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social sciences

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Current Laws

Although a majority of states do not prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, many cities and local governments have enacted ordinances to protect citizens from discrimination. Many school boards now also have specific regulations prohibiting discrimination against teachers on the basis of sexual orientation, and many union contracts also prohibit such discrimination. Moreover, even in areas where there are no policies specifically protecting gay and lesbian teachers from discrimination, it would now be difficult to dismiss tenured teachers simply on the basis of their homosexuality.

Still, in some areas of the country, particularly in socially conservative states or in areas where the religious right predominates, glbtq teachers suffer from acute anxieties about their job security.

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Even in states where employment rights are protected, glbtq teachers often feel constrained to "pass" as heterosexuals. Not only do they fail to reveal their sexual orientation, they also in effect retreat to the closet at work, fearful of being accused of "flaunting" their homosexuality.

While courts have generally given wide latitude to local school boards in determining the "moral fitness" of prospective teachers, they have recently been more likely to protect the due process rights of individuals, especially those of tenured teachers, from arbitrary employment decisions. (Of course, it needs to be emphasized that employment rights of teachers in private or parochial schools are much more limited than they are in public schools.)

Crucial to the improved working conditions of glbtq teachers has been the support of the large teachers' unions, educational organizations, and other lobbying groups.

Unions, Teacher Organizations, and Lobbying Groups

As early as the Morrison case in 1964, lobbying groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Education Association, Gay Rights Advocates, and the National Gay Task Force joined with individual teachers to fight employment discrimination.

The first gay and lesbian educators' protest against discrimination occurred in New York City, where demonstrators picketed the Board of Education in 1971.

In 1970, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) became the first major union to denounce discrimination against gay men and lesbians, and its California affiliate, the California Federation of Teachers, was one of the first unions to support glbtq teachers, actively participating in the campaign against the Briggs Initiative.

In 1974, the AFT's national rival, the National Education Association (NEA) included sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination policy.

Established in 1857, the NEA is the largest teachers union in the United States with 3.2 million members. Despite its early inclusion of sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination policies, its support for gay and lesbian teachers was initially ambivalent at best. In 1981, then-president William H. McGuire claimed that the NEA was determined to challenge discrimination against teachers, but that it would not characterize its perspective as "pro-gay."

No formal structure within the NEA existed for assisting gay and lesbian teachers until 1987 when the newly formed Gay and Lesbian Caucus (GLC; now the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus) brought a motion to the floor of the annual convention supporting the national march on Washington. In 1988 the GLC sponsored resolutions supporting equal opportunity for every man, woman, and child involved in public education regardless of sexual orientation. The full membership supported the resolutions at the annual convention that year.

By 1991, the GLC had developed a two-and-a-half day training workshop called "Affording Equal Opportunity to Gay and Lesbian Students through Teaching and Counseling." These workshops, now entitled "safe schools for all students and employees," are now offered in Washington to interested participants from across the nation. Carol Watchler, GLC's first chairperson, says the workshops draw thirty to sixty teachers who want to make their schools positive places for everyone.

The AFT was established in 1916 and currently has 1.4 million members. The AFT also has a national Gay and Lesbian Caucus founded by Dr. Paul Thomas. Like the NEA, the AFT focuses on traditional teacher concerns (contracts, benefits, disciplinary hearings) and on the larger school community (making buildings safe and comfortable).

Unlike the NEA, however, the AFT, according to Dr. Thomas, shies away from dealing with issues of discrimination. Nevertheless, the AFT has sent Dr. Thomas and three other caucus members around the country to conduct conferences and workshops on glbtq issues.

The Gay Teachers Association formed in 1974. After approaching the representative to the local AFT unit for New York City and the president of the national AFT, and being told that neither wanted their organizations to take a public position on the rights of gay and lesbian teachers, the GTA placed an ad in the Village Voice announcing a meeting of gay and lesbian teachers in New York City. Over fifty people showed up.

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