Op-Ed: Encouragement is not Protection

By Dan Johnson, Leesburg

The Loudoun County School Board voted last night not to include specific protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in its employment policies. People spoke Tuesday night with the usual reasons for and against this. No one, however, spoke of the most compelling reason to do so.

One woman claimed that gender identity is a non-issue, because you could tell unambiguously whether someone is male or female simply by counting the X chromosomes in someone’s cells. That one really surprised me but demonstrated that incorporating these protections in both policy and laws is important primarily to protect our school employees from people like HER, whose abject ignorance blinds them to who their neighbors are (and are not).

That leaves them “free” to believe and act based on that distortion. But it also leaves them feeling empowered to insist or demand that others must act on that basis as well.

That’s where the school board got this very wrong. This isn’t about bathrooms. This isn’t even about the students. People who don’t understand what this policy would address may naturally presume it must be about the children, because nothing else “fits” their distorted world-view.

Teachers and other professional educators may not need protection against their coworkers and students. They need protection against parents (and a small but vocal group of others in the community) who seek any way to attack our public schools.

They need protection against parents who might use the fact of their homosexuality to pressure their school’s administrators to act on that basis, whether through personnel action or providing unnecessary or unfair accommodations to their children at others’ expense. Or worse, they could leverage less direct or more insidious ways to attack educators they don’t like for whatever reason on the basis of their sexual orientation.

“But this hasn’t happened”, one might counter, “so why address a problem that doesn’t exist?” It may not exist because of the inauthentic behavior necessitated by the lack of the protection.

Here’s where the impact of the LACK of this policy for educators extends beyond their schools into their private lives. They, particularly those who are also effective and beloved teachers, are sometimes like “low-level” celebrities in some ways within their own communities. Students and former students recognize them while running errands and call attention to them in public places.

That’s wonderful, but for homosexual teachers who are in long-term, loving relationships, it means that some simple, innocent actions others get to take for granted are too risky for them to do.

  • Like introducing their family member or friend during encounters with others in their community.
  • Like holding the hand of their partner while walking on the sidewalk or in the parking lot or the store or sitting in a restaurant or theater.
  • Like grabbing a quick kiss when their partner drops them off at school or just because it’s natural – just like the many straight couples do around them without having to give it a second thought.
  • Like having a single picture of the love of their life visible anywhere in their workspace – or even sharing mundane details about what they did over the weekend.

Those things have nothing to do with students, though. They aren’t the ones with a problem. If they learn a teacher is gay, most all of them say “cool”, and it doesn’t matter to them – unless they happen to be struggling with their sexual identity as well, in which case that knowledge alone can help them feel less isolated and alone.

This isn’t about “elevating” anyone above anyone else nor treating anyone as “special”. It’s about protecting our public school educators’ and other employees’ ability to conduct themselves professionally and personally in ways that are appropriate for anyone else but not them without this sensible protection.

Unlike the assertion that anyone would “pretend” to be transgendered just to get into childrens’ bathrooms at school or anywhere else to “prey” upon them – which aside from being ludicrous on its face also betrays fundamental ignorance about what being transgendered means – what I described above aren’t outlandish, contrived examples.

They describe what I and my partner have had to live and deal with for the entire 15 years we have been together.

And that’s not right. Anti-discrimination policies like the one the school board just rejected are unfortunately the only viable way to address these inequities. All we want is to be assured of equal treatment just like anyone else. This has not been settled.

Some board members declined to support the inclusive language because it isn’t their job to dictate employment policy and that they refuse to allow policy to dictate decency. But intemperance and prejudice is there. It’s an unfortunate factor that may be a minority, but it is there.

It IS the school board’s job to create and maintain – to the best of their ability – an environment that fosters learning. The distraction of having to live one’s life inauthentically because of others’ prejudice detracts from that environment.

It IS within the purview and power of the board to express a policy of tolerance and against prejudice, because its absence anywhere in their written policy is inconsistent with their clearly expressed policies overall.

If the board does not want to amend this particular policy, then it seems incumbent on them to find another way.

Another amendment was offered in the form of an additional paragraph that expresses the school system’s desire to encourage diversity in its workforce. While that’s a good step and helps clarify the policy to some extent, it’s not quite good enough, because encouragement is not the same as protection. Only protection can address the issues raised above.

Regardless of last night’s failed vote, this issue is not settled.