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Support no certainty for gay teachers

Teacher John Andrews put it on the table at his Brookline High School job interview three years ago: He's gay.

"I wanted to make sure I came in without any surprises," said Andrews, who teaches 10th- and 12th-grade English. Ditto for Lexington High School guidance director Bob Quist, hired in 2000: "I made the conscious decision when I was hired: I was not going back into the closet."

While part of their decisions were personal, each teacher said he wanted to give kids a positive image of a gay person.

Nearly 10 years after Massachusetts added "sexual orientation" to student antidiscrimination protections, many districts actively support gay students. In some quarters, however, it is one thing to support gay-straight alliances, known as GSAs -- and quite another to encourage openly gay teachers.

As the installation of a gay bishop in New Hampshire draws protests, in some schools there remains a climate that keeps gay teachers in the closet.

Some of this is rooted in worry about objections from antigay groups.

Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute in Newton, said there is no place for talk of homosexuality in schools.

"Why should one impose what they do in their private lives onto students?" he said.

"Shouldn't we be spending our money on making sure they know American history rather than exploring sexuality?"

Crews said he's also concerned that middle and high school students are at a "vulnerable" age, and gay teachers may "try to encourage kids to explore homosexuality."

Crews said he doesn't believe it's possible to separate talk of homosexual sexual acts from one's sexual orientation.

This view, some believe, steers the debate away from issues of fairness and justice to discussions of people's intimate lives that would make anyone, gay or straight, uncomfortable in a public setting.

The fusion of these two matters into one has made support for gay teachers tricky.

At the state Department of Education, Sarah Slautterback, who oversees the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program -- a onetime national model whose funding has been virtually eliminated in the past 18 months -- said about two-thirds of the state's high schools have GSAs, but gay teachers in some districts are not comfortable coming out.

"I know faculty members who won't come out of the closet at all, others who are struggling to come out," said Slautterback. "I have had calls in the past week: `Can you work with my school so I can come out, so I can put a picture of my partner on my desk?' "

The sometimes subtle pressure to stay in the closet isn't always from straight educational leaders, said Laura Szalacha, assistant professor of education at Brown University who studied the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program. In one district she studied, gay administrators refused to be openly gay.

In the Boston Public Schools, Chandra Ortiz, a lesbian and coordinator of the district's safe schools initiative for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youth, said about 20 of the system's 5,000 teachers are openly gay -- which Ortiz said does not reflect true numbers of gay teachers. "There are a lot more who are not out," she said. Still, Ortiz sees more school officials tuning into issues of sexual orientation. "We react very quickly to racial slurs," said Ortiz, "but not around gay and lesbian issues. We are just beginning to do that."

Mostly, Ortiz sees raised awareness trickling down to elementary schools, where administrators and teachers increasingly want to respond when students use sexual epithets to pick on other students.

Jeff Perrotti and Kim Westheimer, coauthors of "When the Drama Club Is Not Enough" and former directors of the Safe Schools Program, believe that having more openly gay teachers will improve the safety and well-being of gay students -- and the school climate for all students.

And students sometimes have inspired teachers to come out, said Westheimer. "Many teachers say, `How can I be closeted when they came out?' "

Perrotti also has noted a key change: School administrators who no longer claim they don't have any gay or lesbian students. "Once you acknowledge that, you acknowledge they need to be paid attention to," he said.

In part, paying attention to gay students is a matter of physical safety, advocates say. The Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey reveals gay, lesbian, and bisexual students threatened, injured, and attempting suicide at rates many times that of other students. For example, about one-fourth of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students report being threatened or injured with a weapon at school in the past year, compared with 8 percent of other students, according to a 1999 report.

Schools must do more than prevent harm; they must teach. That means taking diversity seriously. "Students need to see their lives reflected in the curriculum and in their teachers," said Perrotti.

Paul Tyman, 17, an openly gay senior at Lexington High School, said having a seventh-grade teacher who was openly gay allowed him to see "that gay people are not in the shadows."

At St. John's Preparatory School in Danvers, a Catholic high school, headmaster Albert J. "Skip" Shannon has no openly gay faculty, but would support anyone who comes out.

"I know that we have faculty with different sexual orientation on our campus," he said. "If people find a comfortable and safe environment on our campus, regardless of their sexual orientation, then I think we are doing God's work."

Quist, the Lexington guidance director, said he was teased and called "queer Quist" or "Q.Q." as a junior high student in Worcester. Being an openly gay member of the school community is important, he believes, like the diversity a single mother might offer.

Andrews, too, said being openly gay matters, and each year has at least one student approach him to talk. But in class, it's only an aside, he says.

"This is just one aspect of me," Andrews said. Students "are here to learn about English."

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