More than a Law, Equality

By Frank Burger

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

After the Equality Act passed the House this May, I was excited. It reminded me of that sweet summer day in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the 14th Amendment requires all U.S. state laws to recognize same-sex marriages.

The justices ruled that section three of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” was unconstitutional and that the federal government cannot discriminate against married lesbian and gay couples for the purposes of determining federal benefits and protections. I’ll never forget that day: June 26. Love won the day.

Here we are again with the Equality Act. It’s now the Senate’s turn to act. Will they be as inspired as those justices to rule in favor of human rights and against bigotry? Or not. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel has said he has no plans to bring the Equality Act up to a vote. This is disheartening. Even worse, at least 13 Republican members would need to join the Democrats in support to avoid a filibuster. And that’s only if no Democrats defect.

The Equality Act is particularly important to educators and students nationwide, not just those who are LGBTQ+.  This legislation would provide the needed protections for all educators and union members nationwide in employment and housing.

As a gay man and educator, I’m ecstatic about the provisions in the bill protecting sexual preference and gender identity. According to the act, “discrimination can occur on the basis of the sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition of an individual, as well as because of sex-based stereotypes.” How can any legislator not know that each of these factors alone is a form of sex discrimination?

Living in Fear

I’m hoping for a vigorous debate in the Senate. One that will stir up the more than 200 civil rights organizations that have endorsed the bill, including NEA.

Ratification of the Equality Act would provide the means for educators to be able to report harassment and discrimination for being LGBTQ+. I know from experience that many educators live in fear each time they walk through the classroom door. It stems from a deep-seated anxiety from what students, administrators, and other educators might do to them if they knew “our secret.”

The Equality Act acknowledges that “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (referred to as “LGBTQ”) people commonly experience discrimination in securing access to public accommodations—including restaurants, senior centers, stores, places of or establishments that provide entertainment, health care facilities, shelters, government offices, youth service providers including adoption and foster care providers, and transportation.”

At school, forms of discrimination can include the exclusion and denial of entry to appropriate bathrooms and locker rooms. This type of discrimination prevents the full participation of LGBTQ people at school and in society.

For many students who identify as LGBTQ, school can be a very threatening place. Bullies taunt them while others cheer, sometimes out of their own fears or profound need to fit in.

Having LGBTQ role models in schools provides these students with someone to turn to and confide in.”

Having LGBTQ role models in schools provides these students with someone to turn to and confide in. The Equality Act would promote safer schools because it would allow educators who are LGBTQ to be their authentic selves and serve LGBTQ students who don’t’ always see themselves represented in the adult ranks at our nation’s schools.

Passage of the bill would allow teachers, education support professionals (ESPs), and administrators to speak up and come out of the proverbial closet to help students succeed.

Currently, 26 states have no specific protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, which means LGBTQ+ people can be fired, treated unfairly in schools, or barred from public services because of their identities. It also means they have little to no legal recourse.

I have hope for passage of the Equality Act even though President Trump needs to sign the bill before it can be enacted.

On the Front Line

My hopes are high because I’ve seen this before. In July 2013, I was in the middle of the NEA Representative Assembly in Atlanta, Ga. The new collective bargaining agreement for the Carman-Ainsworth Education Association (CAEA) was set to go into place.

As a gay teacher for Carman-Ainsworth Schools in Flint Township, Mich., I knew how vital the contract was to LGBTQ+ educators. The contract not only contained sound financial concessions, but it was also the first time LGBTQ+ educators in Carman-Ainsworth would have non-discrimination protections in the hiring process.

The timing was also critical. Just one-year prior, Republican legislators in Michigan had launched an all-out attack on educators taking away their right to collectively bargain over the evaluation process. As CAEA president, I made it a priority to assure that LGBTQ+ educators would not be targeted for living authentically. I did not want a faulty evaluation system to help certain school district administrators use anyone’s sexual orientation against them.

In many areas of the country, educators don’t have collective bargaining agreements or school board policies that protects them from discrimination. As educators entrusted with the care of our nation’s youth, we must rally our union forces, colleagues, friends and family to achieve full protections for LGBTQ+ people – and that includes advocating for the Equality Act until it becomes law.”

Today, I am in Year 22 of my career and living my life an open gay teacher. My involvement with CAEA, Michigan Education Association (MEA), and NEA has been very fulfilling. In addition to serving as a local president and MEA board and executive committee member, I have the privilege to be trainer with NEA’s National Training Program on Safety, Bias, and LGBTQ Issues. As co-chair of the NEA LGBTQ+ Caucus, I see the importance of passing human rights policies like the Equality Act.

In many areas of the country, educators don’t have collective bargaining agreements or school board policies that protects them from discrimination. As educators entrusted with the care of our nation’s youth, we must rally our union forces, colleagues, friends and family to achieve full protections for LGBTQ+ people – and that includes advocating for the Equality Act until it becomes law.