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Teachers, public schools, & gay rights

Karen Graves is not only a professor of education, she’s also a historian of the discipline. So it’s not surprising that she was the 2011-12 president of the History of Education Society, and this month she gave the Presidential Address at the organization’s 52nd Annual Meeting in Seattle.

In her address, Graves took on two examples of discrimination and intimidation in the history of American public school education. First, the 1977 Anita Bryant “Save Our Children” campaign to repeal a county ordinance in Florida that prohibited discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens in employment, housing and public accommodations. And second, the Briggs Initiative in California, just a year later, that would have banned gay and lesbian teachers, as well as any teacher who publicly supported gay rights, from working in California public schools.

“Anita Bryant and John Briggs used the education of students as a rhetorical tool to target gay and lesbian teachers,” Graves says. “Their camp exploited teachers as a wedge in the battle over gay rights.”

Graves’ address was based on years of scholarly writing and research on the larger issue of discrimination on the basis of sexuality in education history. “Since the beginning of the American public school system, teachers have faced autonomy issues,” says Graves. In her book And They Were Wonderful Teachers: Florida’s Purge of Gay and Lesbian Teachers, she discusses another particularly dark moment in Florida’s history when LGBTQ teachers became the target of the state government.

In 1956, shortly after Brown v. Board of Education, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that state laws establishing separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional, a group of legislators organized the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, commonly called the Johns Committee. According to Graves, the Johns Committee was formed with the intent of stopping desegregation in the state.

But because of the strong organization of the NAACP, the Johns Committee became bogged down in court cases. No one really knows why, but the committee switched its focus from race to sexual orientation and began to target the LGBTQ community of teachers.

Between 1957 and 1963, more than 100 teachers were fired for being gay or lesbian. According to Graves, the committee acted on hearsay. “Committee investigators threatened to take the targeted teachers to court, but they couldn’t really, because they didn’t have much to stand on,” Graves says. And those who were questioned, regardless of their actual sexual orientation, lost their jobs.

It was an era when emotions were driven by the Cold War and the fear of the racialized, sexualized “other.” “That was really what was going on then,” Graves says. “And teachers didn’t have a strong history of resisting.”

The ease with which school officials dismissed teachers on the basis of sexual identity paralleled a longstanding lack of respect for teachers’ professional autonomy, Graves points out. “Certain aspects of the teaching profession—in particular, the feminization of the workforce—have distinguished it from other types of public employment, and historically, the public has taken great latitude regarding supervision of teachers’ lives in and outside the classroom.” Today, gay and lesbian teachers remain especially vulnerable in the 29 states without employment discrimination laws that guard against dismissal on the basis of sexual orientation.

In the past few Ohio General Assemblies, equal-employee legislation has been proposed and defeated. Similar legislation has not been approved in Florida, the state where the LGBTQ witch-hunt came to light most forcefully, Graves says.

“We are living right now in a time where K-12 teachers are being attacked from almost every angle,” says Graves, “by both major political parties.” Over the years, conditions that enable teachers to stand up for the rights of themselves and of their students have, generally, improved. But respect for the complexity of teachers’ work is key. “I think if public schools are going to be strong and remain strong, teachers need to exercise more autonomy,” Graves says. “In the best of worlds, that is difficult because we’re talking about a public school system that serves many constituents. That’s not an easy thing to navigate.”

Despite dark periods like the purges in Florida, the process of education has always given Graves hope. “We know that when teachers and students are given support and the resources they need, the results are much better,” Graves says. “It’s not like we don’t know what to do.”

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