Being an LGBTQ teacher can be difficult. But it can also be uniquely rewarding.
I spoke with several LGBTQ teachers, and they talked about the challenges they face, highlighted the importance of representation for LGBTQ students and examples of allyship for everyone, and offered advice for LGBTQ teachers entering the profession. (Some names have been changed.)
On June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled that employers couldn't fire an employee based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, NPR reported. Before the decision, which ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination, LGBTQ teachers had no protection and could be paid less, demoted, suspended, or fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Many schools and districts are still undergoing the cultural shifts necessary to become more inclusive environments, but the newly cemented LGBTQ employee protections have cleared the way for teachers to bring their authentic selves into the classroom without fear of professional retribution.
Further reading: Creating Safe Environments for LGBTQ Students
More Work Lies Ahead
Still, some LGBTQ teachers worry about the consequences of sharing their identities in their schools. Some districts even have a history of mistreating LGBTQ teachers by allowing, for example, harassment from parents and students. In August 2017, Stacy Bailey, an elementary school art teacher in Arlington, Texas, was suspended when a parent complained about her showing her students a photo of her then-fiancée, the Texas Tribune reported.
"I think people tend not to realize exactly how self-isolating they're requesting queer educators to be or how exhausting it is to have to self-check every single remark about my personal life," Colleen, a middle school teacher from Ohio who identifies as bisexual and queer, told me. This isolation erects silos that prevent LGBTQ educators from finding and supporting one another, she says.
When her class read The Stars Beneath Our Feet, a book featuring death and gang violence, Colleen was told to include a warning that there were LGBTQ characters in the book and to offer parents an opt-out and an alternative book. She objected to proactively offering the opportunity to avoid acknowledging queer people.
"Imagine a closeted queer fifth-grader knowing classmates who were reading an alternative book could be doing so because their families wanted them to be 'protected' from learning about people like them," she said.
Colleen explained to her principal how this could harm students and noted how it made her feel to be asked to send this notice.
"It made me question how I'd be treated or supported if a parent found out I was queer and wanted to 'opt out' of me," she said.
Your Classroom, Your Rules
Carson, a high school English language learning teacher from Massachusetts, says she isn't in the closet—but she isn't out, either.
"I don't think it's anyone's business," she said.
But because she doesn't speak up, Carson said, students default to heteronormative assumptions.
"I've settled this issue for myself by being clear about the inclusive culture I build in my classroom," she said. "I'm not in or out, and the binary of in and out feels wrong. Many decisions I make in my classroom to build culture aim to help students expect more than two choices."
Other teachers have observed positive effects on students when they were open about their identities and sexualities. Dennis, a high school science teacher in New Hampshire, was surprised to learn how much it had mattered to a former student.
The student "told me it meant a lot to just to see a gay person working on the other side of things," he said. "I didn't realize that holding that part of my identity so gently could still have an impact."
Another teacher pointed out that educators are some of the only adults that children regularly interact with outside of family. A teacher "may be the only adult queer person they ever encounter," they said.
The decision to come out or not is yours. Base it on what you determine is best for you and your class.
Further reading: 5 Things You Can Do to Support Your LGBTQ Students
Be the Person You Needed
Christopher, a middle school educator in Massachusetts, told me that he decorates his room with plenty of stickers, including the rainbow triangle, to identify it as a safe space. In many cases, LGBTQ teachers are better able to empathize with and help LGBTQ students, and those teachers are frequently the ones students come out to first, which Colleen says is "an honor and a privilege I don't take lightly."
Supportive educators can save student lives, according to GLSEN.
"Having just one visibly supportive educator in school can ensure LGBTQ students feel safe, welcomed, and encouraged to learn," the organization says.
LGBTQ teachers are often the best advocates for LGBTQ students. When a school-funded program refused to admit one of Christopher's transgender students, he spoke up. The school terminated the program until policies changed. Other teachers have advocated for gender-neutral bathrooms.
Although it's not required that LGBTQ teachers do so, they can create gender and sexuality alliance groups or other clubs to fight for safety, healthy communities, and equal rights in their schools.
Find Your Supports
When you're applying for jobs, research the history and culture of the schools and districts you're targeting. Connecting with your local GLSEN chapter or other organizations could help you discover which districts are more supportive and locate local support systems.
It's all about finding your people, says Kinlay, a high school English language arts teacher in Massachusetts.
"Those people needn't also be queer, but look for the allies in your building and community," Kinlay said. "They will help you navigate the sometimes stressful climate and political dynamics of where you find yourself."
If you're facing discrimination or a hostile work environment, contact your union. What if you're not comfortable connecting with your local union? "Check to see if your state has an LGBTQ caucus within your union or connect with a national caucus," Colleen said. GLSEN can help with this, too.
LGBTQ teachers are crucial positive representations for students of every sexuality and gender identity. Being an incredible teacher is about more than communicating curriculum. It's about connecting with students and giving them the tools—including confidence and compassion—they need to succeed. LGBTQ educators must be welcomed, supported, and appreciated in every school.