Over a 30-year career in Fulton County schools, Randy Fair witnessed a cultural revolution that enabled him to go from “being the gay teacher to being a teacher who happened to be gay.”
Fair chronicles those tumultuous decades in a new memoir “Southern. Gay. Teacher.” His book focuses on the changes he has seen in the schoolhouse, and his own evolution as a teacher.
Despite more embracing attitudes, Fair advises young LGBTQ teachers: “Proceed with caution because you still can be fired for this.”
In a phone interview from South Florida where the retired Fair now lives, he shared the first-week reactions to his book, several of which have been comments about how much more forward-thinking schools now are.
“People tell me they know a teacher who is openly gay and puts a picture of her partner at her desk,” said Fair. “And while I am really happy that is happening, it illustrates the fact to me that this woman is the exception, not the rule.”
While Fair documents the experiences of being a gay teacher in the South, he said, “I don’t think this is any different in a lot of places. It has to do with rural vs. urban. The City of Decatur Schools, even in the 80s and 90s, were so progressive and so great on these issues. But go somewhere in Alabama or Mississippi or Louisiana and have pictures of your partner, you are really running a risk.”
Fair knows well the strictures of small town Southern towns. He grew up in one where homosexuality was only referenced as something predatory and deviant. Yet, even in Weaver, Alabama, population 2,000, Fair found glimmers of hope.
There was the beautiful Connie Williams, his first teacher to talk matter-of-factly and positively of gay people, once telling her shocked high school students that her Auburn roommate was a lesbian, and, no, she wasn’t worried her roommate sneaked longing glances at her while she undressed.
Fair recalled his teacher’s eye-opening statement: “If she looked at me and thought I was beautiful, I would be just as happy as if a man looked at me and thought I was beautiful. I know who I am, and I am comfortable with my sexuality, so I am not concerned with anyone else’s.”
As Fair explains: “Here was a heterosexual adult willing to have this discussion. She had nothing to gain and, in fact, much to lose if parents had become angry about this kind of frank talk. Not only was she willing to have the conversation, she was unequivocal in her support of her gay former roommate. In a community that didn’t offer any support, every small moment was huge, and this was one of the biggest.”
His own quest for support led Fair to leave Alabama to teach in metro Atlanta, believing he’d find more acceptance and a fuller life here. And he did, fighting for LGBTQ rights, writing a column for Southern Voice and co-founding the Atlanta Chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Teachers Network.
Still, in his classroom, while not closeted, Fair was careful. Part of that, he said, came from his belief that it sometimes helps “to be a blank slate so students can write on you what they need. I think there is an initial time period where it is kind of nice for kids to form their opinion of you according to what they need rather than what you want to tell them.”
As an eighth grader, for example, Fair found solace in thinking perhaps his handsome and brilliant history teacher might be gay, an assumption he maintained until a childhood pal recently told him the man was straight, conservative and now a Republican legislator.
One powerful memory that Fair shares from his first years teaching in Georgia is about a senior who, out of the blue, at the end of the school year declared his hatred of "faggots" in class, repeating the epithet several days in a row. When the administration declined to punish the teen, Fair told the student, "You can just come in for detention with me.”
It was two weeks to graduation, so Fair didn't expect the young man to show up, but he did and told Fair the cause of his hateful comments. His father was gay and had left his mother for a man and now wanted to come to graduation. "It never would have dawned on me that here is a straight kid who desperately wants information on this topic. I never even considered there might be kids at school with LGBTQ parents. At that time, it was unheard of."
Fair assured him that his anger was understandable but asked him to consider what it was like for his father to be gay in the mid-1970s when the teen was born. "By the time he left, I could tell that, while I hadn’t solved his problem, he did at least get to talk about it with someone. This is something he wouldn’t have been able to tell anyone other than a gay man."
While students and parents could be homophobic, Fair said he encountered great support from parents at Milton and Centennial high schools in north Fulton. Most of his challenges in the early years came from administrators and colleagues, especially as he became more public as columnist for a gay publication and an activist for gay rights.
He credits legendary Milton High School English department head Judy Hammack for being his champion. "I don't think my career would have been possible without her willingness to say, 'I don't care what you think of him as a person. It's what he does as a teacher that matters.' Judy was so willing to go to bat for any teacher in her department. She would find the best thing about each of us and bring it out."
In his doctoral work at Georgia State, he met other mentors and champions, including noted academic Susan Talburt.
At 57, Fair could return to the classroom in Florida. But he says it's unlikely.
"I love teaching. I have a storage box of letters from kids saying, 'You changed my life.' 'You made such an impact on me.' But the exhaustion of it is just unbelievable. I don't think anybody understands what a teacher's life is like unless you actually lived it. I would bring AP essays home on weekends and spend hours on them so I could get them back to the kids on Monday."
One story Fair does not tell in the book. Atlanta drag queen Betty Jack DeVine posted a photo online she took with him decades ago at an Atlanta Pride Parade. Fair was shirtless as it was a searing June day.
Somehow, students unearthed the photo and, of course, were fascinated to discover their bibliophile teacher had a life outside of the classroom and sometimes sans shirt.
A teenage girl told Fair she even showed her mother the photo. "What did she say?" Fair asked. The young woman replied, "She said you looked like you'd be a lot of fun."
And the teen added, "I wish I had known this before because I thought all you did was stay home and read books."
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