Tales of the Unexpected
September 08, 2015
When I edited the first edition of One Teacher in Ten in 1994, I did so because I recalled how lonely it felt for me to come out as a teacher in 1988. I never wanted others to feel that way again.
1994 was a very different time. Same-sex sexual relations were illegal in one-third of American states (a condition that would persist until, a decade later, the Supreme Court struck down so-called “sodomy laws” in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case). Same-sex marriage was not legal in a single state: it would once again be a decade before a landmark court decision (Goodridge v. Massachusetts DPH) made Massachusetts the first state to grant marriage equality. President Clinton had just signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law as an official policy of the federal government.
LGBT teachers didn’t need President Clinton to tell them about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as it had long been the (unwritten) policy of our nation’s schools: you could be LGBT as long as you never, ever talked about it. So the first edition of One Teacher in Ten was a radical act, as we were defying the de facto law of the land.
The collection reflected the climate of fear and hostility LGBT teachers faced in 1994. Some contributors were out but many chose to use pseudonyms for fear of the repercussions of telling the truth on their careers.
Nevertheless, the collection achieved its goal of breaking the silence around LGBT teachers and contributed to a climate that was different by the time I edited an all-new second edition of One Teacher in Ten in 2004. By then sodomy laws had been struck down and the march to marriage equality had begun in Massachusetts. Many more contributors were out than in 1994 and I left feeling very hopeful about the future.
As I set about editing what would become One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium, I saw that I was right—and wrong. The majority of contributors—some from unexpected places that others may see as those “isolated pockets” of intolerance (like my home state of North Carolina)—told hopeful stories of being out and finding that it actually enhanced both their effectiveness as teachers and the quality of their lives.
But a smaller number told a different story. Brett Bigham, Oregon’s “Teacher of the Year,” wrote about being given gag orders because of his sexual orientation (and would lose his job between the submission of his story and the publication of the book). Duran Renkema, a veteran teacher in Holland, wrote about his lengthy court battle to win his job back after he was unjustly discharged from his job. And “Mr. G,” a teacher in New York City, felt compelled to use a pseudonym as the byline on a submission about why he chose to remain closeted.
I wasn’t totally surprised by such stories (I’m not naïve and never for a moment thought that intolerance had magically disappeared over the past decade), but I was surprised by the locales of these stories. Oregon, New York, and Holland are all what I call “paradises on paper.” They have the requisite legal protections that should protect LGBT teachers from unjust dismissal. Hell, Holland was the first country to grant marriage equality and Oregon has an out lesbian Governor. What more do you want, people?
What I realized was that laws are necessary but insufficient. Sure, you can be “equal” on paper, but passing a law doesn’t make bigotry disappear. It can rear its ugly head at any time, and bigots can be quite creative and stubborn in getting around their legal obligations to treat everyone equally (just try getting a marriage license if you are a gay couple in Rowan County, Kentucky, for example). Yes, we need to change laws, but we also need to change attitudes. And the latter is for more difficult than the former.
So the unexpected lesson of editing the all-new third edition of One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium for me was that the book is still relevant. I wish we lived in a world where LGBT teachers could be judged solely on their effectiveness as educators, but far too often they are judged instead based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, their effectiveness be damned. Times are changing, but not quite fast enough for my taste. Until they do, books like One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium will remain both relevant and necessary.
Let’s check in next decade to see if we need a fourth edition. I sincerely hope we won’t.
About the Author
Kevin Jennings taught high school in New England after graduating from Harvard and is best known for his work creating safe schools for LGBT students. In 1988, Jennings helped establish the nation's first Gay-Straight Alliance for students, and in 1990 he founded GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, to bring together teachers, parents, students, and community members to end anti-LGBT bias in schools. Mr. Jennings led GLSEN to success in making Massachusetts the first state in the nation to outlaw discrimination against public school students on the basis of sexual orientation, and he helped establish the Safe Schools Program for Gay & Lesbian Students. Under Jennings's guidance, GLSEN has become a national education and civil rights organization with a presence in all fifty states. Newsweek named him one of a hundred people to watch in the new century. Jennings tours extensively and makes frequent media appearances as an advocate and spokesperson for LGBT youth. The author of One Teacher in Ten and Always My Child: A Parent's Guide to Understanding Your Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender or Questioning Son or Daughter, Jennings also wrote and produced the historical documentary Out of the Past, which won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for Best Documentary. Follow him on Twitter at @KJennings.