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The simple truth of the recent U.S. Supreme Court case of Bostock v. Clayton County is that, for the first time ever, it has been ruled that all people in the United States have equal-employment protections. There may not yet be true equality in this country, but we are equal on paper for the very first time.

When I was born in 1964, Illinois was the only state that did not have an anti-sodomy law that criminalized gay relationships. Some states kept these laws until they were overturned by the Supreme Court in 2003. As a student, I never heard a teacher say a positive thing about lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transgender people. But as my own high school graduation loomed, an incredibly brave teacher taught me one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned from a teacher: how to step up when students are in danger.

As AIDS burned its way across the country, he found the bravery to warn a friend of mine of the growing epidemic and urged my friend to share the information with me. In 1982, in my conservative ultra-Christian Oregon town, this teacher risked everything to keep us safe. I’m probably alive today because of him.

When I told my mother I was going to be a teacher she said, “You are gay. You can’t be a teacher.” In my first year of teaching in 1992, an Oregon right-wing religious group very nearly succeeded in passing a ballot measure that could have been used to remove LGBT people from their teaching positions. All across my state, teachers stood up in opposition. Gay teachers. Straight teachers. A bunch of really angry kindergarten teachers.

Shortly after I became the Oregon State Teacher of the Year in 2014, I was fired for not being able to keep my mouth shut after my school warned me not to say in public that I was gay. But I knew I couldn’t stay in the classroom closet. As a gay man, I can make the life of Ls, Gs, Bs, and Ts better by having a picture of my family on my desk. It might be the only time in their K-12 school experience when a student sees that gay people have normal lives with dogs and barbecues in the backyard.

I want students to see these normal futures because I have seen the suicide rates of LGBT students. I personally know the costs of those statistics.

When I was 15, my best friend came out to me. I can’t remember everything I said, but I know I told him I loved him. I’m thankful for that, because it was the last thing I said to him. He died by suicide that weekend. He didn’t see a future he could live with.

I knew I couldn’t stay in the classroom closet."

That is why it is important to have openly LGBT teachers. That is why it is important to fill your classroom and school library bookshelves with LGBT characters and authors. That is why it was important for me to defy my school’s order to stay silent about my sexuality.

I fought back in court and eventually accepted a financial settlement from the district. I walked away, battered, bruised, but a winner. But I won for losing.

My district fired the superintendent only the week before reinstating me. The school board never publicly said why. The head of special education and everyone in the chain of command, except one, was reprimanded, removed, or fired. There was no public comment about any of that. I only know about it from a school board member who told me. But a quick look at the district website showed me that yes, in fact, they were all gone.

I wrote a social-media post last week about how proud I was that the Southern Poverty Law Center had included my story in an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court for this case.

The court has now ruled that what happened to me violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I poured out my feelings about the historic ruling on Twitter, and within several days, that Twitter thread had received over 40 million impressions.

The outcry from the education community at how I had been treated has been a roar. It has spread to Facebook, Imgur, Reddit, and Instagram. After five years of silence by my district, the pressure finally broke its leaders. Last Tuesday, without any fanfare, the district published a public apology. Reading the district Twitter feed is like watching a sickly goat being taken down by a pack of hyenas.

There is no pleasure in this for me. The administration that made those decisions is gone.

Victory, to be honest, feels dirty. It tastes bad. It doesn’t take away the hurt of losing my students in a cold February, never to see them again. I think of my autistic student who was blind. He liked my voice, and sometimes it was the only thing that would calm him. One day I just disappeared.

Where is their apology to him?

But this ruling is now the future of education. Mr. Bostock was fired because he joined a gay softball league. Read that sentence but take out the word “gay.” I was fired because I was openly gay. Take out “gay” and replace it with all the other things I am: ginger, Irish, a lapsed Catholic, a member since 1973 with lifetime standing of the Archie Comics Fan Club. I’m a lot of things, none of which I should have been fired for.

When schools eventually reopen, LGBT teachers will walk through those doors for the first time knowing they can no longer be fired for being gay.

“Not in my town!” you may think.

But I have a story to tell you about a nice teacher, from Portland, Ore., one of the most liberal cities in the country. One day, at the White House, just after receiving honors from President Barack Obama, this teacher spoke up for LGBT students. He asked that we stop passing laws that hurt our young people. He stood up. And, then, he was fired.

He was victorious because his state, Oregon, had laws to protect him. But if this discrimination could happen here, it could happen anywhere.

And, now, the Supreme Court said, no, it actually can’t happen anywhere.


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