Eric Ginsburg (Greensboro, NC)
Being an openly gay teacher in Iredell County, North Carolina isn’t as scary as some people think, including Andrew Martin’s close friends. While navigating when and how to be out is a continuing process for Andrew, he hasn’t experienced any backlash working at various schools in his home county just north of Charlotte.
“I think the biggest thing that I keep coming across is the fear that is projected by the people around me,” Andrew said. “It’s like there’s some kind of monster around the corner that I haven’t actually seen yet but am made to believe is there.”
People who care about him caution him about the possible backlash if a parent complained about his sexuality. A coworker approached him once about a photo on Facebook of his partner kissing him on the cheek, scared of what would happen if people saw it. While he hasn’t felt “a huge amount” of homophobia around him or felt directly attacked at his job, people around him who care about him regularly caution him to keep quiet.
Initially he did.
Following the example set by a lesbian coworker, he kept his partner and sexuality mostly private. As far as he is concerned, there isn’t much legal protection for teachers in North Carolina in general, both in regards to LGBT rights and job security more broadly. He has a friend who works in the Iredell County school system who was fired because of their sexuality, but who — because of successfully documenting that the principal was acting out of homophobia — ultimately kept their job.
Many of Andrew’s coworkers know he identifies as gay — at first it was an issue when he brought his partner to a staff event, but eventually people grew used to it. Though he is relatively careful, Andrew promised himself he would never lie if he was asked directly about his sexuality, and he’s stuck to it.
The issue came up more when he was teaching high school, and at the middle school where he currently works Andrew has been more careful about disclosing anything to students. They are mostly too young to have the “context or emotional readiness” to understand it, but it hasn’t come up very much, he said.
He tries to create an open and affirming environment in his classrooms, especially in one at his old position when he had an LGBT student in the class. The student gravitated towards him as a mentor, Andrew said, and it wasn’t until years later that he came out to Andrew.
“He knew that I was gay and he asked a lot of questions,” Andrew said.
One of the student’s friends came to Andrew and asked him how she could be supportive, and he offered her advice too. His friends and coworkers freaked out a little bit about him counseling the LGBT student, but Andrew said the fear can’t get in the way.
“There’s just so much fear from my friends saying you know you’ve got to be careful, you’ve got to be careful,” he said. “I’m not going to let fear dictate my life, you know, especially when it comes to a [student’s needs]. It’s difficult because as a gay teacher I know that we have a lot of fear. We have to remember the people that are there for us and be there for kids.”
Soon he will be transitioning into an administrative role at an area high school, and in a recent meeting with students there, he was greeted with a knowing acceptance. Students made coded comments about being “an open bunch,” but the administrative position will also mean that he is supervising other staff, creating new situations and challenges to figure out with particular care because of his sexuality.
When Andrew moved back to Iredell County to teach, he was looking for a similar support system to rely on while figuring out how to be careful and stand up for himself at the same time. He created an unofficial group of teachers that meets to support each other and has since met several other nearby gay teachers living fairly open lives.
There isn’t a Gay-Straight Alliance or any similar support group for students that Andrew is aware of at Iredell County high schools, but he is hopeful that some day one will exist at the school he will be working at. It would be best if it was student-initiated, he said, in part because an organic effort would be more difficult for people to shoot down then if he tried to make it happen, but it seems like even in rural North Carolina, there are teachers who would be ready to step out and support it.
Note: Andrew’s name has been changed in this story, but everything else is accurate.