On July, 21, 2014, President Obama made history by signing an executive order to prohibit the discrimination of LGBT federal employees and contractors.
During the signing ceremony, Obama remarked: “It doesn’t make much sense, but today in America, millions of our fellow citizens wake up and go to work with the awareness that they could lose their job, not because of anything they do or fail to do, but because of who they are – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. And that’s wrong. We’re here to do what we can to make it right – to bend the arc of justice a little bit in a better direction.”
The country was reminded of those inspiring words earlier this month when the order Obama signed almost 275 days ago went into effect. But despite such a major civil rights victory, many are still miles away from the promise land. Obama’s mandate, as momentous as it is, only extends to about one-fifth of the U.S. workforce, leaving thousands of LGBT teachers, who remain subject to state and local laws, defenseless against the looming threats of a hostile work environment, and in worst case scenarios–termination.
According to hrc.org, there are currently 29 states operating without laws that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 32 states that fail to address discrimination based on gender identity. Cut off from legal protection, the decision for LGBT teachers to be open and honest about who they are becomes a serious matter, one that many wrestle with daily. But for former educator Tim’m West being out and proud in the classroom has superseded any risks involved.
West’s career as a teacher spans over two decades with assignments in schools all across the country including Oakland School for the Arts, Caesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy, and a handful of high schools in the Houston, TX area. At each juncture West has been determined to overcome the uneasiness that some experience when the words gay and teacher meet.
“I didn’t want to become one of those gay men who did not engage my community, and did not reach out and help kids because of some impending fear of people’s paranoia,” says West. “I really wanted to challenge that, [especially] in [a] climate where there’s often talk about needs for a strong black male figure. I’m as strong as they come.”
West says he’s been fortunate to avoid any direct confrontation about his sexuality while teaching. Support has come from colleagues, students, as well as parents, many of whom remain in contact years later. He attributes much of that to his effectiveness in the classroom and burning concern for youth.
“I’ve had great relationships with parents,” he says. “When you’re a good teacher and they see that their kid is learning, that is what ultimately matters. Any parent who would say they don’t want a dynamic, amazing teacher to teach their kid because they happen to be gay, I would suggest they don’t have their kid’s best interest at heart. I’m not in class talking about my sexuality, even if it’s known. I’m in class talking about subject-verb agreement or how to write an end note.”
A number of LGBT educators wished they shared West’s experience. In recent years, various stories have surfaced with reports of gay and lesbian teachers being fired as a result of homophobia. The incidents are often enough to persuade fellow teachers from coming out at their own campus. West empathizes with those teachers who choose to be discreet, but asserts the alternative can profoundly impact a student’s understanding of the vast realities that exist in the world.
“I know there are a lot of other gay men in education, a lot of them are not out, for various reasons,” he says. “I don’t judge that, but when there are occasions when people can test those waters and present something different, it’s a huge help to young men, and not just to gay young men. The straight young men [I’ve] taught [have] gained so much from the experience of being able to see strength in a very different way than they possibly could have imagined. I’m sure they’ll be different men and husbands and fathers because of that experience.”
The delusions that surround LGBT educators are boundless. Many of the irrational feelings, and subsequent behavior, stem from deeply rooted myths that wrongly associate homosexuality to pedophilia, and the notion that heterosexual youth will some how be converted into homosexuals in the presence of gay teachers. And though credible research indicates otherwise, a great amount of people still see homosexuality as hazardous to children leaving the door wide open for reform.
“People need more education on what orientation means,” says West. “I think there’s a slippery thing heterosexuals do with [their] immediacy of thought when you talk about being queer or gay, [and that] is to start imagining sex. We have to challenge that they’re doing that.”
The ordinary ways heterosexual teachers disclose their identity (e.g., wearing wedding rings, displaying photos of a spouse, or bringing them to a school function such as a football game or homecoming dance) become problematic when their same gender loving counterparts follow suit. All of sudden those same actions are marked as pushing an agenda or causing a distraction. Such responses not only hurt LGBT teachers but they also rob LGBT students of something they often lack—positive role models.
“Heteronormativity does a big disservice to everybody. And heteronormativity as I see it is the assumption that everyone is straight until told otherwise. That assumption does a violence to people. When people walk into a space and we automatically assume that they’re heterosexual, you’re basically robbing that person of [an] identity that may be salient or important to them.” – Tim’m West
Through a national initiative started in October, Teach For America is working to combat the damaging attitudes and practices that keep LGBT teachers and students from reaching their full potential in the classroom. West currently serves as managing director for the initiative, and believes by contesting people’s ignorance students have the most to gain.
“I’m concerned about the quality of education that teachers are going to give their kids if they’re constantly at war with themselves, if they’re constantly worrying about being found out, [and] if they’re constantly worried about being fired,” he says. “All of the work we do to improve the quality of experience for [teachers] is really to improve the quality of experience for the kids. I can certainly say in the environments I taught where I was able to be open and out, I was a much better teacher. I didn’t have to worry. I didn’t have an overarching concern.”
West is presently in the process of implementing recommendations collected at a recent series of discussions TFA hosted across 14 communities. Suggestions came from activists, community leaders, students and teachers, all aiming to make learning spaces more accepting and safe for LGBT faculty, and most importantly, students. Some of the ideas included urging schools to adopt inclusive language such as using “parents” instead of mom and dad, or “partner” instead of husband and wife. Supporters would also like to see LGBTQ competency training added to teacher certification programs, among a host of other action items.
The work West is undertaking is very personal. Growing up in Arkansas as a very masculine oriented youth and the son of a minister, coming to terms with his sexuality wasn’t an easy feat. The avid poet, author, rapper and spoken word artist struggled for years with emotional turmoil that almost cost him his life.
“I had a very early awareness of my orientation,” he says. “I think fortunately in some ways [I] was able to hide behind masculinity. I didn’t suffer directly from homophobia in school because I was straight passing. But I did internalize a lot of the pain because when people talked about homosexuals or gays, I felt like they were talking about me, even if I wasn’t being recognized as such. I almost felt a sense of guilt for not speaking up for myself.”
It wasn’t until after a failed suicide attempt at the age of 16, and being outed during his freshmen year in college at Duke University, that West made the ultimate decision to not only embrace his existence as a black gay man, but to also live that truth openly.
“I finally told myself, ‘consider that you’re actually perfect, that what I am is actually really okay. And dare to believe the people that are homophobes, that don’t think people should be gay, dare to believe that they’re wrong, even when they seem to be the majority of people out there.”
West hopes his endeavors through Teach For America will allow LGBT youth to come to the same realization, and provide a much needed platform for LGBT educators to shine as affirming examples.
“Interestingly and ironically, education is a very close minded area when it comes to orientation,” he says. “The Department of Education barely wants to address LGBTQ issues, most school districts don’t want to touch it. If we can get past that, we can have students who are a lot more aware of what’s going on in the world, less bullying, less suicide, and greater public health and awareness about STI and HIV infections.”
by Deon Newsom
Click here to check out West’s latest book, “pre|dispositions“, an intimate collection of writings about love and romance.