Opinion: Fight effort to silence LGBTQ students and teachers

Retired Fulton teacher worries classrooms are becoming less tolerant and more hostile

In a guest column, retired Fulton County Schools teacher Randy Fair talks about what he considers a concerted effort to deny LGBTQ students and teachers equal rights.

Fair is author of the 2020 memoir “Southern. Gay. Teacher,” which focuses on his more than 40 years of experience, both as a teacher and student, in Southern school systems.

By Randy Fair

When I speak with other retired teachers, universally our hearts go out to current teachers working in what has to be the worst environment in the history of the profession. School systems are under a three-pronged assault from those opposed to scientific and intellectual advancement.

Two facets of this assault, the vitriol against mask mandates and the opposition to any discussions of the history of racism, have been well documented by the media. However, there is another equally pernicious onslaught that has often escaped notice. In school systems throughout the country, there is a concerted effort to deny LGBTQ students and teachers equal rights.

Many of these attacks go unnoticed by the larger community, but occasionally, some of them are brought to light. One of the most recent incidents took place at Neosho Junior High in Missouri. John Wallis was ordered by administrators to remove a Pride flag and sign that said, “In this classroom, EVERYONE is Welcome.” The 22-year-old Wallis agreed to remove the signs, but was still persecuted by administrators when he explained to students why the signs were removed. Ultimately, he resigned over the issue.

In another recent case, the Supreme Court of Virginia backed a gym teacher who refused to use the preferred pronouns of transgender students. In this case, the gym teacher’s defense relied on arguments of religious freedom and free speech rights.

These two cases demonstrate clearly a longstanding problem for LGBTQ people in the school system. Those opposed to LGBTQ rights are often supported based on their freedom of speech, but when LGBTQ students and teachers try to exert their right to speak up, they are more often than not silenced. In fact, politicians are promising to take this silencing to new levels when they say that they will eliminate the “indoctrination” of children by teachers.

Ironically, it was one of the founders that these politicians claim to love, Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for a “marketplace of ideas.” Schools are at their best when they provide the full range of opinion that Jefferson hoped for.

In my elementary school experience in Alabama in the 1960s, I was lucky enough to have one of these moments when I was enlightened by a diversity of opinion. One of my fourth grade teacher’s regular activities was to have us present a current event. After one of the students did his report on something Gov. George Wallace said that made national news, the teacher decided to give her opinion. I remember distinctly her comment that when our governor said things like that, it embarrassed her. She told us it seemed to her that the governor’s comments fed into the stereotypes people had about Alabamians.

In a community where I had never heard anyone say anything derogatory about Wallace, for the first time I was inspired to pay more attention to things the governor was saying. Even as a fourth grader, I didn’t automatically accept my teacher’s statement. Instead I did what any good teacher would want me to do, I began to think critically about the issue.

I hope I was able to do something similar for my students over my 31-year career. At Milton High School for many years, I shared a portable classroom with the legendary Fulton County Schools history teacher Ed Forte. Ed was as far to the right of the political spectrum as I was to the left. It was well-known that Ed was a former Marine, a devout Catholic and a Republican.

Far from being adversaries, Ed and I became great friends and colleagues. We ate lunch together each day and talked each morning before school. We shared most of the same students because I taught AP Language and Ed taught AP U.S. History. I think our students benefited from getting a full range of political views.

I have heard many teachers over the years proclaim proudly they always remain neutral in the classroom and the students never know anything about their political beliefs. This has always struck me as an odd position to take. It ignores the fact that everything we do in a classroom is fraught with politics.

From the choice of materials we use, the posters we place on the walls, the essay topics we assign, to the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning and the rules we establish for the students, we are constantly sending out both overt and tacit messages to the students.

On some level, most people recognize this fact. That’s why a small group of people is determined to make sure that only one side speaks in the classroom. There are countless examples of this attempt to silence. One of the most recent examples is the Davis School System in Utah that prohibited teachers from displaying LGBTQ Pride or Black Lives Matter flags in the classroom. The school system argues that it wants to remain neutral in the “culture war” topics.

Unfortunately, the neutrality schools hope for is an impossibility. As cultural theorist Henry Giroux, whose latest book is “Race, Politics, and Pandemic Pedagogy: Education in a Time of Crisis,” says, “The central questions for building a critical pedagogy are the questions of how we help students, particularly from the oppressed classes, recognize that the dominant school culture is not neutral and does not generally serve their needs. At the same time, we need to ask how it is that the dominant culture makes them, as students, feel powerless.”

Instead of avoiding the important topics of the day, we should be engaging students in discussions that will make them critical thinkers and lifelong learners.

The author of this guest column, Randy Fair, taught for more than 30 years in Fulton County Schools before retiring to Florida.