Role Models in the Classroom

You Can Be Teacher of the Year and Still Get Fired for Being Gay

I feel I’m way too young to say I have a place in history, but it is LGBT History Month and I am staking claim. In 2014 I was named Oregon’s Teacher of the Year. I was immensely proud of the fact that I was the first special education teacher to be given this prestigious honor. It was not lost on me that I would also be one of only a handful of gay teachers who had won the award. I knew from my own experience how few LGBT youth have role models in their lives. I looked forward to showing our LGBT youth a possible future. The word future is important there because of my past.  When I was 15 my best friend came out to me. He had been dating a girl and when they broke up he shared that he would never date women again. I thought he was alright but he wasn’t. I talk about possible futures because he saw no future. He put a shotgun in his mouth that weekend. I knew that an openly gay Teacher of the Year would send messages to young people like my friend. I wanted them to see a future where they could work, could be celebrated and could find love. My school district had a different version of my role as Teacher of the Year. I was ordered not to say I was gay, I was told I could not write or speak anything unless the district approved of my words in advance and I was told I would bring all personal mail from home for them to open and read. I was told if I said I was gay someone was going to shoot me in the head. That was the cloud I lived under during 2014—my “year of service.” I loved my job but I kept thinking of my friend who had killed himself. It was his face I saw and it haunted me to think there was another young person, somewhere, putting a bullet in a shotgun or sneaking off with a bottle of pills. In May of that year I was honored, along with the other 53 Teachers of the Year, at the White House. I stood a few feet behind President Obama as he spoke of the commitment teachers have to their students. His words hit me hard and it was like a ray of sunshine came through the clouds. My commitment had never been to my job, it had always been to the students. At the end of the ceremony the White House Press Corp began asking questions. I stood there, strength building in me as I thought of my friend and the horrifying suicide statistics for gay youth. I stepped up to the microphone and spoke out in support of LGBT youth and that as an openly gay teacher I was there to show those kids they had a future. My district saw it as an act of war and they went at me hard. When I requested to meet with a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club at the local high school about suicide prevention, I was told I could not go because “meeting with those students has no value to this district.” I took a personal day and went anyway. Not long after I was fired, but not before I took my place in LGBT history. I fought and got my job back. I filed state and federal complaints and I went to bat for those LGBT youth who had no champion. The superintendent was fired as was my supervisor. The head of special education was removed from her position and the head of HR was forced out of her job. There were other reprimands and within months of my firing an election removed several school board members. My district had sought to silence me. They had told me LGBT youth had no value but the message was clear. They also felt LGBT teachers had no value—even if they were the Teacher of the Year. They proved that when they fired me and dragged my name through the mud. But the lesson here was one about futures. Soon after my firing I attended another GSA meeting. After my speech a young woman came up to speak to me. She was shy and had a hard time making eye contact. But then I saw her stand up a little taller, she looked me in the eye and said, “I feel like what you did, you did for me.” And in her eyes I could see a future. It wasn’t a dark future filled with pain and self-loathing, but a future where she stood up straighter and she felt important. That moment made every moment of my struggle worthwhile. It’s the moment I feel like I earned my place in LGBT history.
Brett Bigham
Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is the creator of Ability Guidebooks, a series of support books for people with autism that give step-by-step directions how to ...

Join the Movement