by Brett Bigham
When I wrote my essay for One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium I was at a crossroads in my life and career.
I was six months into being Oregon’s Teacher of the Year and I was under order from my supervisor not to say I was gay in public. I had been informed that I was no longer allowed to write or speak unless the district had approved my words in advance. To write my essay for One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium was insubordination. To email it in to Kevin Jennings, the editor, was a firing offense according to my district.
I submitted my essay anyway. As one of the first openly gay Teachers of the Year in the entire country, I was a voice for many gay teachers. I was an example that you can be out and still rise to the top of the profession. And as an American, I felt I had the right to speak my own words without a superintendent deciding what my words would be.
In September last year I filed a grievance with my Union. My district retaliated quickly. I was told to cancel all appearances as Teacher of the Year and that I now must submit a request to my supervisor listing who I was going to be permitted to speak to. The first three events I was told I could not attend were meeting with the local high school Gay Student Alliance (GSA), I was told I could not introduce the GSA Choir at a concert in the city square (on a Sunday) and I was told I could not meet with the Oregon Safe Schools Community Coalition, the group trying to end the bullying of LGBT youth in schools. I was told meeting with “those” groups “were of no value to the district.”
This was heartbreaking to me. When I was 15 my best friend killed himself after telling me he was no longer into girls. You cannot go back in time and undo a suicide, but I knew by being openly gay and Teacher of the Year would show those gay youth, teetering on the edge of ending their lives, that they had a future ahead of them. My district said those kids had “no value.”
I filed state and federal complaints against my district and was fired.
But something amazing came from that. The London Daily Mail had a full page about my situation and that article was picked up all over the world. The Nigeria Times and papers in Ghana and Singapore were running pictures of my husband and me in the Rose Festival Parade and at our wedding. When was the last time the news in Nigeria carried a story showing pictures of gay people being married or celebrated in a parade? (The Daily Mail spelled my name “Bingham” if you are trying to Google it).
And I realized that every time my district did something worse more people were hearing the story. When the district was forced to hire me back it made news again, and their announcement they were firing me again only made it grow. By the time the state investigation showed discrimination and retaliation, my story had been featured on CNN, the Washington Post, and USA Today. My Facebook was inundated with messages from all over the world, many from countries where they are frightened to be gay.
The essay I wrote for One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium was written last May. I was Oregon Teacher of the Year. I had been married for a week. I had just met the President of the United States and then Secretary Clinton. Within months I would be threatened, bullied, harassed, fired, unfired, and publicly threatened with punishment unless I took back my complaints against the district. I refuse to be silenced. When you are a spokesperson for a group of people, silence feels like betrayal.
That is why I wrote my essay. And that is why I feel it is worth reading.
Ed note: You can check the book out on Amazon at the following link. If you buy the book from there, we’ll get an indefensibly small percentage of the sale, but what can you do? These servers don’t pay for themselves.
One Teacher In Ten: My Experience As An LGBT Educator