Every week, I get a handful of newsletters from TFAnet, including one titled “This Week in National News and Events”. I’m not certain whether everyone gets this e-mail, or if it’s just those who opted in, but I like to believe it has a pretty wide readership. This particular newsletter typically contain links and brief descriptions on events ranging from info sessions about partner organizations, various interview prep sessions, application for various fellowships, etc. This week, there were four items on the agenda, and I was quite delighted and surprised to find that the first item on the newsletter was entitled: “Webinar: LGBTQ Issues and Creating a Safe Space for the Classroom”. TFA must have been really excited about hosting this webinar, since it was also the third and fourth item on the list (oops!). Here’s the blurb:
“As part of our Diversity programming this year, we are offering an introductory live webinar on LGBTQ issues and how to create a Safe Space for all students in the classroom. The webinar will be held on two separate dates: August 21st, 8:00 PM EST and August 29th, 8:00 PM EST.
All corps members are encouraged to attend (and staff are welcome too!). This webinar will provide practical examples to demonstrate how every teacher can create a safe and inclusive classroom. It will also include a panel discussion with current corps members and alumni who have worked to create inclusive learning environments in their classroom and in the broader school community.”
Now, it’s no secret that TFA values and celebrates diversity. As I was applying for the corps, however, it became apparent to me that TFA values a certain subset of diversity – racial and socioeconomic. This makes sense given that we teach in low-SES communities that are primarily african american and hispanic (gross generalization, I would know, I taught an 85% native hawaiian population after all). If you happen to have a physical or mental disability, belong to a religion that isn’t a subset of Christianity, identify as a gender that isn’t male or female, or (in my case) a sexual orientation that isn’t heterosexual, TFA certainly won’t discriminate against you, but the support system it has in place is, in my opinion, truly lacking.
This may come as a surprise to some of you reading this, but you can still be fired in 29 states just for being gay. And the states read like a who’s-who list of the states that TFA places in. The number of states you can be fired for being transgender is even higher. Every year, TFA places countless LGBT CMs in schools where, if they choose to come out of the closet (or are outed against their will), they can be fired without cause. By saying nothing and offering no support system, TFA is making each one of these people choose between dedicating themselves completely to closing the achievement gap or living an honest life. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell may no longer exist in the military, but it still exists in the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans and Atlanta Corps, just to name a few.
I’ve never been very forward about my sexual orientation, but after I came out sophomore year of college, I didn’t exactly make my sexual orientation a secret either. Until I joined the Corps, that is – I went back in the closet for the two years that I taught because I wanted to be a good steward for the organization and I didn’t want to risk being let go because of my sexual orientation. A 2009 Gallup Poll found that 28% of Americans believe LGBT people should not be allowed to teach children. That may not sound like a lot, but when you’re working in a state where you can be fired for being gay, it only takes one parent to end your teaching career. I wish I knew whether it was a good idea to come out to students/families or the community and I wish I knew whether it was a good idea to come out to my principal, but I had no way of knowing since TFA never chose to discuss the topic, leaving me to come to my own conclusions and make my own battle plan.
What pains me most about this is that TFA is one of the most progressive organizations I know of. I don’t know the exact statistics on what % of TFA is LGBT, but given the sheer volume of gay men I know who have worked on TFA staff at some point or another, I have no doubt that TFA’s LGBT ratio far exceeds the national average. TFA’s national team is littered with employees who were once teachers and identify as LGBT. Surely I’m not the only LGBT alum who has a bad taste in his mouth over the lack of guidance and support I received as I struggled with whether or not to come out to my students. Surely TFA gets this kind of feedback all the time. I’m not asking the organization to take a public stance on gay marriage, I just think it would be prudent to provide additional support to LGBT CMs, or at least let us know whether or not TFA would support us if we were to come out and be fired from our placement. To this day I still have no idea what TFA would do in such a scenario, and given the lack of direction, I’m kind of scared to find out.
All this said, seeing TFA publicize a webinar on “LGBTQ Issues and Creating a Safe Space for the Classroom” three times on its national newsletter does fill me with some hope. Specifically, the fact that this newsletter doesn’t just cater to LGBT teachers, but is open to all Corps Members and Staff lets me know that TFA at the very least acknowledges that LGBT bullying is a major national issue and that all CMs need to be educated on ways to combat bullying and provide support for LGBT students. It’s great to see TFA with its finger on the pulse and sensitive to LGBT issues, but given the context, I hope this one small step is just the beginning of a larger movement of support and acceptance for those who are LGBT and want to close the achievement gap.