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social sciences

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For obvious reasons, no official data has been compiled as to the number of gay and lesbian teachers in the United States, but in 1997 Karen Harbeck estimated that there were approximately 278,000 educators then employed in public schools in the United States. A profession dominated by women, teaching has especially attracted single women and nontraditional men, among whom have been a disproportionate number of gay men and lesbians.

From the beginning of public education in the United States, however, the presence of gay and lesbian teachers has been a volatile issue. Homosexual teachers have faced all manner of social pressures, from expectations that they hide their sexuality to open hostility and persecution.

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Although society's understanding of homosexuality has broadened in the years since the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, homosexual teachers are still battling characterizations of gay and lesbian teachers as "recruiters" and child molesters. Consequently, even today few homosexual teachers elect to disclose their sexual orientation in the workplace.

Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Teaching

In American society, teachers have traditionally played a crucial role in educating the young and transmitting culture, but the profession has all too frequently been accorded little respect. Not only have teachers received poor compensation, but they have also had to endure constant interference from community members and school authorities, who have not only monitored their professional activities but also their private lives.

Traditionally, American education has emphasized religious and moral development. In Colonial times, communities hired the most orthodox members of society to teach, including ministers. This practice soon met with objection. In 1701, a law was passed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibiting the employment of ministers as teachers. However, ministers were assigned supervisory positions, and teachers were expected to follow strict religious and moral codes.

Because teachers were poorly paid, it was difficult to attract the highly religious people the ministers and the communities desired; hence, it became necessary to regulate new teachers to ensure that they were qualified to teach and also adhered to the moral code. African Americans, new immigrants, and others who were different from the majority were usually not allowed to teach.

Throughout the eighteenth century, men performed the vast majority of teaching work. But by the early nineteenth century, teaching had become a predominantly female occupation. Women teachers, having few occupational opportunities, were more willing to accept the low wages teachers were paid than were men.

They were also more willing to follow the complicated rules of conduct developed by local authorities to police the private lives of school teachers. They were expected to remain unmarried as long as they were teaching, and they were terminated when they did marry.

By the mid-nineteenth century, with the advent of urbanization and industrialization, the regulation of teacher behavior by communities began to break down. Teachers were still expected to sign contracts with morality clauses, but they enjoyed much more freedom in their classrooms.

By 1900, women accounted for two-thirds of all teachers. As more and more women entered the teaching profession, teaching became feminized, and a new class of personnel evolved, administrators. Administrators were males who supervised all aspects of the educational institution, and the educational system became a mirror of the patriarchal model of the American family.

The administrators' work was considered manly, while the work of female teachers mirrored the mother's role in the family. These male administrators earned much larger salaries than did teachers, allowing them to support their families and removing the feminine stigma for males in the educational system.

However, male teachers (as opposed to administrators) began to be regarded as "effete" and therefore suspect, because nurturing and working with children was regarded as women's work. Moreover, as guardians of culture, male teachers--especially of subjects such as literature, history, art, and music--began to fit a newly emergent stereotype of the homosexual as an aesthete, more concerned with art and beauty than with everyday life.


By 1920, women accounted for 86% of all teachers. Of these, 91% were single, divorced, or widowed. However, soon the feminized profession experienced a backlash as critics began complaining that female teachers feminized boys and that "spinster" women were hardly good role models for girls.

Also, during the early twentieth century, sexologists' theories of sexuality began making their way into the American consciousness, and suspicions about single people's sexual behavior became prevalent. Older, single female teachers were sometimes suspected of being mannish women who corrupted children, and the celibacy of women who lived together in ""--formerly regarded as innocent--came under question.

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