It is the early 1990s. Miss G hands the essay back to me. I smile as I look over it. There aren’t as many marks left by her red pen this time.
“Well done, Danielle,” she says to me, smiling.
Miss G was my English teacher, the first to discover my talent. But she never let me believe I could rest on the laurels of talent alone. No, she pushed me to work on my craft to become excellent at it. She inspired me to be confident and taught me to become comfortable with constructive criticism. She suggested books, fiction and nonfiction alike, that would help expand my mind and improve my writing. Miss G always has a poker face, so when she smiles, I know my writing is getting better.
I still remember the hours I spent reading her Golden Legacy comic books collection and the pride I felt when I learned of Hiram Revels and Blanche K Bruce, who served as Black Senators during Reconstruction. I laugh at the memory of Miss G shaking her head while we were editing my essay on sexual harassment in politics in the Eighth grade. I was still livid about the treatment of Anita Hill two years prior, and the scandal around Oregon Senator Robert Packwood at the time brought all that anger back. Miss G read my essay, immediately highlighting the third paragraph.
“Now, Danielle, everything was lovely until you reached this point. You’ve gone off on a tangent here. Rewrite this paragraph to keep it in line with the rest of your essay, okay” she said. To this day, Miss G is one of my best teachers and most integral to my development. She was a queer woman.
“How am I supposed to write FIVE PAGES in an hour?”
“Danielle, that’s the assignment.
Undaunted, I pushed on with my complaint.
“But…. It’s too hard! I can’t do it!” I whined. “An hour just isn’t enough time for that much writing!” Joanne, my science teacher, looked up at me. I could see that she was losing her patience with my petulant behavior.
“Well, Danielle, if you truly don’t feel it’s enough time, I suggest you return to your desk and start your work. The clock is ticking”, she replied, her voice as cold and solid as ice.
I sucked my teeth and walked to my desk as instructed. In my mind, Joanne was so mean. Her expectations of us were ridiculous. I wondered if she was insane. But since I had no other option, I did as instructed and started writing.
An hour later, I looked down at my desk and all. I had written six pages. I walked to Joanne’s desk, stapled the pages of my analysis together, and presented them to Joanne. She grinned.
“I knew you could do it.” She was a queer woman.
“Another book on The Holocaust, Danielle?” She asked as she stamped the due date on the front of the book.
“Yes,” I replied to my school librarian as I scooped my pile of books into my arms and turned away.
“Please wait a minute,” Ms. Lillian called out. “Are you studying The Holocaust in class or writing a research paper?”
“No,” I shrugged, “I just want to know more. How could someone want to kill an ENTIRE GROUP OF PEOPLE? That is crazy, and it is sick!” Lillian nodded her understanding.
“I get it, Danielle. Well, I will keep an eye out for books about The Holocaust and other subjects that may interest you and put them aside for you. How does that sound?”
My eyes lit up.
“Miss Lillian, I would love that!” Miss Lillian kept her word. We were a great team. I love to read, and she loved to see children read. When I moved on from The Holocaust to the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Genocide, she found books on those topics for me as well. And when I turned my focus to American Slavery, America’s horrific sin, she had a list of books for that as well. I soon became used to walking into the library, browsing for things on my own, and then leaving with my discoveries and Miss Lillian’s. She was a queer woman.
And then there was Mr. Danforth.
Danforth was my daughter’s English teacher in her freshman year at Kennedy Catholic High School. I met him in the fall of 2018 at the school’s curriculum night. Danforth was confident, warm, and friendly. He went over the syllabus and grading policy with all parents in detail. I looked the syllabus over, glad to see new novels mixed in with the American classics. Once his presentation concluded, I walked over to introduce myself.
“Hi, my name is Danielle. I’m Jane’s mother”.
“Oh yes, pleased to meet you he said, shaking my hand. You have a brilliant daughter! She’s quite opinionated too. She’s already dominating class discussions.”
“Yes, that sounds like my baby,” I laugh.
We chat briefly for a few more minutes about the syllabus, then he must move on to speak with other parents who are waiting.
Now when I met Danforth, yes, I knew he was different.
Did my gaydar go off? YES!
Did I care? NO.
It was something that I observed and then moved on from. Danforth being gay was of no more impact than him being married to a woman and having two kids. It was utterly irrelevant to his position as my child’s teacher. All I needed to know was that he would treat my daughter fairly, teach her English competently, and push her to be her best, as all good teachers should.
During my daughter’s sophomore year of high school, I concluded that Kennedy Catholic was not the best environment for her and enrolled her in a public school instead. However, my daughter remained in contact with friends and teachers at her old school. And in the winter of 2020, I came home from work to find my daughter in the living room, a sullen look on her face.
“What’s wrong, I questioned, concerned about her state.
“THEY FIRED HIM!” She exclaimed, her eyes filling with tears.
I had no idea what she was talking about.
“Who is ‘they’ and who did they fire,” I ask, still perplexed.
“Kennedy fired Mr. Danforth because he’s gay! Mom, you KNOW that’s not right!”
I sat down, absorbing the news. Though we were no longer a part of the Kennedy Catholic school body, the information was infuriating. Danforth was an excellent teacher, beloved by his students and respected by his peers. He was so careful. Danforth was gay, but gay in what some call the “right” way. He was gay in the way heterosexuals prefer-quietly. There were no pictures of his longtime partner on his desk. He did not mention his sexual orientation to his students at all. You could only confirm he was gay if you didn’t mind your business and went digging in his.
Which is precisely what some Nosy Nellie did.
Danforth and his long-term partner went to Disneyland on vacation. During the trip, his partner proposed to him. Someone found the pictures of this on Danforth’s private social media and alerted the school.
The Archdiocese stated that Danforth’s “lifestyle” and engagement were not consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. As such, he could no longer be employed. Oddly enough, heterosexuals who violated the Church’s teachings by divorcing and/or using birth control were not held to this standard.
Over the last three decades, the Catholic Church has been hit by child abuse scandals. Instead of removing the guilty clergy and turning them over to the authorities for prosecution, some in church leadership chose to play musical chairs with these predators. They were just moved to unknowing parishes, where they continued to victimize children. Indeed, while I write this essay, the FBI is investigating new sexual abuse allegations in the New Orleans Archdiocese. The Southern Baptist Convention also continues to deal with a scandal involving systematic sexual abuse.
With this sordid recent history, it boggles my mind that the idea of queer people teaching students provokes such vehement opposition in the name of children. But multitudes of predatory clergy in the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the culture that enabled such horror went unchecked for decades.
As another wave of hysteria about gay teachers, grooming, and the alleged gay mafia/lobby surfaced this past spring, I thought back to the queer teachers I’ve known.
I remember Miss G and the impact she had on my life. I wonder if anyone else would’ve seen my writing talent as quickly and clearly as she did and nurtured it the same way.
I remember Joanne. I thought she was so terrible and mean back then. But I’m grateful for her high standards now. Thanks to her unrelenting demands, I once wrote a thirty-page research paper for my international relations course in college in three days and received an excellent grade.
And, of course, I remember Danforth. I can picture him taking down and packing things up in his classroom and turning over all his keys to the administration. Two and a half years after his termination, the injustice of what was done to an excellent teacher because of his sexual orientation still makes me seethe.
But I also think of how Danforth’s students responded to his ouster, and I smile. Generation Z pushed back! The kids, in whose name anti-gay sentiment is carried out, rejected it.
Rejecting the ideology pushed by the religious institutions and previous generations, they mobilized. Kennedy Catholic students walked out of school in protest and later pulled up to the local Archdiocese to vent their displeasure.
Danforth was still terminated by the school. Nevertheless, I see hope in the way the students responded. When I recall the activism of those children, I think that perhaps all is not lost, and we still have a chance for progress, no matter how slight it may be.