Dec - Jan Issue
November 24, 2014

No longer silent: LGBTQ members seek to raise awareness in the workplace

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
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To watch more videos of NYSUT's LGBTQ Task Force members talking about the issues LGBTQ members face, visit www.nysut.org/LGBTQvideo. Visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pages/LGBTQ-Educators-of-New-York.

When school psychologist Maureen Singer filled in for someone on leave in East Greenbush, she decided not to reveal that she was gay. Singer was afraid administrators, colleagues or parents would hold it against her.

When the good news came that her position would indeed become permanent, her partner sent her flowers. The bouquet was delivered to the school's front office. When colleagues asked her who they were from, Singer choked.

"My mother," she told them. Singer became more comfortable sharing that she is gay only after she earned tenure. She does, however, note a difference in casual conversation with colleagues. They are likely to ask each other specific questions about spouses and families, she said, but they don't directly ask her.

Singer is one of 20 members of a new NYSUT Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning/Queer Task Force. Union members statewide, through a NYSUT Representative Assembly resolution, asked for the creation of the task force to examine the workplace atmosphere toward LGBTQ educators. It's a working environment that has often included bullying, exclusion or derision, creating anxiety and secrecy. Members of the task force — teachers, professors, retirees, school librarians and school psychologists — revealed at their first meeting this fall how their personal situations are often hidden and sometimes ridiculed.

"When I would speak to NYSUT members about our efforts to protect LGBTQ kids from bullying, teachers would come up to me and say, 'What are you doing for teachers? I'm being bullied; I'm being harassed,'" said Melinda Person, NYSUT's political director.

Task force members shared stories about seeing school posters depicting gay leaders secretively disappear and about a principal who constantly tells gay jokes. One woman said she kept her orientation secret for 30 years. Others said they received homophobic emails or saw anti-gay graffiti scrawled in bathrooms. Another recalled a day when she was dropped off at school by her partner; their daughter was in the car. When a colleague asked who was driving, she worriedly said it was the nanny.

Still another told of her delight and surprise when she received support and congratulations from colleagues this fall after announcing her marriage to her partner this past summer.

NYSUT supports marriage equality; the right to non-discrimination based on gender identity and expression; and a non-discriminatory work space; and has held LGBTQ educator appreciation events in several areas of the state. Much more needs to be done to educate and raise awareness about gay rights and issues in the workplace. NYSUT's goal is to make sure union members feel safe and welcome in their environment.

"We need concrete actions," said Paul Pecorale, NYSUT vice president overseeing social justice who co-chairs the task force with Vice President Catalina Fortino. "This is something that needs to be done for our members," Fortino said. The task force will meet twice more, then prepare a report for the NYSUT Board of Directors. The report is to include a plan about how to create programs within the union for training and staff development for educators. Some school districts, it was pointed out, do not have a human resources office, a typical location to originate training or share concerns.

Task force members are also looking into having NYSUT provide training and support for union members who attend leadership and local union action conferences.

Alan Lubin, former NYSUT executive vice president, said gay people and people of color have historically been slighted by unions. That began to change in the mid 1960s when Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, formed a gay teachers committee. In 1970, the AFT executive council passed a resolution denouncing discrimination against teachers solely because the individual was a homosexual. Today, Pride at Work, the gay rights' organization, is one of labor's main constituency groups. "Ignorance is our biggest enemy," Lubin said.

Mike Mitchell, a task force member and high school Spanish teacher with the Bethlehem Central Teachers Association, said he wants to set an example for LGBTQ students so "they can grow up and have a successful career like my own."

Patty Bentley, a United University Professions retired college librarian, said NYSUT's Social Services can help members with marriage, health insurance and legal concerns. To access the free social services program, email socsvcs@nysutmail.org; visit www.nysut.org/socialservices or call 800-342-9810, ext. 6206.

"We need to reach out to our brothers and sisters who are afraid," Bentley said. "It damages a relationship when you can't acknowledge your partner."

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