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Teacher fired for being gay gets an apology — 42 years later

Jim Gaylord in Tacoma, Wash. (Peter Haley/The News Tribune via AP)
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A lot has happened in the 42 years since Jim Gaylord was fired from his job as a teacher at a Tacoma, Wash., high school for being gay.

The AIDS crisis raged. The country saw the aftermath of Matthew Shepherd’s murder and the rise of the It Gets Better Project. The Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act and decriminalized gay sex with its ruling in Lawrence v. Texas. Gaylord’s home state of Washington moved to legally recognize same-sex marriages. The president even fist-bumped a cashier who told a gay sex joke in a Texas barbecue joint.

But not much changed in Gaylord’s life. He’s lived in the same house for the past 49 years and worked the same job as a county librarian until he retired.

Then he found out that the Tacoma School District — the same one that fired him and testified that his sexuality made him unfit to teach — would be issuing a public apology for its actions.

In 1972, a student tried to commit suicide after talking to Gaylord about being attracted to other boys. Gaylord never confirmed his sexual orientation, but the student presumed Gaylord was gay, and when the student was questioned by police, he told them he had spoken to Gaylord.

John Beer, then the vice principal of Woodrow Wilson High School, drove to Gaylord’s house and asked if he was gay. Gaylord told him yes. He later received a letter telling him he was fired. It said that being a “publicly known homosexual” was “incompatible” with being a teacher. Gaylord challenged the decision, first before the school board and eventually in a trial before the Washington State Supreme Court.

“I don’t believe a homosexual meets the standards, the professional standards, the community standards, that we would expect of a classroom teacher,” Beer testified. Gaylord lost his case after being painted as a sex criminal despite the fact the only evidence introduced to support that claim was Gaylord’s own admission he was gay.

Current school district officials decided to issue a formal apology after they were approached by the executive director of a local LGBT youth organization. “I offer a sincere apology to Mr. Jim Gaylord. Jim, thank you for continuing to teach us,” Kurt Miller, the Tacoma School Board president, said Sunday at a fundraiser for Oasis.

Gaylord, 76, became a librarian after he lost in state supreme court and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case. He decided to fight because he didn’t want to be a hypocrite. “I was rather forced into it, but I had to do it because I had always emphasized to my students the importance of civil liberties and pursuing them and I could hardly not do what I had always told them they should do,” Gaylord told KIRO TV.

The Tacoma school board recently added sexual orientation as one of the protected classes of its non-discrimination policy.

“Well, I tell you I never gave a great deal of thought to getting an apology, so this comes as a very pleasant surprise,” Gaylord said in an interview with the Advocate. “We cannot make up for the mistakes of an unfortunate past, but we can at least acknowledge them and let those affected know that regret doesn’t end when the old guard moves on.”

While 21 states have laws that would protect Gaylord if the same thing happened today, there are 29 more where workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is legal. The purpose of ENDA, the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, is to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity nationally. But after the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, gay groups began withdrawing support for the bill, which passed the Senate last November, citing the need to significantly rewrite the bill’s religious exemption.

h/t The Advocate.