Step Out into the Light

By C. Scott Miller

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

Unclosetting yourself as an LGBTQ educator can unleash a tsunami of emotions. How will colleagues react? Students? Administrators? Parents? It can be downright frightening, overwhelming, and unpredictable. Maybe even rewarding.

One of the most liberating and memorable times in my career occurred at the 2007 NEA Representative Assembly in Philadelphia. It was there seated in the arena that I discovered other educators like me: gay. Coming from a large local like Santa Ana Educators Association, members knew for the most part who were LGBTQ. But it was not something we organized around. We were not a united voice.

In Philadelphia, I emerged from the shadows by accident. It happened when a fellow delegate’s name badge and ribbon bumped me on the head as he leaned over to speak to someone seated near me. I could not help but notice his badge: It was pink with “NEA-LGBTQ+ Caucus” highlighted on the ribbon. Instantly, tears welled up in my eyes. I was not alone.

The gentleman immediately apologized for brushing my head with his badge, but all I could say was: “Please, tell me about your pink ribbon.”

Making Connections

That was how I finally found “my people” and a greater voice within the NEA. I made it a point to attend every LGBTQ+ caucus meeting that I could. I soaked in the issues involving antigay violence, discrimination, job security, privacy and social justice concerns as they relate to the world of education. Before I knew it, I had created a healthy network of support. This boosted my confidence and self-esteem.

Little did I know at the time that my activist spirit would soon be unleashed. I returned home with a new-found courage. I started asking colleagues and community leaders how we can improve working and learning environments for LGBTQ+ students, members, and other educators. Most of my colleagues were supportive of me leading the charge. I didn’t dwell on those who weren’t.

While on this path to identify LGBTQ-friendly policies and practices, I found many helpful resources such as, GLSEN, Human Rights Campaign (and it’s Welcoming Schools Program), and the Teaching Tolerance’s Best Practices Guide.

Armed with the latest thinking on LGBTQ issues, I was no longer fearful or intimidated to celebrate my gay pride.

Turning Fear to Action

In 2009, I was named California Teachers Association’s liaison to Equality California, which placed me on the Board of EQCA – the largest statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization in the state.

During my 10-year tenure on the board, we have passed nearly 130 laws that protect all segments of the LGBTQ population. The Safe Schools Act had added real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity/expression to the protected classes within the state. This prompted us to work with state legislators on an audit of its effectiveness in our public schools.

The audit findings showed that implementation of these laws was inconsistent at best. This audit lead to building a coalition of LGBTQ educators and activists to create a comprehensive questionnaire that would be completed by school districts throughout the state.

On the Front Lines

In May, the coalition published our Equality California Safe and Inclusive Index. It gives the opportunity for school districts to self-report on LGBTQ training and cultural competency, suicide prevention, anti-bullying policies, transgender acceptance and accessibility, and other issues.

It is a tool for improving policy. But what I like most is that it can also help to begin conversations with district officials on methods to create safe and welcoming school environments.

I needed a tool like this before 2007 and the Philadelphia RA. But as a result of that accidental brush with a delegate’s pink badge, I took my place on the front lines of LGBTQ activism and have never looked back. And never will.

Even if it seems scary to take the first step, take it! As I learned, you will find that you are not alone. Best of all: That first step will make a world of difference for our LGBTQ+ students!

Scott Miller, a fifth grade teacher, is a NEA and California Teachers Association (CTA) Human Rights Cadre Trainer and serves as the treasurer of the NEA-LGBTQ+ Caucus and co-chair of CTA-LGBTQ+ Caucus. He also represents CTA on the board of Equality California.