On June 15th, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of LGBTQ+ workers in the U.S., deciding that workers cannot be fired for being gay or transgender. Prior to the decision of SCOUTUS, according to a Buzzfeed article written on April 17th, 2019, as of last year, states including: Virginia, Missouri, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina, North Dakota, West Virginia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming, it was completely legal to fire a worker for their sexual orientation or for being trans.
For many people living within U.S. cities it’s easier to fit in with a diverse population. With the melting pot—or perhaps my preferred idea of America being more of a mosaic than a melting pot—you see different walks of life wherever you go. But out in the Midwest it’s a bit harder to hide your colors.
For Brett Bigham, username @2014ORTOY on Twitter and a teacher in Portland, Oregon, that was very much the case.
In his thread on Twitter, pinned to the top of his twitter feed, Bigham details his struggle in living in his small town as one of the few teachers who were gay. Out of fear of being fired, he hid his sexuality from his peers.
The Twitter thread starts off with a very blunt statement: “In 2014, after being named Teacher of the Year, my supervisor told me if I said I was gay in public I would be ‘shot in the head.’”
For Bigham, this was the beginning of a long battle with his hometown. As Teacher of the Year, Bigham could no longer even think of discussing anything remotely LGBTQ. When he was invited to the White House Honoring Ceremony, he was asked to make a statement in support of LGBT youth. He decided, despite the threats from his Oregon hometown, he’d go through with it. That was just the beginning.
Upon his return to Oregon, he had found the contents of his desk boxed up. Shortly after he was told he could be fired for entering the classroom, even during his prep hour. Angry, Brett wrote to the school board, demanding his Special Needs students be given another teacher despite his absence. They did not, and instead instructed his students, in an effort to keep them busy, to clean the department head’s office, where, according to Bigham, “she kept her wine-of-the-month club boxes.”
Despite Bigham holding the title of “Oregon State Teacher of the Year,” it held no sway for him in his battle. He was called “sick” and a “compulsive liar” during counseling meetings.
He fought tooth and nail with the superintendent investigating his story, but to no avail. He, too, was clearly biased, addressing Bigham’s students as “Retarded.”
After attempting to blackmail Bigham, Bigham fought through the entire system even though he was fired for two weeks. Eventually, the superintendent, the head of Special Ed, and Bigham’s supervisor were all fired. As he says, “I cleaned that house.”
On June 17th, the new Board of Ed issued a public apology to Bigham, as well as all the LGBTQ students and educators, it has been discriminatory to in the past.
A year ago a friend of mine mentioned how he had wanted to work in a Catholic high school as a teacher, but he was afraid of never being allowed to come out; never being allowed to be himself. Now, I live in Staten Island, a bubble of a place filled to the brim with right-leaning politics and some fairly ignorant people (especially on the South Shore). I was lucky enough to be able to attend a fairly liberal school in the Bronx, Manhattan College. And although it’s not the perfect institution when it comes to making its minority students (Religious, sexual orientation, and POC students) heard, specifically the administration, for the most part the student body and most of the faculty are open-minded, tough, and educated in the experiences of minorities in America. This open-minded environment made it easy to come out when the time was right for me, something I may not have done if I was still living on Staten Island at the time. Hearing the word faggot thrown around, as well as gay in a negative manner, didn’t help with me internalizing my sexuality all too positively. After college. I was also lucky enough to snag a job at a publishing company in New York City, an incredibly gay-friendly company.
But it never occurred to me that if I would’ve stayed in Staten Island to work, I possibly would’ve never been able to come out publicly. In my privilege to move away and come back to an open-minded, accepting family, in some ways you forget that not everyone has that luxury. And now with the Black Lives Matter protest erupting all over the world, it’s plain to see I was very very lucky to have been born into my family because I’ve seen the people around me are not all too open-minded or particularly understanding of people unlike them.
It’s easy living in a city where diversity is not an issue, where on every street corner there’s a different restaurant or store of a different ethnicity, to forget not every place is as diverse or open-minded as New York City. You don’t question that difference because it fits in to the larger, take-no-shit spirit of New York City.
Another thing that has helped, and not so much helped, is the internet by making the world a bit of a smaller place and by making the world a smaller place, it makes a lot of different unheard voices heard. And yet oddly people are still so determined to avoid what educates them and challenges them on their views? But I digress.
It’s easy to forget the struggles LGBTQ people went through when it’s easier to come out in a diverse city. That’s a privilege, plain and simple; a privilege that sometimes we take for granted.
For me, reading Brett Bigham’s story is a reminder that small midwestern towns and the deep south are not irredeemable, unchangeable, immovable forces. Nor does it mean that everyone who holds close-minded views are irredeemable monsters. I have often been skeptical of internet-cancel culture and the real, undiscussed, consequences of that and the hostility that comes with that. But what I can say is for some people living in these mid-western and deep southern states is they are curious about those different than them, they might just not have anyone to confront them on their biases or prejudices or bigotry. Essentially, they’re trapped in an echo chamber. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t people who didn’t want to listen, or read, and educate themselves. Believe me, I’ve run into a few of those kinds of people on Staten Island. Of course, there is a point where you just have to shut those people out. But change doesn’t happen in an echo chamber. It doesn’t happen quietly blocking people on your social media. It doesn’t happen by insisting “I don’t need to explain my views to you.” It happens by confronting the problem, facing it head on, and sometimes even critiquing your own views.
Because you never know what might happen. You may be met by an unmovable wall and feel you just have to give up. That’s okay. Redirect your energy elsewhere to where it matters. Or, like Brett Bigham, you might bring down an entire system of corrupt bigots and in the process find you have an entire army of voices behind you. But you won’t ever find that out ignoring the injustices of the world. It begins by making a stand.