Teaching Profession

LGBTQ Teachers Celebrate Supreme Court Ruling on Workplace Protections

By Madeline Will — June 15, 2020 6 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that employers cannot fire someone on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity—a landmark ruling that for the first time mandates job protections for LGBTQ teachers across the country.

Before this decision, LGBTQ workers in more than half of the states had no legal protection against being fired, demoted, or paid less based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Although some school districts and cities in those states did have workplace protections in place for LGBTQ employees, many other teachers were unsure about how much they could share about their personal lives—and identities—without fear of repercussions.

“Today’s decisive ruling will help ensure that LGBTQ educators can fully participate in school life, free from fear, and help build school communities that encourage respect and support for all students and educators, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression,” Eliza Byard, the executive director of GLSEN, formerly the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, said in a statement. “This will be an enormous building block for a better future.”

The decision, she said, “also represents an unexpected and vital dose of hope for LGBTQ youth.”

The Supreme Court justices ruled 6-3 that Title VII in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans employment discrimination “because of ... sex,” also applies to LGBTQ people. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Brett Kavanaugh dissented.

“This means that educators can no longer be fired at work for who they love or who they are,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement.

The NEA, along with the American Federation of Teachers, the National School Boards Association, and AASA, the School Superintendents Association, had filed a joint amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of LGBTQ school employees, arguing that schools are better served when “employment decisions for teachers and school staff focus on merit—their ability to educate children—rather than irrelevant characteristics.”

A History of Discrimination

For LGBTQ teachers, this decision has been a long time coming. In the first half of the 20th century, LGBTQ teachers would have been fired if they were found out, researchers say. In the 1970s, cities began passing anti-discrimination laws. But opponents to those laws tended to attack gay teachers in their campaigns, saying that protecting them would endanger children.

In California, for example, in 1978, state Sen. John Briggs sponsored a ballot referendum that tried to ban lesbian and gay people from working in the state’s public schools, arguing that openly gay teachers could “entice young impressionable children into their lifestyle.” California voters struck the referendum down, with 58.4 percent voting against it. But in several other places during this time period, including Miami and St. Paul, Minn., voters rejected ordinances that would have protected gay and lesbian workers from discrimination, with teachers at the forefront of the debate.

Even in 2018, 32 percent of non-LGBTQ Americans said they would be “very” or “somewhat” uncomfortable if their child had an LGBTQ teacher, according to a survey by GLAAD and the Harris Poll. That percentage has ticked up slightly over the past few years—in 2016, 28 percent of Americans expressed discomfort with that scenario.

In recent years, some LGBTQ teachers who say they were pushed out of the classroom because of their sexual orientation or gender identity have filed lawsuits against their districts.

For example, a lesbian elementary art teacher in Texas filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against her district when she was suspended after showing her students a picture of her and her future wife in Nemo and Dory costumes. A parent complained that Bailey was “promoting the homosexual agenda,” and in a statement, the Mansfield Independent school district said conversations about sexual orientation are not age-appropriate for elementary students, and “parents have the right to control the conversation with their children.”

In February, the teacher, Stacy Bailey, reached a $100,000 settlement with Mansfield Independent, more than two years after her suspension. The district, which did not acknowledge any discrimination, also agreed to consider adopting a formal policy that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.

After Monday’s Supreme Court ruling came out, Bailey told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that her suspension forever changed her life. She is now teaching in a high school in the district, after being reassigned from the elementary school where she had taught for 10 years.

“So the pain of what happened to me I will live with for the rest of my life,” she told the Star-Telegram. “But rulings like this do give me hope that at least maybe this won’t happen again to another gay teacher.”

No More Fear

Many LGBTQ teachers also applauded the Supreme Court’s decision, saying it would alleviate the fear they felt for being out to their students and school community.

For some people, like Andrea Hawkman, the decision brought back memories of feeling unwelcome or pushed out of the classroom. Hawkman taught high school social studies in rural Missouri from 2008 to 2013. She loved her job, but there were no employment protections for LGBTQ workers.

Hawkman was in a relationship with the woman who is now her wife, but she was too afraid to even have a picture of her in her classroom. It was difficult, Hawkman said, to have a “huge chunk of who you are not being able to be a part of another huge chunk of who you are.”

The silence weighed on her, she said. She had LGBTQ students who knew that they could be themselves in her classroom, but she worried that simply creating a safe space for them could make her a target of discrimination.

Hawkman left the classroom, and is now an assistant professor of teacher education at Utah State University. The Supreme Court decision, she said, “is an important step forward for the country, for the field.” She hopes that it will lead more LGBTQ people to the teaching profession.

‘Choose One or the Other’

Indeed, before now, the lack of secure employment deterred many people from entering the classroom in the first place. When Becky Corran was training to be a high school biology teacher, a faculty adviser in her Pennsylvania college told her that she could not be an outspoken lesbian and also teach. He told her to “choose one or the other.”

“Obviously, I can’t live that way—I can’t live in a way I can’t be myself,” Corran said. “I was really lost.”

She abandoned her plans to become a teacher, and instead earned a master’s degree in public health.

“I feel like my LGBT identity—being who I was—was facilitated by teachers and faculty,” she said. “I wanted to be that to the students, too. I wanted to be a person who could open doors to students and help them see themselves.”

Now, 20 years later, she is an associate professor at a community college in New Mexico, a state that already had employment protections for LGBTQ individuals before the Supreme Court’s decision. In that role, she also teaches science and health classes to high school students.

The court’s decision, she said, is “incredibly heartwarming. [It] gives me a lot of hope today for kids who are just figuring out who they are. I hope they’ll see open doors rather than closed doors.”

Image: Josh Thompson, a gay man, teaches at Blacksburg High School in Blacksburg, Va., a state that until the Supreme Court’s June 15 decision had no employment discrimination protections for LGBTQ workers. He told Education Week in January that being out at school lets his LGBTQ students know they’re not alone. —Parker Michels-Boyce for Education Week/File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.