For LGBTQ Teachers, Academic Freedom Means the Freedom to Exist

Attacks on public education and academic freedom are not just about what gets taught but who has the right to teach

Op-Ed by Karen Graves and Margaret A. Nash, originally published in the Washington Post

Last month Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration revised school policies adopted in 2020 to protect trans students. Under the modified rules, students are required to use school facilities for the sex they were assigned at birth, school personnel must defer to parents regarding students’ names and pronoun usage, and they are required to keep parents “fully informed” regarding students’ gender identity even when students wish to keep the information private. Nationwide, there has been a surge in adopting laws that censure references to LGBTQ people or issues in the classroom since Florida passed its legislation early this year. In Ohio last spring, a teacher was fired for giving a student a number to call for suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth; the district claimed the teacher violated a policy of not speaking about controversial topics.

These discriminatory attempts to marginalize the LGBTQ community reveal how attacks on public education and academic freedom are not just about what gets taught but who has the right to teach — and exist — in the nation’s schools. Indeed, as LGBTQ teachers have long understood, academic freedom is about more than just preserving space for divisive ideas to be explored — it’s also about preserving the right of people to exist.

Until the 1930s it was not uncommon for educators to live with lifelong partners of the same sex without public censure. For example, Chicago Superintendent Ella Flagg Young, who led the city’s school system from 1909 to 1915, one of the most prominent educators of her day, maintained a relationship with Laura Brayton for over 30 years, living and traveling together and caring for each other to the end of their lives.

In an extensive 1929 study of college-educated women, among female teachers and superintendents surveyed, 47 percent reported experiencing intense emotional or sexual relationships with women.

Following the end of World War II, new studies on human sexuality increased the attention paid to the prevalence of same-sex relationships. In 1950, a Senate committee investigated the extent of gay men and lesbians in government service, fearing that “young and impressionable people … might come under the influence of a pervert… .” The growing public awareness and acknowledgment of same-sex relationships coincided with the rise of the Cold War.

Politicians such as Sens. Kenneth Wherry (R-Neb.) and Clyde Hoey (D-N.C.) tapped into a moral panic that was sweeping the country, inciting the “Lavender Scare.” Aiming to link homosexuality with communism, critics characterized LGBTQ people and communists as subversive, immoral and a threat to the nation’s children. As politicians sought to remove ideas and books they perceived as threatening from school curriculums, they also sought to remove educators who didn’t conform to their desired norms.

The most relentless attack against educators came at the hands of the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee. Established in 1956 with an intent to deter the civil rights movement, the panel, known as the Johns Committee, named after state Sen. Charley Johns, soon shifted its attention toward homosexuality. Claiming that “Practically all children are susceptible to being recruited into homosexual practices,” the committee actively pursued LGBTQ educators for interrogation between 1957 and 1963.

Teachers and professors, sometimes taken for questioning directly from their classrooms, rarely had legal counsel present during the ordeal. Once suspected of being lesbian or gay they were fired and lost their professional credentials. One Johns Committee supporter argued, “Do I want my sons and daughters indoctrinated in the belief that there exists no right or wrong, no morality or immorality … that homosexuality is fine? And then told, in the name of academic freedom it’s none of your business?”

As the Johns Committee wound down, the American Civil Liberties Union, and later, the National Education Association, came to support individual LGBTQ educators seeking to challenge their dismissals on legal grounds in the 1970s, leading to a patchwork of court decisions on equal employment claims.

The case of Marjorie Rowland, who was dismissed in 1974 from her position as a high school guidance counselor in the Mad River School District near Dayton, Ohio, for being bisexual, is one example of critics’ entwined efforts to control not only what would be taught in the schools but who could teach there. Although U.S. District Judge Robert A. Steinberg ruled that “people have the right to be different,” a right they do not give up simply by virtue of being a teacher, his ruling was overturned on appeal in 1984 and Rowland’s dismissal was upheld.

In 1977 and 1978 anti-gay forces pushed back against the first wave of nondiscrimination laws addressing sexual orientation, making teachers a special target again. In 1977, voters soundly rejected a Miami anti-discrimination law, wakening LGBTQ activists nationwide to the intensity of the anti-gay campaign. In 1978 California voters decisively rejected the Briggs Initiative, a proposal that would have barred LGBTQ teachers from public classrooms. But that same year a similar bill passed in Oklahoma that curbed academic freedom by banning speech on LGBTQ issues in the classroom and by banning LGBTQ people from teaching. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down restrictions that limited teachers from talking about those issues but upheld the part of the law that kept LGBTQ teachers out of the classroom.

Beginning in the 1980s, many states changed their laws to include employment protection for workers based on sexual orientation, and even in states without those protections, like Ohio, some cities and school districts such as Yellow Springs wrote nondiscrimination laws and policies. Other states, however, such as Oregon and Colorado, passed strict anti-gay laws, including banning LGBTQ teachers and LGBTQ content from schools.

While some LGBTQ teachers were still fighting for their right to remain in the classroom, others were fighting for accurate portrayals of LGBTQ people in the curriculum. The award-winning film “It’s Elementary” documents how some LGBTQ educators and their allies in multiple states created curriculums that challenged stereotypes and addressed homophobia while also normalizing the presence of LGBTQ teachers in schools.

Attacks on academic freedom, in the past and today, are about control over what gets taught and by whom. In the mid-20th century, it was legal for districts to purge LGBTQ educators. Now that there are some employment protections for teachers, anti-gay attacks have focused on laws restricting LGBTQ discussion. These laws focus on the curriculum, to be sure, but they also target teachers by giving districts a way to fire LGBTQ teachers or allies. Under these laws and policies, teachers can be dismissed for discussing “divisive” issues about sexual orientation, gender or race.

The history of academic freedom for LGBTQ educators and LGBTQ issues in the curriculum shows us that progress is not linear and that old ploys resurface in new guises. One thing that separates contemporary attacks from the past is a wealth of knowledge on sexuality and gender identity. Using this knowledge to counter false information is critical in the current fight for academic freedom. But just as people in the past, such as Wherry and Hoey, used the threat of communism to gain political power, much of the fight over LGBTQ issues is about political posturing. Academic freedom is perhaps most needed where cultural clashes intersect with the drive for power.

Karen Graves is professor emerita at Denison University. She is the author of And They Were Wonderful Teachers: Florida’s Purge of Gay and Lesbian Teachers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

Margaret A. Nash is professor emerita at the University of California, Riverside and co-author, along with Karen Graves, of Mad River, Marjorie Rowland, and the Quest for LGBTQ Teachers’ Rights (Rutgers, 2022).

This essay is the ninth in the Freedom to Learn series sponsored by PEN America, providing historical context for controversies surrounding free expression in education today.