Since the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that expanded the legal definition of marriage to include women marrying women and men marrying men, issues surrounding inclusion, social justice, and workplace rights have challenged the status quo in schools. Many LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) teachers are reluctant to open their closet doors. However, the social and cultural cost of the closet—a space we all participate in creating and maintaining—comes at a terrible price. The question facing school leaders now is this: How can principals optimize work and learning environments for LGBT teachers?

Currently, it is legal to discriminate in the workplace based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity in 29 states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Even in the states where legal protection against employment discrimination is afforded, LGBT teachers perceive that their right to be out in their day-to-day educational practice is severely limited. Just as teachers work to purposefully create positive learning environments in classrooms, principals—working with the school community—must create a plan that encourages acceptance.

I began my teaching career in south Texas. In my first year, I visited the AIDS Memorial Quilt exhibit and remember being stunned by the tributes to gay teachers. It challenged my thinking about my closeted status. The messages of love, affection, respect, and sympathy expressed on the AIDS quilts were in stark contrast to the expectation that I pass as heterosexual—a “don’t ask, don’t tell” workplace policy that persists in most schools. 

Although LGBT teachers often feel a responsibility to come out—for themselves and for their students—not everyone is suited or situated to be an agent of change. Coming out as an LGBT teacher or ally can be a professional gamble. Living in a conservative community or not knowing how colleagues will react may be a good reason to keep sexual preferences a secret. A mistake in judgment could find a teacher out of a job or in a miserable work environment. We more often settle into a prenegotiated workspace that, while not liberating, is accepted by all sides.

In or out of the closet, LGBT teachers pay a price. Twenty years of research on the physical and psychological tolls of minority status in this country confirm this. The anxiety imposed on persons when we create environments that make pretending the more viable option are real and measurable. At risk may be a teacher’s emotional and physical health and potentially the decision to leave teaching. If the school climate makes it difficult for LGBT teachers, we have to assume the impact on students is just as bad.

In my ninth grade English class, I taught students about social justice and the negative consequences of fear and inaction. Once, after a Holocaust unit, a student asked me his one lingering question: “Was it OK to discriminate against any group? Was it OK to be against gays?” He understood that Jews were now off-limits, and I suspect he sensed the irony—his lesbian teacher was still in the closet. If anti-Semitism was a thematic unit, why not homophobia? Why was his teacher in the closet? Was that legitimate?

Creating Inclusive Environments

Principals are at the heart of creating inclusive environments. A core responsibility of principals is to ensure that all teachers are supported, feel safe, and are able to be productive. Leadership takes the form of visible and vocal support of teachers, staff, parents, students, and community members as they do the actual work.

Commit to a campus culture that seeks to end homophobic bullying or crude comments, jokes, and innuendos directed toward anyone—in person or online. Just as you might denounce these actions by students, don’t ignore things spoken by teachers and staff.

Consider these steps to make your campus culture all-inclusive:

Revisit existing policies and ensure that they include sexual orientation and gender identity issues. Update policies to reflect the school’s desire to honor a person’s preferred pronoun and name, expand dress codes to accommodate gender identity, and identify possible restroom and locker room accommodations. If not there already, add LGBT issues into antibullying policies. Such policy modifications make a powerful statement of commitment.

Initiate the creation of a school diversity statement. A collaboratively written declaration provides evidence of your school’s commitment and encourages intellectual, academic, and social engagement across individual differences. Include the statement in school documents, public relations materials, and posters.

Bring in experts to address homophobia and its consequences. Invite LGBT community speakers, parents, and other guests to share personal and professional insights. Support the teacher who is being questioned by parents based on her/his orientation or identity.

Promote self-awareness as a way to build a culture of acceptance and support. By knowing our own feelings, motives, and desires, we better grasp the effects that personal characteristics and life experiences have on others. For those who are not quite ready to be in a gay/straight alliance, gaining more insight is especially important. Self-awareness takes practice. Role-playing can be a useful technique in experiencing what it’s like being an LGBT teacher. Take this scenario for example:

Teacher A says to Teacher B, “Teacher C is gay!” Teacher B replies, “What about that makes you so upset? Why is that a terrible thing to you?”

When debriefing, focus on identifying the problem, institutional or personal views, misconceptions, and possible responses.

Principals should remind teachers to include contributions of people who identify as LGBT in their curricula. These topics must be included in course content. Banned Books Week, Holocaust Remembrance Day, LGBT History Month, and Read Across America offer such opportunities.

Silence, along with “don’t ask, don’t tell” school environments, communicates loudly to teachers and students that “it’s OK to be against gays.” The likelihood of a positive work and learning experience is increased when we all—principals, teachers, staff, and students—stand together, with closet doors open, in support of difference in its many variations and in support of each other. 

Deb Martin is an associate professor of writing arts and provost fellow, academic affairs, at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ.