Bruised Apples: Why LGBTQ Educators Need Allies, Too

By Kelly D. Holstine

This is part of NEA’s series Voices of Pride: The LGBTQ Experience in Schools 50 Years After Stonewall.

Kelly Holstin

Photo by Emma Freeman Photography

As a pre-service teacher, I was advised to stay in the closet until I received tenure. I rejected this advice because I was not sure how I would be able to build authentic and genuine connections with students if they did not really know who I was, how I could expect them to trust me if I lied to them, and how I would be a confident and happy human being if I was hiding such a big part of who I was.

And while I don’t regret this choice because of the ways it has given students the courage to be themselves, it has not always been easy.

The Power of Irate, Homophobic Parents

“You need to be stopped from spreading your lesbian agenda.” My student’s dad pounded his fist against the table next to me as he spewed his hatred. The principal watched this scene unravel and remained mute; he left it up to me to navigate this nightmare. I held it together during the meeting, but cried for hours afterward. And I felt completely alone.

This parent was part of an influential group who were working with the interim superintendent to try and get me fired. They were not pleased that I was an out, gender nonconforming, lesbian teacher. For example, when I called a parent to talk about how her son had thrown a garbage can across the room, she said, “you just don’t like him because you are a lesbian and you hate men.” And several parents expressed their fury that our senior English class was reading The Laramie Project (a text picked out by the English Department before I even arrived at the school). I encouraged them to read the play so that we could talk about it together, but they knew that it was about a gay man and immeditely decided that it was “inappropriate.” They were also upset that we watched Best in Show in our film unit because it included a lesbian character. More than one parent told me that if I continued to “expose” their students to LGBTQ humans, that their kids would “turn” gay and it would be all my fault.

Students are more successful when they can see themselves in both their schools and in their curriculum; and all students benefit when they can learn from a variety of experiences and perspectives.”

One of my priorities as a teacher has been to expose students to authors from diverse backgrounds. Students are more successful when they can see themselves in both their schools and in their curriculum; and all students benefit when they can learn from a variety of experiences and perspectives.

I was the first LGBTQ human that many of my students had ever met. And because I didn’t match the stereotypes that their parents had taught them about my community, students started to re-think their previously held assumptions about LGBTQ people. This terrified and upset their parents; especially since most of their beliefs were rooted in the version of Christian ideology that believes homosexuality is a sin. They worried that if their students developed close relationships with LGBTQ people that it would harm their souls.

The Politics Of Sports: How A Game Of Dodgeball Gave Me A Traumatic Brain Injury

Some of the students in my class were football players and their coach was also our dean. Every time I would engage in teaching conversations about players’ behavior or productivity, the coach would force the entire team to run extra laps (except for the students whose behavior was being questioned—they had to sit on the bleachers and watch). This made the entire team furious with me. And the rampant homophobia and genderphobia in our school (and in our community) did not help matters.

I was asked to participate in the teacher vs. student dodgeball game at a Homecoming Pepfest. The teachers were scheduled to play the football team since they won the student tournament the night before. I found out later that the coach/dean (who was also my colleague) had made a plan with his players to “show me a lesson” by “taking me out.” He started the game by announcing that “head shots were encouraged.” This sentiment inflamed the crowd. The football team was extra cautious with me at the beginning of the game. After they proceeded to eliminate the rest of the teachers, the coach kicked all of the remaining balls to his players, told them to cross the line in order to get closer to me, and gave them the go ahead to “fire.” I remember the look in their eyes. They were determined to please their coach and the entire school was cheering them on. I turned my head to protect my face, but was hit repeatedly in the back of my head by several hard balls (NOT soft Nerf balls). I saw the video (weeks later) and it was a brutal scene.

I spent the next several weeks in and out of emergency rooms and doctor’s offices. I was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury and was unable to work for weeks.

I struggled with reading, writing, and speaking. I was worried that I would never be able to teach again. I kept forgetting to eat. I got lost when walking my dog in my neighborhood and would break into tears at the grocery store because there were so many choices. Even though I have healed quite a bit, I still struggle with several frustrating side effects.

The students immediately reached out and apologized for what had happened. We had authentic and genuine conversations that further connected us.

The adults in the building did not handle the situation nearly as well (with the exception of a few supportive staff members). Administrators tried to downplay the incident because they were worried about a lawsuit, and the principal told the staff that I never should have agreed to play in the first place since I had experienced previous concussions.

My union, however, was extremely supportive and offered to help with whatever I needed. I chose not to sue the school because it didn’t seem worth it to me, and as a non-tenured teacher I thought it might hurt my chances of having my contract renewed. Plus my brain was already struggling enough just trying to function.

Kicked Out but Not Down

Eight months later and three days before the last day of school, I walked into the principal’s office to discuss our student leadership program (of which I was the advisor). He told me that they could not renew my non-tenured teaching contract and he started to cry. I stopped breathing. I was assured two months before that I was all set. He went on to explain something about not getting a last-minute grant, but you could tell that he didn’t believe the words that were coming out of his mouth. I found out later that the parent mob had finally convinced the interim superintendent to get rid of me. 

But they didn’t actually get what they wanted, because I didn’t stop being myself and I continued to advocate for students. After I left that school, I helped to design and open an Area Learning Center from the ground up – thus creating a safe haven for historically marginalized and oppressed kids. And I learned so much from my extraordinary students and from the experience of opening a school that I was named the 2019 Minnesota State Teacher of the Year.

We Need to Make It Better Now

LGBTQ teachers can not do it on their own. We need the help of our heterosexual and cisgender allies. It is not enough to tell kids that “it gets better.” We need to make it better now.

And as much as I was able to help heterosexual students dispel harmful stereotypes while supporting LGBTQ students in conservative, homophobic communities, it took a toll on me.

I wish I could say that I am the only teacher who has ever had to deal with discrimination in the halls of a school. But if you talk to almost any out LGBTQ teacher, they will have similar stories to share. We have had parents remove their students from our classes because of our sexual orientation and/or gender presentation. We have had to navigate offensive and hateful LGBTQ insults directed at us or near us. We have had to deal with stereotypes and prejudice. And we have had to cope with extreme feelings of isolation and fear.

It is not enough to tell kids that ‘it gets better.’ We need to make it better now.”

All of these reasons (and more) are why so many LGBTQ educators stay safely in the closet at work. Being out at school is a lot of extra work, and the stress just isn’t worth it to everyone.

If we (as the LGBTQ adults in the building) are suffering to this degree from the impact of prejudice, just imagine what our LGBTQ students have to face. And they don’t have the support systems or processing skills that we do, which is why the suicide rate is five times higher for LGBTQ students than for their heterosexual, cisgender peers (CDC, 2016). And I know I am not the only Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) or Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) advisor who has had to bury one of their students.

I keep hoping that more educators and students will feel safe and celebrated for being out about who they are. But maybe the fact that I am the first out LGBTQ teacher to be named Minnesota State Teacher of the Year means that things are starting to change. But it has come at a personal cost and I know that I am not alone. Even though the painful effects have been worth it, I completely understand why so many LGBTQ teachers have left the profession. Dealing with consistent discrimination can wear people down.

We are doing our LGBTQ students a disservice by not taking care of our LGBTQ educators. We need colleagues, principals, and superintendents to stand with us. And our students need role models who can make them feel like anything is possible.

I felt completely safe at that suburban school until my supportive superintendent left. LGBTQ educators are at greater risk when they do not have allies in administrative roles. And I was not the only one who was “punished” by homophobia, because my students suffered, too. They lost one of their advocates and champions. 

Gratitude and Hope

For every homophobic parent and teacher I have encountered, there have been triple the number of supportive staff, students, parents, and caregivers who have stood up for me. Those are the people who help me endure. I want them to know that they have made a huge difference not only in my life, but also in the lives of other LGBTQ staff members, and, most importantly, in the lives of our students.

Educators need to decide if they are going to spread hatred; remain silent; or become allies, advocates, or accomplices. I can tell you from experience that we need the latter if we have any hope of improving the experiences of the LGBTQ humans in our schools.

Kelly D. Holstine teaches English at Tokata Learning Center, an alternative high school, in Shakopee, Minn. Holstine is a member of Education Minnesota, a joint AFT/NEA affiliate.