One Teacher in Ten Thousand: Out in Kentucky

Originally published in One Teacher in Ten, edited by Kevin Jennings, Boston:  Alyson Press, 1994.

Tony Prince

I was never really “in the closet” at school.

No, that comment reeks of self-denial.  It carries the echoes of those thousands of gay teachers who say, “I’m not closeted.  It just never comes up.” Yeah, right. Never. Never ever.

In truth, I guess I was closeted, at least for the first month of my employment.  But I was closeted with my hand on the doorknob, just waiting for the appropriate opportunity to fling that sucker open.  That chance came at the end of October 1992, one month into my employment. I was discussing the upcoming presidential elections with one of my freshman classes.  I was gearing the class around issues the students felt were important. One of these issues was racism. The talk soon led to interracial dating. One student, an often angry young black girl, asked if I could see myself dating a black woman.  

“Here we go,” I thought, but I said, “Well, that’s a really complicated question to ask me.”  

“No, it’s not complicated at all,” she replied, somewhat scornfully.  

I had always had a very good relationship with the black kids in my classes.  I think it stemmed from my respect for their anger and their right to it. However, because of my hesitation in answering this question, I felt I was losing them.  They were deciding I was just as racist as they perceived some of their other teachers as being.

After a moment, I spoke.  “Well, the answer is no. I can’t see myself dating a black woman.  But I don’t date women.”

There was dead silence in the room (probably for the first time all year), followed by a whoosh of energy.  Two boys leaped up to leave the room. Though my heart was pounding, I smiled and laughed and asked them to sit back down, which they immediately did, so that we could talk about it.  They knew I was being honest with them in a way few people are, and I’m sure they were dying to know what in the world I’d say next.

The students proceeded to ask me a few questions, some of them silly, but all of them sincere.  The first one was a very telling one: “Does your mother know?” “Yes,” I responded, and went on to tell of my mother’s initial denial and current wholehearted support.  I kept answering their questions in a fog of trepidation, trying to sound calm and reasonable, while at the same time trying to hide my wet and shaking hands in my coat pockets.  

The bell soon rang and that (for me) historic class was over.  As I was packing up my belongings to move on to lunch duty (I was a “floating” teacher at that time, with no classroom of my own), a young white boy approached me.  On the previous day, this boy had loaned a pen to another classmate, a black male, who refused to give it back to him because he felt he was entitled to keep it as a small recompense of “hundreds of years of oppression.”  Obviously, I could not argue over the issue of racial oppression, but I did take a few moments with him to discuss the concept of focusing and directing one’s legitimate anger,. The pen was returned, but the young man who had lent it was still extremely upset and had begun to cry.  It turned out that the pen had been a gift from him to his grandfather, who had returned it to him while dying.

It is not an easy thing to cry in front of your classmates over a pen when you are a fourteen-year-old boy.  It reminded me of a time when I was that age and a gym teacher yelled in my face so angrily that I wet my pants a little bit.  I don’t think I’d ever felt so abused and humiliated as I did that day. It was with this incident in mind that I asked this young man if he needed to stay in the room for a few minutes before going to lunch.  He said he did and continued to cry. Knowing that relieving human suffering is more important than fear, I sat next to him and held him as he wept. I had met his parents at an open house and knew that, although they were kind and loving people, they were also fundamentalist Christians who would probably not relish the image of their child sobbing in the arms of a gay man.  I also knew that, at this moment, tenderness was the only moral response possible.

I had no idea what this young man’s response would be when he approached me the next day after my self-outing.  I was relieved and moved when he simply but strongly shook my hand and said, “I think you’re a very brave man, Mr. Prince.”  That day, it was my turn to weep before going to lunch. The only difference was that I knew I was on my own, and that I could not count on someone more powerful to support me in my time of need.

When I, at last, went to my lunch duty, I had images in my mind of food flying toward me whenever I turned my back, thrown by homophobic kids proving their “normality.”  To my surprise, it turned out to be a day like any other, without incident.

The next day, word began to circulate a bit more and I began to get some student feedback.  There was no hostility at all. Frequently, a kid I had never seen before in my life would approach me and say something like “Mr. Prince, I just heard something and I just wanted to ask you — are you gay?”  I would just look back at each student with a calmness that was actually slowly becoming genuine and blandly say, “Yeah.” The student would then say something equally bland like, “Oh, okay, that’s cool. I just wanted to know,” and then go on about his or her way.  My junior and senior classes responded by politely not mentioning that they had heard anything about it. No one requested a transfer to another English class. In fact, students continued to request transfers into my classes.  The administration did not respond to any of this at this point.  I was living in a Twilight Zone of nonplussed acceptance . . . but not for long. . .

*****

Courtesy of Washington Post

With the coming of winter came the frost insurgence of homophobia.  In the fall of 1992, another local high school invited volunteers from the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville organization which lobbies for local gay rights legislation, to speak as part of a social studies unit.  This inspired the wrath of a few self-styled “community leaders,” despite the absence of parental complaints. Our conservative superintendent then suggested an elaborate “controversial speakers” policy clearly intended to intimidate teachers, unveiling it at a February countywide principal’s meeting.  Before the next school day, my principal called me at home with a bit of homophobic intimidation of her own. Since this meeting, she had suddenly decided that my mentioning the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug in The Color Purple (a lesson she had observed me teaching) was “not appropriate” and in some undefined way not in accordance with the Jefferson County Public Schools curriculum.  She further stated that I was not to consider students “captive audiences” for my own “personal agenda.” I was both insulted and offended and began to realize how much the school system wanted to keep gay people literally invisible.  Unfortunately, this was only the beginning.

*****

With the arrival of spring came the realization that I really wanted to attend the March on Washington in April.  In fact, I was desperate to go. I was doing so much fighting alone that I longed for the comfort of having genuine comrades surrounding me.  I was surprised and moved when my best friend at Waggener, a straight physics teacher, and his wife, a math teacher at another local high school, said they wanted to go with me to show their support.  We bought tickets to ride on the bus chartered by the University of Louisville gay students group and were all set to go.

Since the trip required that we each take two days off from school, we decided to tell our students where we were going and when we’d be back.  The school’s administrators could say little about these requests, as they were contractually agreed-upon “personal days.” The students responded to the news with little surprise but were quite interested in the march.  Some were curious as to why straight people would want to go to a gay march. My friend patiently explained his and his wife’s love for me and their firm commitment to all areas of civil rights. One straight female student said she wished she could go because she knew there’d be a lot of “really cool people” there.  (I’m constantly amazed at the leap I see us making, from social pariahs to “really cool people” in the eyes of many young people.)

When we returned to school, wearing our t-shirts and buttons, several students informed us that they and their parents had watched the rally on C-SPAN to see if they could spot us and found themselves getting caught up in the event itself.  The two most common questions they asked were “Did you have a good time?” and “Did you meet RuPaul?” The answers were an emphatic “Yes! To the former and an unfortunate “No” to the latter.

Superior even to the joy of the march itself was the feeling of being welcomed home by my students and fellow faculty members.  We received nothing but warmth and acceptance. I felt like I was living in a wonderful dream world of love and openness. It was a wonderful preview of the world that is within our grasp if we but reach for it with our arms wide and trusting, unafraid of the chasms which may exist beneath our dancing feet.  

*****

About three weeks later, on May 19, 1993, I was informed by my principal that she was implementing “the significant deficiency process” with me.   This is a serious and threatening evaluative procedure that can result in dismissal. She mentioned to me that one of her reasons for instigating this process was that she had observed me showing cartoons to my class.  The “cartoons” she mentioned was a video of Animal Farm, which I was showing as a review of the book, which we had just finished reading.  In the official deficiency notice, I was no longer criticized for showing “cartoons” but because “the audio was high” and, according to her, six students had their heads down.  The principal, at a later meeting arranged by my union with the assistant superintendent of schools, elevated this figure to “over half of the class.” I was also again criticized for not sticking to the JCPS curriculum, although no specifics were given.  As part of the procedure, I was to be assigned two people from the school system to “visit” and “assist” me.

The most interesting and significant aspect of this procedure was the student response to it.  Since I knew from the start that I was not “deficient” as a teacher, I felt no shame about the process and had no qualms about talking about it with faculty, students, parents, or anyone else interested in it.  Some people prefer not to work in the light of day and so my principal issued me a gag order that forbade me from sharing information about the procedure with “students, parents, or anyone else who might use it to disrupt the school or the educational process.”  I was shocked that she felt she had the authority to take away my constitutional right of free speech in my home, or in the homes of my students and their parents, with a mere declaration.

The gag rule was imposed because, after hearing about my “deficiency,” students began to circulate petitions and wear pink triangles as a sign of support.  Needless to say, the administration was disturbed, responding not only with the gag rule but also with an unwritten policy that students could not give out pink triangles unless someone specifically asked for one.  For me, the most moving moment of all was when I walked into my department chair’s room to ask for some supplies and found that he had attached a large pink triangle to his shirt. I knew then that he would support me publicly, not just whisper private encouragement while maintaining public distance, as many others had done.  

The controversy climaxed at the end of May, at an academic awards banquet.  Much to everyone’s surprise (including mine), over a dozen of the award-winning students, including the school’s valedictorian, attended the semi-formal banquet wearing large pink triangles.  There they sat, with their parents, wearing these ostentatious signs of support! I felt equal parts embarrassment and pride as each one rose to their feet to accept their awards from the principal.  My sense of unreality was almost palpable. They had nothing to gain personally from doing this. It was done out of a sense of justice. I’d never felt a greater sense of comfort than I did on that night.  I could see and feel the power of love turning the tide of fear and secrecy.

*****

My first “significant deficiency” visit came on the last day of classes in June.  I had not received notification of this impending visit in time to tell my students that an observer would be present.  I decided to make no special plans but simply to help them finish up the resumes they had been working on for the past couple of days.  Nevertheless, the observer reported that she “enjoyed the class” and had no criticisms of my planning or teaching.

At the beginning of the next school year, in September of 1993, a meeting with an assistant   was arranged through the teachers union in order to protest my gag order. The assistant superintendent apparently agreed with me about the inappropriate, and possibly illegal, nature of this order, as he not only recommended that it be rescinded but in fact also told me that I could “burn it.”

As the fall term wore on, despite the fact that I did not change my teaching style and explored a wide range of social issues in my classes (including gay issues, when appropriate), my observers continued to report that they could find nothing in my teaching which constituted a “significant deficiency.”  On the contrary, they were enthusiastically supportive of my high expectations for students as well as the caring environment I had created in my classroom. Consequently, the “deficiency” was withdrawn by my principal on October 13, 1993.

*****

Throughout the spring of 1993, I had also been meeting with several other gay teachers (none of them out) about the possibility of forming a gay and lesbian teachers’ caucus through our union.  Much to our surprise and relief, union officials were extremely supportive, consistently going above and beyond the call of duty to assist us in any way that they could. The union’s board of directors unanimously approved our caucus in June 1993.  After years of being outsiders, we have now carved out a place for ourselves within this mainstream organization. Unfortunately, as of this writing in February 1994, I am still the only out teacher in Kentucky and, as such, continue to be subjected to much scrutiny.

I feel often as if I am working beneath a microscope.  For example, a parent recently complained about my loaning of Deborah Hautzig’s Hey, Dollface, a teenage lesbian novel recommended by the National Council of Teachers of English, to a student to read for her response journal.  I had informed parents through a letter sent home at the year’s outset (and distributed again at the open house) that students could read any book they wished for their response journals and that parents should communicate with their children about what they were reading.  I personally would in no way dictate or censor their selections. This parent, however, was not satisfied with merely taking the book away from her daughter but insisted that I not loan her “such books” again in the future. She insisted the books with gay characters not be available in my classroom at all.  Although gay people are rarely mentioned in my class, any inclusion at all seemed to be an inordinate emphasis in the mind of this woman. It seemed unimportant to her that no student, not even her daughter, had ever complained of this. The fact is that breaking the conspiracy of silence at all induces panic in some parents and administrators.  My principal said that “simply informing parents prior to giving such a book (one which may be perceived as controversial by parents) would alleviate any problems that might arise.” However, she refused to state which issues she would consider necessitating such notification and which issues she would not.

So much of the oppression we face as gay educators stems from these kinds of vague, euphemistic policies that try to intimidate us into self-censorship.  Of course I realize that, to my principal and other like-minded people, controversial equals gay. They’re not talking about books in which someone uses a handgun or gets the death penalty when they say “controversial.” They’re talking about books in which someone is gay.  But if they really want to ban all books with gay characters from public schools, they need to accept the responsibility for their actions honestly and openly, not by relying on teachers to give in to vague and cowardly directives that rely on internalized homophobia for their successful implementation.  

When, in the later eighties, I decided to go back to graduate school to become a teacher, gay issues were not paramount in my mind, nor do I choose them to be now.  My openness has simply swept me up in the current of the times. There are my other equally important issues for progressive educators to address: de-tracking, nonpunitive discipline, multicultural acceptance (not tolerance), and many others.  However, those issues, while far from totally accepted, have made great inroads in our schools and now have powerful, high-profile advocates.  Few people are willing to speak up yet for gay students in the same manner. Day after day, in my school and others, I see kids with little official power or influence standing up for equal rights for gay people, while gay adults continue to cower in fear of their own shadows.  

The future beckons.  This is our battle, and we must lead it.  It’s certainly not been easy for me, but if you step out into the sunlight where there are love and hope, you will discover, as I have, that there are kind and loving people of all ages and orientations ready to support you when you need them.  It’s within our reach and the emperors we fear, in reality, have no clothes.


2019 UPDATE: I am now completing my 27th year in JCPS and am in the process of retiring. The world continues to move forward for LGBT people, even in schools, albeit often at a slower rate. There are now many more openly LGBT teachers and administrators in JCPS and in Kentucky, although sadly a great deal of fear and discrimination continues and there are still many communities where LGBT students, teachers, administrators and staff have no legal protections. Although several years ago the school at which I teach, Atherton High School, adopted a policy allowing students to use restrooms according to their gender identities, and while JCPS now includes “gender identity” in its list of protections, no such policy exists at the district level.

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