Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Next Frontier? Queer Teachers in K-12

We have made progress in queer rights over the course of history, but we still have a long way to go. For instance, it's still difficult in many places to be out as a K-12 teacher. There is a lot we can learn from history to help explain why this is such an enormous hurdle. Before we dive into it, I want to note (again) that progress is not inevitable. Queer spaces always have to be contested, and even though 53% of Americans are in support of gay marriage doesn't mean that the 20-40% of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ are good to go. Right? Anyway.

As we know, teaching became more feminized in the common school movement. (I'd recommend reading that post and this one if you haven't before, because it's helpful background information, I think.) It also became explicitly tied to values, in that education was meant to instill the values in children that would make them good republican citizens. And good republican citizens, apparently, don't rock the boat as far as gender goes.

We don't have a lot of good data on LGBTQ teachers in the 19th century, but there have always been queer people - although queer liberation movements only became even minimally potent in the post-WWII era, and did not become a mass movement until the 1960s.

The sexual psychopath laws of the 1940s-1960s came out of the medicalization of homosexuality, and further limited the freedom of gays and lesbians. A pervasive hostility, expressed through religion, law, and science, kept homosexuality submerged and constrained queer people from openly acknowledging their presence in society. This made it more difficult to come out and find communities, so that when LGBTQ people were harassed, they could not rely on community outcry to provide support or help prevent future occurrences.

The 1950s were especially difficult for LGBTQ people, including teachers. A rising tide of anti-communism turned on gays and lesbians, as the danger posed by "sexual perverts" became a keystone of right-wing partisan rhetoric. Joseph McCarthy latched onto the idea, and other anticommunist crusaders also thought of LGBTQs as just as dangerous as communists.

In Florida, the 1950s and 1960s were especially hard on queer teachers, thanks to the Johns Committee, which I've already quickly explained here. That book whose cover is pictured above is about this, and you should definitely read it if this is of interest to you. Anyway, the Johns Committee was a witch hunt meant to keep queer people out of schools, operating under the old "you can obviously tell who's gay and they are sneaking under the radar ready to recruit your kids" paradox. Anita Bryant used the same thing in 1977 with the Save Our Children campaign, and we're seeing it again now: We're in yer schools, indoctrinatin' yer youth.

But we live in The Future. We can use our phones to find a nearby vegan restaurant and then call it to see if it can deal with gluten-free while in a strange random city. We have Derby Earth! So teachers can totes be out and queer and have no problems, right?

Of course not. Because I always worry that long posts will make Kyrie sad, and because there are dissertations that could be written on this issue and I have to figure out how to tackle it, the deal on the ground now is gonna have to be Part Two. Have something to say that you want included? Holla at me. Everyone else, stay tuned.


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  2. I realize you have good intentions here, Steve, but when I talk about straight privilege, this is exactly what I mean. Please check out the comments policy and consider whether you are speaking from a place of privilege and a fundamental misunderstanding of the marginalized community you are speaking about.

    When you wear your wedding ring to class, you are making a statement about your personal life. It is ridiculous. People don't need to talk about their personal lives to read "gender non-conforming" to people, and sometimes, that's all it takes. We need better protections. I am not interested in catering to bigots.

    Like. I. Been. Saying.