I do not take my rights of free speech for granted. I realize, probably more than most, how dear those rights are and how desperate some are to steal them away. In 2014 I was named Oregon’s Teacher of the Year. Not only was I the first special education teacher to win this award, it also meant I became one of only a handful of openly gay educators to be recognized on the national level.
I thought this would be a chance to support LGBTQ kids in a unique way but my district had different ideas. I was ordered not to say I was gay in public, ordered not to meet with gay high school students because “meeting with those students has no value to the district” and I was ordered that all speech had to be approved in advance, all writing would be submitted to the district for approval and I must bring personal mail from home to be opened and read. I refused and I was bullied, harassed, blackmailed, fired and then dragged through the gutter by a district bent on destroying a gay teacher that dared to stand up to them.
On May 1, 2014 I was honored with 52 other Teachers of the Year at the Whitehouse by President Obama. I was under an order that if I said I was gay I would be fired. Following the ceremony the International Press Corps asked the teachers if they would like to make a statement. I stood there in despair. To say nothing meant i could keep my job. To stand up meant I was declaring war. To say nothing meant turning my back on LGBTQ youth. I stepped to the microphone and started swinging. I chose to go to war against a deep-pocketed district with no moral compass and a history of crushing anyone who even remotely stood up to them.
Instead of being crushed I fought like a bear. The Union charged in the fight behind me and outmaneuvered my district’s three sets of lawyers. When the district said I could not meet with the Gay Straight Alliance I took a personal day and went. When they told me I could not submit an essay to Kevin Jennings for his book “One In Ten Teachers in the New Millennium” I sent it anyway. I refused to submit and filed state and federal complaints.
And when I was put on leave and fired it became clear that everything was worth it.
You see, I had a reason for being out. When I was fifteen my best friend told me he was done with girls, knew they weren’t for him, went home, and killed himself. My best friend was so frightened to be gay that he thought a shotgun in his mouth was a better alternative. An openly gay Teacher of the Year would send a big message to young people like my friend. I knew I could save some lives. But only if I was out and my district was trying to stop that.
When I was put on leave my story went around the globe. And on a day when I should have been feeling pretty miserable I saw the Nigeria Times. In Nigeria they are executing gay people but on that day the Nigeria Times had a picture of my husband and I riding in the Rose Festival Parade—the first gay couple to do so. They also had a photo of us in suits at the Capitol Building following a meeting with Senator Merkley and Senator Wyden. It was miscaptioned as our wedding, but the message was clear to every gay person or their allies in Nigeria that day. There is reason to hope and a place where gay people are accepted and celebrated.
The story ran around Africa, Singapore, Europe, the US and was even picked up by Russian Radio. I say it was all worth it because how could one gay teacher ever, EVER hope to have such an impact? Every gay person who saw my story saw that someone was fighting really hard for gay youth. They saw, that as my district said “meeting with those students has no value to the district,” that I was making sure that those kids saw they were worth EVERYTHING. Even when the district fired the superintendent and offered me a settlement with a gag order, I told them they would never control a single world out of my mouth and fought on.
In my wake I left a fired superintendent, the head of HR and legal council forced out (“bought off” as a board member described it to me), the head of special education reprimanded and demoted, the head of my department reprimanded with hours cut, my supervisor fired and two more supervisors reprimanded and my district now has four new school board members since my firing. The state investigation showed substantial bullying, harassment and my firing violated state and federal labor laws. The district also attempted what I call blackmail but the real legal term is “coercion of a state employee” when they, in writing, told the union they would let me go to Washington DC to pick up a national teaching award if I took back my state and federal complaints against them.
And each step of the way a new friend stepped forward. The Bad Ass Teachers Association called my district en masse and stopped the board meeting where I was to be fired a second time. The same week I was fired the NEA LGBTQ Caucus gave me their “Teacher Role Model” award. Leaving my class broke my heart, these friends who stood behind me did a lot to heal that break.
I shake my head in wonder how in two years a man can go from a nobody teacher in a basement special ed classroom, to Teacher of the Year honored at the Whitehouse to being fired, unfired, dragged through the mud and a media firestorm only to come out of it only slightly bruised standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
This Friday I will be standing in the shadows of giants as I give a speech for the rights of LGBTQ youth and teachers at the Lincoln Memorial at the Save Our Schools Rally. I am humbled and honored to speak in such an honored place of this.
And as I stand on those hallowed steps where others have spoken of their dreams, I will be awed by the crowd and the place and the moment. And then I will step up to the microphone and do what I have been doing all along. I’m going to show LGBTQ youth that they need to hang in there and keep fighting. They are not alone! They have a future! They can be a teacher. They can be a Teacher of the Year or they can just be.
2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year
2015 NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence
2015 NEA Global Fellow
2015 NEA LGBTQ Caucus Teacher Role Model Award
2013 NASET Outstanding Special Education Teacher of the Year