LGBT Safe Schools

Part 1: Educational Employees Lead the Way toward Harassment-Free Schools

Early battles

“A teacher wakes up as a rock is thrown through her window. A note ‘Lezzie Bitch’ is left in her mailbox. The principal claims it is not a school matter, even though similar notes have been intercepted in her classroom.”

“A teacher pulls into the parking lot at school to see his name painted on the side of the building, calling him a ‘faggot.’”

“A teacher is denied bereavement leave to be at the side of his hospitalized partner.”

These tragic LGBT stories appeared in the Feb. 23, 1989, edition of Wisconsin Light. They were the impetus behind the formation of Madison-based Gay and Lesbian Educational Employees (GLEE). Sadly, the initial press account noted these were occurring in “a city with a stringent non-discrimination policy,” indeed one that had been in effect for fourteen years already.

By the time of the Wisconsin Light story’s publication, the group had been going since the spring of 1988, almost a year. The bylaws note it was established “to provide support to gay and lesbian educators.” Among their objectives were to ensure their own rights, lessen homophobia in school systems, and work for changes in curriculum and materials. They wanted “to enable all students to gain a realistic and positive concept of the lifestyles and the historic contribution of lesbian and gay people.”

Early on, the group sought allies, and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) was one of the first. While the particular principal noted above was not supportive, the assistant principal at the same school was a strong backer. She was Libby Burmaster, who would later become the Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The MTI Reporter published by Madison Teachers Inc. was also involved in the early days, announcing to its members how to contact the group. In an oral history, it was recalled that John Matthews, the director of MTI, was “very supportive” of the teachers’ effort. MTI also served as an early mail drop box for the group.

One of GLEE’s initial efforts sparked a minor controversy. On April 7, 1989, a memo with an attached article on homophobia went to all Madison Metropolitan School District Employees. Signed by Ruth Guidinas of the MMSD Human Relations Department, it was cosigned by Jack Siebert on behalf of GLEE and Jane LaFlash for PFLAG.  Then-Schools Superintendent James Travis had to respond when parents voiced concern over the memo and the story got into the hands of reporters in early June.

The Wisconsin State Journal published a front-page story headlined, “Does school’s memo push homosexuality?” Some self-identified Christian parents appeared at a school board meeting. The Rev. Richard Pritchard sent a mailing to 400 people of the group Citizens Concerned for Our Community. Pritchard himself told the school board the memo “openly supported and promoted the homosexual lifestyle as normal and acceptable.” Pritchard then asked the board to distribute his own fact sheet that called homosexual practices sinful, and that it was a myth that a gay lifestyle could be happy. Terry Cremin, a teacher and GLEE member, defended sending out the memo, pointing out neither racist nor homophobic comments were appropriate in schools.

Ruth Guidinas sent Travis a response memo on June 28, as she was retiring from 17 years in the District’s Human Relations Department. She noted the basic reason for the original memo was in response to “the harassment of gay and lesbian staff by other staff and by students, as well as the frequent use of homophobic put-downs and name calling by students.” Guidinas made clear the distinction between what she observed as the purported “alleged endorsement of homosexuality by the district” and homophobia as “unacceptable behavior.” In the press comments on distributing Pritchard’s supposed fact sheet, Guidinas said, “We don’t ask the Nazis to tell us about Jews.”

On August 2, 1989, Superintendent Travis correctly noted that signatures of non-MMSD persons should not be on district memos. He went on to forthrightly state the original “memo conforms with the District’s Affirmative Action Plan which states that: ‘Employees shall function in a harassment-free atmosphere.’” The Superintendent even noted that, while the Board of Education has a policy on controversial issues, “Teaching students not to engage in name calling in order to promote a harassment free environment is not a controversial issue.” Score a big plus for GLEE efforts.

Coming out of the classroom closet

“It’s not even ten o’clock yet and we have to get more chairs.” Thus modest expectations were swept aside in the fall of 1989 as GLEE launched their next major effort. In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC, the largest of the statewide teachers unions) held an annual conference in Madison for educators from around the state. GLEE had arranged a subgroup for Gay and Lesbian Educational Employees. It was not held on the County grounds with the other gatherings but at the not-too-distant Madison Franklin School. Organizers explicitly recognized some teachers would not be comfortable walking into a room with a big gay label.

The Milwaukee Sentinel covered the event under an article headlined “Homosexual Educators at WEAC Convention Cite Isolation, Fear” but agreed “not to use names or school districts of the participants unless specific permission was given.” Some noted that teaching “is not a safe place to be gay.” A lesbian educator noted, “It seems like every morning I cross that line from who I am to who I pretend to be.” The Sentinel story noted concerns beyond the employees. Comments like, “The students don’t have any role models,” and “As far as they’re concerned, homosexuality doesn’t exist or if it does, it’s something really awful.” Finally, “God, if someone had been there when I was 15, it would have made such a difference.”

The Capital Times of Madison also had a story, “Gay Teachers Hold Own Sessions.” Note how the editorially more friendly paper uses gay rather than homosexual. Despite this being 1989, seven years after the passage of the state’s non-discrimination law for employment on the basis of sexual orientation, “One teacher said he would fear for his job if he acted as a liaison between gay and lesbian students and places where they can get information.” After a presentation about a Madison-based LGBT teen group by the professional youth services organization PICADA, a teacher asked, “How do you get more of this in the school district just to prevent suicide of gay teens and offer support?”

The Wisconsin Light reported planners were “elated” with the subgroup. It also noted the isolation of lesbian and gay teachers from small towns. Dennis Bergren, from Cottage Grove, reported on attending “this affirming group.” He wrote, “These are committed teachers who care, who have been the objects of derision and prejudice in their own education and are concerned that their students do not suffer that same pain.”

It’s late already

GLEE members proved very effective as a support group in ending the isolation and bringing the homophobia in the schools to the fore. The group had a banner for GLEE with their name and carried it in Madison gay pride parades. Remembrance was “it took a lot of courage for me to march” where students and parents might see them. South Central Wisconsin’s LGBT philanthropy organization the New Harvest Foundation provided critical early financial support with small grants. A woman librarian helped to create a Lesbian and Gay bibliography for school use. The group held monthly meetings and had an annual picnic.

By 1994 the group had morphed into Gays, Lesbians and Allies for Diversity in Education, or GLADE. Tom Popp sat on a Madison Superintendent’s Advisory Committee as a representative of The United. Popp, advocating for gays and lesbians and citing the five point agenda of GLADE, urged that Madison schools needed to create a climate “in which all members of the school community are free from fear, violence and harassment.” Steve Morrison, the advisory council chairman, stated in response, “It’s late already.”

This is part one of a two-part series. Look for this piece to continue in the next issue.


 

Dick Wagner (rrdickwagner@gmail.com), openly gay former Dane County Board Chair and co-chair of Governor Earl’s Commission on Lesbian and Gay Issues, is now working on gay Wisconsin history and welcomes topics and sources.