For students in the South, this teacher listened

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday October 21, 2020
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Retired teacher Randy Fair has written a memoir about his experiences. Photo: Courtesy Randy Fair
Retired teacher Randy Fair has written a memoir about his experiences. Photo: Courtesy Randy Fair

With its predominantly conservative politics, the South has never been a leader or promoter of LGBTQ rights. So it would come as no surprise that being a queer teacher in this often-homophobic region would be a challenge.

However, in his new book, "Southern. Gay. Teacher." (Atmosphere Press, $18.99), Randy Fair, in his 31-year career, proclaims while there has been progress both for educators and LGBTQ students, there is a long way to go. It is sobering that Fair advises LGBTQ teachers to be cautious, as the possibility of being fired still looms large.

In an email interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Fair, 58, commented, "I would say for teachers in the South, the climate has not changed as much as it should. When the book came out, I had several people write to me about a teacher who was open with her students about being a lesbian, even having a picture of her partner at her desk. Every one of those people pointed to the same teacher. For me, this says that there still aren't a great deal of openly LGBTQ teachers in the South.

"I do think that this can vary depending on where the person teaches," he added. "I feel that the more urban the area, the more likely a teacher is to have the opportunity to come out. I have had teachers who have read my book tell me that even though they don't think they will be fired for coming out, they think that they might start to get bad evaluations or might be harassed in other ways."

Growing up

Fair grew up in a small town of 2,000 in Alabama and despite negative opinions of homosexuality, he found several role models.

"Growing up in Weaver was somewhat of a paradoxical experience," he explained. "On the one hand, it was very safe because the community was so small, and the South has somewhat of a history of accepting eccentric people. On the other hand, the homophobia in the 1970s was so pervasive that the idea of coming out was pretty much unheard of. I did have some wonderful high school teachers who did small things that helped me tremendously.

"Connie Williams inadvertently got into a class discussion about her lesbian roommate in college, and that was the first time I had ever heard anyone talk about an LGBTQ person in positive terms," Fair wrote, referring to his high school teacher. "She wasn't worried about her roommate trying to seduce her. 'If she looked at me and thought I was beautiful, I would be just as happy as if a man looked at me and thought I was beautiful. I know who I am, and I am comfortable with my sexuality, so I am not concerned with anyone else's.' Here was a heterosexual adult willing to have this discussion. She had nothing to gain and much to lose if parents had become angry about this kind of frank talk.

It was these early formative experiences that inspired him to write his book.

"When I was teaching, I tried to be as open as possible; however, I was constantly under threat of being fired for being gay," Fair explained. "As I approached the end of my career, I knew that I wanted to speak up for all the LGBTQ teachers, like myself, who feel that they can't speak up. I know there are numerous LGBTQ parents, teachers, and students who still feel that they can't be open in the school system."

When asked why he decided to become a teacher, he replied, "I had a wonderful and legendary professor at Jacksonville State, Opal Lovett. I went to her one day and said, 'I'm this far through my college career, and I still don't have a major.' She immediately said, 'You are going to be a teacher.' She mapped out an entire strategy for the remainder of my coursework. She wasn't my adviser. She was just a professor who really cared."

He would spend the majority of his teaching career at Dryden High School in a suburb of Atlanta. In the book, he tells stories about students, fellow teachers, and administrators to reveal not only how times have changed, but also to highlight what he feels is wrong about the school system. One memorable experience was a mild-mannered kid named Steven, who two weeks prior to graduation came into class saying, "I hate faggots." Fair told him not to say this again, but he did so for the next two days, despite warnings. Sent to the administration, when asked what happened there, Steven replied, "They laughed."

Fair continues the saga in his book: "The next day, I assigned him detention with me, and while I thought he maybe wouldn't show up, he did — and he actually showed up early. We sat there in silence, and he said, 'You know why I hate fa**ots? You wanna know why I hate so-called gay people? My father is a so-called gay person. And he ran away with his boyfriend and left my mom, and I haven't seen him my whole life, and now he wants to come to our graduation.' I realized that he wanted to call the gay teacher a cruel name because he wanted help understanding why his father did this to him; he thought a gay man could give him that help."

"I really think that Steven's story is one of the most important stories in the book," Fair wrote in the email. "In the early 1990s, I didn't even think about the possibility that a student would have a gay man as a parent. I should have probably considered that fact, but LGBTQ parents were virtually unheard of at that time. Steven's story was a wake-up call for me that even straight students should be educated about LGBTQ issues. I think that even today when we talk about introducing LGBTQ issues in the classroom, we still think about how this will be helpful to LGBTQ students. But, I think we need to start thinking more about how this will help all students better understand the world they live in."

As an advocate for students and the rights of LGBTQ people, Fair often faced homophobic administrators, unresponsive teachers, and hostile parents, always shadowed by the threat of being fired.

"I think in many ways being a gay man made me realize that I had to be an even better teacher than most, or I would find myself in a great deal of trouble," he wrote. "I felt like there were few opportunities for any kind of mistake. I actually became very paranoid in both my personal life and my career. I saw administrators cover over a wide variety of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior on the part of straight teachers, but I felt that I would never be afforded that kind of luxury. For most of my career, I had tremendous support from my department chairs, but at one point, I had some others that it seemed were completely out to make my life miserable, and I think a lot of that had to do with their homophobia."

When queried about whether teachers should come out, Fair responded that he has never known any teacher who is what he would call really openly gay, including himself; even if kids knew it, the issue wasn't discussed.

"This may be dating myself, but I still struggle with whether or not teachers should come out immediately to their students," he wrote. "I had a wonderful mentor, Judy Hammack, who really supported my development as a teacher. When I started in the mid-1980s, she encouraged me not to come out because she pointed out the benefits of students seeing the teacher as a blank slate. That definitely gives students an opportunity to write the story they need about the teacher rather than what we want to tell them. On the other hand, having openly LGBTQ role models in the school would also be a wonderful thing. I think Judy might have different advice for me in our current climate. It's really a difficult issue."

Challenges remain

Despite progress in LGBTQ equality in the U.S., Fair still sees special challenges for queer teachers below the Mason-Dixon line.

"I do think that being an LGBTQ teacher in the South may be more difficult than in some regions of the country. The remaining so-called No Promo Homo laws are in Southern states," he wrote, referring to statutes that prohibit the promotion of homosexuality. "I think that these laws and the conservative values of the South can have a silencing effect on LGBTQ teachers, parents, and students. Even when these laws are eventually overturned, the residual effect of those laws will take years to overcome."

However, Fair noticed observable differences in attitudes after the landmark 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Lawrence vs. Texas, which declared laws prohibiting consensual gay sex unconstitutional.

"For some of the staff at my school, the change was palpable," he wrote. "I saw some faculty members and staff that had never really spoken to me suddenly become friendly. That doesn't mean there still weren't a lot of faculty members who remained homophobic, but for many the decision seemed to give them permission to accept LGBTQ people."

Fair also commented about how homophobia has changed throughout his career.

"The difference is remarkable. The topic was taboo when I first started teaching," he stated. "Most teachers didn't dare come out. If faculty members knew a teacher was gay, that fact was treated as a secret. Students virtually never came out. Gradually that changed, but as it became more possible to be open, the homophobia also became more subtle. At the beginning of my career, an administrator might tell other administrators directly that they didn't want an LGBTQ teacher in the school. As time went on, that same administrator, instead of being open about the homophobia, might try to drive the teacher out with bad evaluations or other types of harassment."

Fair was often accused of promoting a homosexual agenda and that everything he did was fraught with politics, charges he refutes.

"My defense to that is that straight teachers are constantly promoting an agenda and doing things that are fraught with politics, but they just don't see that because they think their agenda is 'normal,'" he explained. "For instance, one of the issues that came up repeatedly during my career was this issue of standing up and saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Teachers constantly thought that they had the right to force students to stand. They would never acknowledge that they were promoting a political agenda.

"Another example that I would point out is the fact that straight teachers constantly put pictures of their family on their desks, wear wedding bands, talk about their spouses, etc.," he added. "One time a teacher giving a grammar lesson described subjects and verbs saying, 'They work as a team, just like my husband and I work as a team.' They never think of this as promoting an agenda, but if an LGBTQ teacher does any of that, it is somehow seen as political. I don't want to see queer teachers having to silence themselves."

Fair was inspired to pursue a doctorate in education at Georgia State University because there were so few writings by LGBTQ teachers and he wanted to focus on a groundbreaking subject readers had not previously encountered.

"My dissertation, 'Yes I Should But No I Wouldn't: Teachers Attitudes Towards Introducing Lesbian and Gay Issues in the Literature Classroom,' is definitely a product of the time period," he wrote. "During my career, I would see that teachers were willing to tell students a great deal of things about authors' lives that sometimes had nothing to do with the work being studied, but the one thing they wouldn't talk about is the identity of LGBTQ authors. I would ask teachers if they would tell students that Langston Hughes was Black, and they would typically say, 'Of course, how can you understand the work if you don't know he's Black.' When I would ask them if they would tell the students that Langston Hughes was gay, they would either say they didn't know that he was, or they would say, 'It doesn't matter. I don't care about someone's sexual proclivities.' I always found it remarkable that teachers would go into long details about Edgar Allan Poe's marriage to his teenage cousin and think nothing of it, but they would tell me that discussing someone's identity as an LGBTQ person was too salacious."

As far as transgender students, Fair hadn't realized how detrimental he had unintentionally been in his teaching, until he had a trans student in his class, he recounted in his book.

"I had one student, for example, who was born female but identified as male," he wrote in the book. "When the kids came in the classroom, I would always say, "Welcome sir," or "Welcome madam." I said to this student, "Welcome, sir," because he seemed more comfortable identifying that way — but when we played games in class, I usually divided the teams up by gender. The theory at the time was that pitting the boys against the girls forced the girls to choose a girl as team leader — since when I had had them pick teams before, they always picked a boy to lead. But when I had this student, I realized that he didn't want to be on the girls' team because he's not a girl, and he didn't want to be on the boys' team because they would ostracize him. One day, the administration outed the student by saying 'Can you send her to the office' over the intercom, and so, in alignment with the student's wishes, I asked the administration to refer to him as male. They said, we don't want to get sued, they're legally female, etc. They just wanted to ignore the issue."

When questioned what guidance Fair would give teachers about transgender students, he noted, "I think that when it comes to transgender and gender-nonconforming students that the advice I would give is the same advice that I would give about any other student. The best teachers see students as human beings first. When a teacher does that, all the other things fall away."

How should other issues be dealt with in schools? "The best way to deal with the bullying of LGBTQ students would be to have a curriculum that directly deals with LGBTQ issues. I think that students who grow up with an early education about LGBTQ people will be less likely to even think about bullying an LGBTQ person. However, we are probably not at the point where that is likely to happen, so I think that students, teachers and parents should make sure that administrators don't allow bullying to go unchecked."

How does Fair feel about schools reopening in person during the pandemic? "I struggle with the idea of forcing students and teachers to return to campus during COVID. On the other hand, I realize that for LGBTQ students who don't have the support of their parents, the school setting might be one of the few places where they feel comfortable. In my final years of teaching, some of the students who attended the gay-straight alliance meetings hid their attendance from parents. I hope these students are finding support in other ways during this time."

Now retired, Fair has moved to Wilton Manors, Florida. When asked what he hoped readers would take away from his book, he answered, "I hope that the general public and the education community will walk away from this book realizing that both LGBTQ students and straight students need to be better educated about LGBTQ issues."

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