I’ve been a teacher in my county for twenty-three years. I had a steady position that I enjoyed, and a program I had built over 15 years. I have been proud of this achievement.
This year I left teaching, suddenly, for good. Earlier than expected.
Relate: The teacher who created the first public school Gay-Straight Alliance retires
As everyone knows, one ends a long career for many reasons, and it is a major decision resulting in a major life change. But public teaching had become too toxic: the grotesque, steady, virulent stream of public rhetoric aimed at LGBTQ, disabled, Black, and brown people had overflowed into my own life.
Everyone has seen how Florida and Texas are trying to legislate LGBTQ people and those who love them into the closet. Virginia is doing it now too. The current times, the public and private discourse, and the atmosphere in schools, are the worst I have seen, except for 1974 when the Ku Klux Klan drove my then-school board out of town. I’ve seen a lot.
I’ve been a leader in Fairfax County Virginia and the DC Metro area in advocacy for LGBTQ issues and other marginalized folks for more than two decades. We’ve been through several waves of book-banning, anti-LGBTQ rallies, and large threatening crowds. Earlier in life, I was involved in what we called “reparative therapy” and “conversion ministries” for 15 years. I was a closeted queer student at Dartmouth when Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza led an outside newspaper about the college, with weekly attacks on queer and Black students and teachers. My teenage years were spent in Florida during the heyday of Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign.
Education for me now is worse than any of that. This is happening in a school system in Virginia in 2022, eight miles from the dome of the U.S. Capitol (which is not immune from assault either, we have seen). In Fairfax, a very blue, progressive, diverse suburban county, we thought we were immune to the extremism; we thought we were past that. We have two queer people on the board and two parents of queer children. Nondiscrimination policies, health benefits, and some support for LGBTQ students and staff have been in place for years.
But then the public screaming about pedophilia and rape started. Books were banned and restored, yet week after week, month after month, we continued to hear about the evils of homosexuality, how queer and allied teachers are groomers, how wealthy white children are the true victims of racism, and Black and brown students get special favors. There was a memorable moment when a virulent person told parents and their disabled children that they were going to hell because of the Pride shirts they were wearing.
The attacks accelerated with the talk of groomers, bathrooms, names, pronouns, queer rapists, abomination, predator, hell, sinner, demons—aimed at the school board and teachers, publicly and privately. We’re right next to the studios for Fox News, so the screamers trucked over the Potomac onto the Tucker Carlson show, and the show of my college classmate, Laura Ingraham. (Here’s a rundown of Ingraham’s recycling the same grotesque tactics for 40 years).
Parallel campaigns continued against the phantom issue of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Black History Month by the “give us back our slave-owner and war-criminal school names and monuments, dammit” group.
My rainbow sneakers were filmed and went viral on homophobic websites. An email to me about a rally was featured in The Daily Caller and The Daily Signal. Tweets about “OK, groomer” and “pornographer” and “predator” started coming my way.
But we could cover our heads and live through that, as we had before.
Alas, our school system as a whole and our leaders had retreated from supporting queer staff. We were a liability. In one school, an uncontroversial sign about Banned Book Week was attacked by a spam army; the system’s response was to write an “apology to the community” lamenting the librarians’ “unprofessionalism” and “poor judgment.” My objections to this apology (we have a queer staff and parents/guardians) were answered with “don’t poke the bear” and “we don’t want to provoke Laura Ingraham.”
That fear of being attacked, the impulse to answer with appeasement and a retreat from support for queer people, has gotten worse. The white cisgender/heterosexual allies of queer, Black, and brown people are afraid; it’s hard for them to be supportive as they have been and (I hope), will be again.
Alas, outside-funded dark money groups and political campaigns picked up the racist, homophobic, and transphobic themes because we were in the middle of a governor’s election. We thought, again, this would be over soon.
But it got worse. The elected governor had to reward those donors who had supported the shadow hate campaigns, so “inherently divisive concepts” were banned. The attacks on queer, Black, Asian, Muslim, Jewish, and disabled officials and teachers grew worse.
Then the governor signed a law restricting “explicit materials” in schools. How does Virginia define “explicit materials?” Buried deep in is a list that includes “homosexuality.” I was told, “Oh, Robert, don’t worry about this; it doesn’t mean your community.” Last week, two school boards in Central Virginia enacted racism-centered and anti-LGBTQ resolutions for materials, clothing, and words. Symbols, flags, and clothing that “took sides on issues that are controversial to a significant part of the American population” were added to the list. No more rainbow sneakers, no more Pride stickers, no more shirts for the Black Student Union or the Gender and Sexuality Alliance sponsors.
It was proposed that any books or lessons speaking of diversity, equity, or “controversial issues” be banned, or that the “opposing opinion” be given equal weight. The opposing opinion on the dignity and inclusion of LGBTQ people would be that queer people are predators and a threat to children. A “significant part of the American population” believes this, or at least would like us all to go back into the closet, and be denied marriage equality and employment rights. Legislatures in several states have denied or criminalized our health care. If a kid says they have two moms, maybe teachers could show a video of Maggie Gallagher railing against marriage equality in response.
When public attacks calling LGBTQ elected figures pedophiles and communists began happening even more at school board meetings, when leaders’ children were outed, the hate trickled down into my daily work. It was time to leave teaching. It was too dangerous personally. If paralyzed by fear, I was no good to my students, colleagues, and friends. I would cease being a plus in my teaching. I left my lifetime’s work and won’t go back.
I was able to swing that, financially. If I weren’t, would I have clung on until full retirement? No.
School employees both queer and not make clear that they are leaving in droves because of working conditions. The accelerating recent increase in extreme public hate aimed at LGBTQ people, from the local store up to the United States Senate, makes everyone unsafe and fearful.
People are wondering, “Who will stand up when I am being bullied?” It seems, given the response of half of public leaders to the murderous attack on the Black community in Buffalo, that the answer is, “no one.”
The country is now coping with horrific tragedies in Texas, and the ever-tepid response from political leaders—at least some of them. It is difficult for many educators, parents, guardians, and children to cope with the fallout of the attack on Robb Elementary in Uvalde. There are some important things to recall though, as some folks talk about mental health in terms of self-harm with firearms: LGBTQ children are at least half of the homeless youth in this country; LGBTQ students are often vulnerable because of trauma, lack of family support, or unanswered discrimination and harassment. CDC survey results tell us that about half of students with lower educational outcomes, at risk of homelessness and suicidal ideation or self-harm are LGBTQ. I think it is more.
So, can schools and politicians speak of mental health, social-emotional well-being, and school outcomes without discussing LGBTQ students? We do. My county does, all of the time. Add in additional discrimination and cultural conflict for many students through intersectionality and these troubling outcomes become overwhelming for many students who are both queer and marginalized in other ways.
Can we ignore LGBTQ students, staff, and families while we “fix” learning loss and mental health? No. Queer students are among the most vulnerable, and make up a large percentage of the students upon whom the impacts are greatest.
I feel that my school system doesn’t notice the huge impact on queer students. Indeed, it seems, in the face of the public attacks on teachers for being “groomers” and “teaching CRT,” many local political leaders have become more reluctant to speak in support of marginalized communities. I predict that this will add to the outflux of teachers, administrators, and support staff, and as a result of understaffed schools, families and students will suffer.
Appeasement by remaining silent will not work in this circumstance. We must demand that our leaders speak up for us.