October is GLBT History Month.
There are many stories out there and a lot of history. Throughout October I will be including some of my own story mixed in with the political blogs.
This entry relates how the major part of my adventure in the Oklahoma City School District began, and I have included pictures of the GLBT History Month poster, now an unbelievable 18 years old, that played a major role.
Compiled in the last years of the last millennium, it is shorter than what would be listed today as more history has been made and more people have become active in the struggle for GLBT rights and closet doors have been removed more quickly and in greater numbers.
October being National Gay and Lesbian History Month, in 1999 I prepared a poster to hang on one of my classroom bulletin boards that consisted of the same four-hundred and fifty names of Gay people I had listed on a very large, oversized poster that had hung in my middle school classroom for two years. The poster listed various groups of people, from politicians, artists, and religious folk to sports and historical figures. It also contained people from many ethnic and racial groups. It was a very inclusive list that I simply hung on the first Monday in October, making no reference to it whatsoever; the words “Famous Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual People” being the only indication of what the list was.
I had made the poster while I was staying at the home of a Lesbian teacher with whom I had worked at the middle school, and who was beginning a relationship with another good friend of mine from the same school where we both worked. I had temporarily moved in with her after a particularly difficult break up with my significant other, and had helped her when she was taking certification classes for school administration by editing and correcting the grammar and spelling of the various reports she had had to write. For all intents and purposes we were like brother and sister. I had helped her handle the break-up of her most recent relationship, and was very supportive of the new one she was forming. I had no idea that once she became a substitute administrator at the high school, for the sake of moving up and keeping whatever position she would obtain, her attitude would turn completely negative toward things Gay related. As a matter of fact, she would eventually become the most anti-Gay administrator at the school when she became assistant principal and had a chance to become the principal.
Knowing that for many of the students, if not all, actually seeing such a list publicly displayed with no shame or embarrassment would in all probability be a new experience, I was prepared for whatever reaction they might have, hoping, of course, that it would not be too negative. I was quite pleased and proud of their reaction as it went from a small degree of shock and a little laughter the first day, to calling friends in between classes on the second day to see “The Poster”, and finally by the third day looking at it like any other piece of information that a teacher might hang in a classroom. They were mature about it for the most part.
There was one senior in my third hour class that I referred to as the “Rebel Without A Clue”. Somewhere along the line he had dropped out of school, moved to another state, held a job, and for whatever reason chose to return back home to finish his senior year. He only needed one final semester of credits to graduate and felt that because he had been in the real world, he was beyond the other seniors and my equal as an adult. He rebelled against anything and everything presented to the class without taking the time to assess it, never taking the time to see if he actually would have liked some of the things we did. He promoted his rebel image without restraint.
He was absolutely adored by another student in the class who was having some personal problems both at home and in school, and who apparently saw in his rebelliousness something to admire, with her adoration so intense he could do no wrong. She looked on him with puppy eyes, and if we watched a video she would make sure her hand fell close enough to him in order to lightly caress the back of his neck when the lights were The day came when he thought that my treatment of the class was demeaning. In reality, because he was often absent and constantly indiscriminately rebellious, he was unaware of those times when I was joking with the class, and the class was joking along with or back at me. Class to him was like returning to some show on cable after going through all the stations with the remote expecting to pick up the original show where you left off. Apparently he assumed the class froze while he was away from it, so long standing jokes or references to something that happened during another class escaped him. He did not seem to understand that occasional visits to class interfered with continuity when he stood up in class on the third day of the poster’s appearance in reaction to a joking remark I had made to another student, and gave a rather incoherent and totally out of touch speech condemning my negative attitude toward the members of his class and my obvious ignoring of his equal standing with me. As he stormed out of the room announcing he was going to report me to the assistant principal, his most adoring fan rose to join him in his walk out. Once he was gone, and the laughter of the other students subsided, we returned to what we had been doing. Even the students did not see his action as appropriate or even called for.
On their way to the office the “rebel” and his moll were met by another student who had only been in my class for two weeks, and had only attended twice, and the three continued on to find the right assistant principal to whom to report. At the time, the assistant principals were not the disciplinarians needed at a middle-class, “inner-city” high school. They each favored the students from their own ethnic groups, and students knew which was the best one to go to in order to get what was wanted, or avoid the discipline that was called for.
Toward the end of my last class on the day of the very mini-walk-out I received a note from the Dean of Instruction (an invented position without much of a job description which put the holder of the job at the mercy of those administrators with identifiable job descriptions) requesting that I come to his office before leaving for the day.
The three students had reported on me to an assistant principal. Two of them were concerned about what they considered my less than acceptable treatment of my senior class with the “Rebel Without a Clue” voicing the complaint while his adoring fan merely nodded in agreement. The third student, who had joined them in the hall and was not privy to what had happened in the classroom that or any other day, had chimed in that she was offended on religious grounds by my Homosexual Poster, but the other two had said that as they had Gay friends the poster did not bother them. The vice-principal they had gone to referred the matter to the Dean of Instruction as he was the one that was to evaluate my teaching performance, but the only complaint he was directed to address was the poster. The other complaint was never dealt with. It was simply ignored.
Since I had not only worked with the Dean at the middle school, but he was the one who had pursued my transfer to the high school, we were on friendly terms. He admitted he was aware that I had had a similar poster in my middle school classroom and was aware of my work with the district to include GLBT students in policies on bullying, harassment, and non-discrimination, but he had been told to deal with the complaint, and so he was doing just that.
I explained that October was Gay and Lesbian History Month; that it was important for the students to see during this month that there were many Gay people who had made major contributions to western civilization just as it was important for other groups during other designated months like Black History Month, or Hispanic Heritage Month to see what their people had contributed; and that Gay students see that there were actually positive role-models for them. My confidence was bolstered by my involvement on the district’s diversity committees and the committee chair‘s advice regarding the spirit of the policy as opposed actual language.
In spite of his acknowledging that these were lofty goals, his concern was that I could not justify the poster on the grounds of multiculturalism as the various cultures were not represented; only Gay people were. His argument smacked of the erroneous belief that “Gay” was a white man’s thing, and revealed that he had not bothered to actually read the list, or the names of Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Native-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans would have been noticed.
His suggestion for remedying the situation was for me to go out that night and expend my own time, energy, and funds on purchasing posters that represented all minority groups, something my poster already did. I asked if I would be required to do the same when I acknowledged the months set aside for other groups such as Black History Month, or Hispanic Heritage Month, and if he or the person who objected to the poster would be willing to give me the funds to oblige this suggestion. My poster, after all, was already inclusive, so this would be an extra, unnecessary expense. I also let him know I could not follow his suggestion because I was attending the “Stop the Hate Rally” that was taking place that evening at the Myriad Gardens in downtown Oklahoma City, the irony of which to me was just short of pointed.
He then suggested that in the future I seek permission from an administrator before posting anything that someone might consider controversial. As I did not see information natural to Gay people to be controversial, I did not see how I, or any teacher for that matter, could anticipate what an individual might perceive as, or choose to call, controversial.
As far as I was concerned, when that meeting ended he had done as he was directed, having spoken to me about the complaint, and I had justified why the poster should hang in spite of the single complaint lodged.
The following day before classes were to begin, the Dean of Instruction entered my room by the front door giving my room a quick survey before exiting out the back. Later that morning a student office aide delivered a note from the Dean of Instruction requesting that I report to his office before leaving school for the weekend, a meeting at which he expressed his disappointment at my not following his suggestion, and further suggesting that it might be a good idea to remove the poster by the beginning of the school day on
I gave the situation a lot of thought over the next two days, and concluded that to take down the poster would not only be a negative message to Gay students and their straight peers as well, but it would go against what I had been trying to do with the district and would legitimize the complaint of one student out of a student body of over 1400 students and a class load of well over 150. And, as I was following the spirit of the Diversity policy that the committee had been working on, the feelings of the members of that committee, and the explanation of the chair when asked what we should do in light of the absence of our final proposal and wording, I saw my actions as being supported by the district and its policies.
And so it was on that Monday morning as he once again passed through my room before classes began that I gave a letter to the Dean stating that I chose not follow his suggestion to remove the poster because it would not be in the best interest of the Gay Students or their peers; it contained people of all ethnic and racial groups; and that the student who allegedly complained was from the majority religion, race, and sexual orientation who had many outlets at her disposal including Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Bible study groups and a host of heterosexual related school sponsored activities. I went further to point out the uniqueness of the treatment of this poster as teachers did not have to have planned posters reviewed by administrators, and many classrooms featured posters not directly related to the curriculum. My poster served a valuable purpose.
A student office aide came to my room during the first class that morning to deliver a summons to the Dean of Instruction’s office. I replied with a quickly written note that explained in writing that I was leaving at noon to make sure I arrived on time for the funeral of a friend‘s mother, and, therefore, could not make the requested 1:00 p.m. meeting.
As I was dashing through the hall a little after noon, the dean met me and asked for a convenient time to meet. I suggested the next morning, but not too early as we would both probably want our morning coffee. We set the time of the meeting at 8:45 a.m., and off I ran.
After the funeral I returned home to find a message on my answering machine from the news department of a local T.V. station asking me to call the news director. Thinking they had reached me in error, and wanting to let them know that in case the story they were following was important, I returned the call and was asked for my reaction to the impending reprimand to be given to me at the meeting to take place at 8:45 the next morning. Obviously I could not give a reaction to the news of which I was not aware, and although I did verify to the news director that there was to be a meeting between the Dean of Instruction and myself in the morning, I could not confirm that I was getting a reprimand. Further, I was confused as to how she could possibly have known about it before me anyway.
It turned out that the parent of the student who complained about the poster had apparently called the news department after someone from the school had called him with the information about the purpose of the next morning’s meeting. I did not know how to handle this violation of my rights if it were true, and agreed to call the news director the next day with my reaction if I did get a reprimand, but only after I had time to deal with it. I then immediately called the local chapter of my union to ask advice.
I am convinced, although I cannot prove the suspicion, that the funeral interfered with the time-line that was to have had our meeting take place that afternoon before the parent of the student who complained was to be called as a way to pacify him. Apparently he had threatened some sort of protest in front of the school if the poster was not removed, and someone felt this could be avoided if the parent was kept informed about how I was going to be handled.
If we had had the meeting that afternoon, whoever called him could have reported a reprimand was given. As it was, he could only be told I was about to get one. Still, this was a personnel matter which should have been addressed with me before announcing it to the public.
For the rest of that evening there were quite a few phone calls made between me and the union, the union and the central administration building, and me and the head of the public relations department of the school district to get advice on the parameters I must follow with the press as an employee. I went to school headquarters to meet with the P.R. director who never returned to her office, and had to settle with contacting her at a child‘s birthday party by way of her emergency pager number, only to be told to avoid anything related to personnel matters.
To get away from the situation I attended a political affair at a club in the hotel in the Gay District where the president of the local American Federation of Teachers managed to trace me down to tell me that the deputy superintendent was asking me not to go to school in the morning to avoid any potential demonstration that my attendance might provoke, and to ask if I would mind going to my classroom to help remove objectionable material. Neither of us thought I would even consider that last request.
Apparently the principal feared that the parent had organized a picket line, and he wanted anything the parent might find objectionable removed from my classroom before school the next day so that if the parent somehow got to my classroom in the morning he would not see anything to which he could object. To this end, the principal had gone to my room that evening with the Dean and an assistant principal to remove anything Gay related, but found he had to contact the union president to see if he could get me to go to the classroom and help remove things. His major concern by the time the union president found me was a huge chain with rainbow colors on it that the student had included in those things that bothered her, having now expanded her complaint beyond the poster. The chain could not be found, and the principal feared that if the parent saw it in the morning there would be a scene. The fact that he was in the room and unable to see the chain should have been an indication of the extent to which the student had exaggerated her discomfort with those things in my room.
I refused to report to the school on the grounds that I would not be party to the removal of the “Gay things” and my expressed fear that to enter the school so far after hours could set me up for a charge of trespassing.
That night on the nine o’clock news there was a report on my poster featuring the father of the complaining student accusing me of “teaching homosexuality” when Bibles and prayers were banned from schools. The student also appeared in the reporter‘s video looking threatened and emotionally injured, expressing offense at this affront to her religion. My name was mentioned, and the parent reported that I was to receive a reprimand the following morning as proof that I was in the wrong.
The following afternoon I was contacted by the local station which had aired the report asking for my comment on the reprimand they thought I had received earlier in the day. I told the news director that I had been asked to take the day off, which would not count against my personal sick days, so I had had no meeting and had not received any reprimand yet. I agreed I would contact her if I got some direction on how to handle this as it was all new to me, and, therefore, a little unsettling. The news director then asked if I would speak to a reporter in general terms, but I asked for some time to consider this.
Hearing nothing from the district, and with support coming only from the Union and a few friends, I called the local station back a little later in the day agreeing to talk. Upon the arrival of the reporter and cameraman to my home, the reporter asked if she could see what the fuss was about, and I handed her a copy of the list of names I had hung on the bulletin board. She was markedly disappointed that it was merely a list with no pictures, saw no actual story in it, and then sat and read through the list occasionally expressing disbelief in a name or expressing satisfaction that someone she had suspected was indeed included.
We spoke for at least thirty minutes covering the importance of Gay and Lesbian History Month, why it should be treated just as all the other history months were, and why I thought the poster was a positive thing. As she was leaving and I thanked her for what appeared to me to be a positive interview, she told me that in all reality there was no story here. That night the station ran a little from the story of the night before, showed about thirty seconds of me showing the list to the reporter and explaining the impotence of acknowledging Gay History Month, and that was it.
Well, at least that was it for that episode, but it was the beginning of events that took the next 10 years to resolve to the benefit of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender students in the district.