Fired for being gay, former Tacoma teacher finally gets apology

Staff writerJuly 9, 2014 

teacher_apology

Jim Gaylord sits in his North Tacoma living room, July 9, 2014, and talks about being fired in 1972 from his teaching job because he was gay. His story will be included in a student presentation at Sunday’s fundraiser for Oasis Youth Center, and the Tacoma School District will present him with an apology for the firing.

PETER HALEY — Staff photographer Buy Photo

In 1972, Jim Gaylord was a social studies teacher at Tacoma’s Wilson High School.

He was 35, well regarded by students and colleagues and, in the parlance of the day, a confirmed bachelor.

One evening the Wilson vice principal appeared at the doorstep of Gaylord’s North End home. There had been talk at the school and the vice principal wanted to know: Was Gaylord a homosexual?

Gaylord decided he couldn’t live a lie anymore and confirmed the rumor.

Soon, he found himself fired. A long and ultimately unsuccessful court battle that went to the U.S. Supreme Court followed.

Gaylord, now 76, never returned to teaching.

On Sunday, 42 years after he lost his job, Gaylord will receive an apology from the Tacoma School District.

“I felt that Mr. Gaylord deserved an apology,” said Tacoma School Board president Kurt Miller

IOWA BOY

Gaylord, a native of Iowa, moved to Seattle with his family at age 10. He attended the University of Washington on a scholarship and later returned on a sabbatical in the late 1960s to earn a master’s degree in librarianship.

He said he knew he was gay by the time he was an adolescent. But he didn’t seek out other gay people for friendship and companionship until 1970.

In 1960, Gaylord joined the faculty at Wilson – his first teaching job. By 1972, he was teaching social studies to seniors. He was, judging from the teachers and students who later testified in his behalf, well liked and respected at the school.

Gaylord was careful to keep his personal life separate from his teaching life. Even his closest friends on the faculty didn’t know he was gay until he was fired.

“I always tried to keep my private life private,” Gaylord said in an interview Wednesday.

GETTING OUTED

In 1972, a Wilson student who knew a gay adult friend of Gaylord’s approached the teacher to discuss the student’s attraction to other boys.

“As I recall it was almost totally inconsequential,” Gaylord said of the talk. He did not reveal his orientation to the boy.

Sometime later, the boy tried to commit suicide. While being interviewed by the police the boy related that he had spoken to Gaylord, who he had presumed to be gay.

The police went to Wilson and the vice principal came to Gaylord.

“I didn’t think that merely saying nothing or denying it would be very productive,” Gaylord said. “They had gone this far. They weren’t going to give up. So I said, yes, it’s true.”

A few weeks later, on Nov. 21, 1972, Gaylord received a letter telling him he was to be fired.

It read, in part: “The specific probable cause for your discharge is that you have admitted occupying a public status that is incompatible with the conduct required of teachers in this district. Specifically, that you have admitted being a publicly known homosexual.”

Gaylord appealed to the school board.

“All five had gotten together in a secret meeting and decided to fire me,” he said.

But only three, a quorum, showed up at the hearing and upheld his termination.

“I had a rather unpleasant Christmas,” Gaylord recalled.

His firing and increasing public profile forced him to come out to his parents.

“They were a bit upset,” he recalled. “But then they became very supportive.”

Jobless, a mortgage to pay and nowhere to go Gaylord decided to fight back.

Asked what the period in his life was like, Gaylord has a one-word answer.

“Hell.”

So why didn’t he just give up his seat and go to the back of the bus?

“I had always stressed civil rights, civil liberties and equality before the law and standing up for one’s rights in my classes,” he said.

The teacher’s union he belonged to threw its support behind him and made him the union’s office manager – providing him an income.

“It was enough to keep me going without much difficulty,” he said.

ON TRIAL

Gaylord wanted his job back and sued the school district. A private man, he soon found himself with an increasingly public profile.

“I had to give up my privacy to get my job back,” he said.

Teachers and students testified on his behalf. Just as many testified against him.

Trygve Blix, then a recently retired administrator with the Tacoma School District, testified in support of the district’s decision to fire Gaylord:

“If the word was out that there was a homosexual teaching, ... youngsters ... with those tendencies could well accept them and say, this person is a fine man, he’s a homosexual, I can’t see what’s wrong with it.”

Eventually, the judge ruled in favor of the school district, basically stating homosexuality was immoral and the district was within its rights to fire Gaylord.

The case eventually made its way to the Washington state Supreme Court. In January, 1977 the court ruled that a school board can discharge a teacher if it feels the teacher’s ability to do the job is impaired.

In Gaylord’s case, it was complaints by students and staff members that constituted the effect on his ability to teach. The complaints came only after he was outed.

Reading the decision today reflects a mind-set of the 1970s. A Catholic encyclopedia was cited, and antiquated and stereotypical depictions of homosexuality were brought in as authoritative definitions.

“They went on to decide that I was probably a sex criminal because I hadn’t denied I was sex criminal,” Gaylord said. “Even though it wasn’t even alleged I was a sex criminal in the lower courts.”

The only testimony and evidence regarding Gaylord’s personal life was his admission that he was gay.

Two justices, James Dolliver and Robert F. Utter, dissented from the court’s ruling. In his written opinion, Dolliver stated that “homosexuality does not preclude competence.”

More troubling for the two justices were the tactics the school board used to terminate Gaylord.

“Certainly in this country we should be beyond drawing severe and far-reaching inferences from the admission of a status — a status which may be no more than a state of mind,” Dolliver wrote in his dissenting opinion.

The case came to an end when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it.

Gaylord has no regrets.

“I would do it all over again,” he said. “There were a lot of people who thought it was a losing battle. But it still advanced the cause for equal rights.”

HISTORY REVISITED

Gaylord’s story was largely unknown at the school district and within the Tacoma gay community.

Some of the community are coming out in their early teens and attend Oasis, Tacoma’s drop-in, support and resource center for LGBT youth.

For nearly 30 years, Oasis kept an undisclosed location. It’s now permanently located side by side with the highly visible Rainbow Center on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma.

The coming out for Oasis is the theme of an oral histories project at the center.

“Youth really wanted to talk to elders in the community and ask them what has their lives been like coming out, and what good and challenging differences being out can make in someone’s life,” Oasis executive director Seth Kirby said.

When one of the youth interviewed Gaylord, he recounted the story of his firing.

Though Kirby was aware of Gaylord’s story, the youth’s interview got him thinking: Would the school district consider an apology to Gaylord?

It didn’t take long for district officials to say yes.

“I worked it up the ladder and took it to the superintendent and everyone else. It came back, yeah, we should apologize,” Miller said.

On Sunday, Oasis will present its oral histories project at its annual fundraiser, Proud Outloud, at Stadium High School.

At the event, Miller will give a formal apology to Gaylord. He also will talk about how different the atmosphere is in today’s Tacoma public schools for students and staff members.

In June, the school board passed a nondiscrimination and equity policy for students that deals with gender identity and sexual orientation.

“If you’re LGBTQ, you have a right to an education and you cannot be discriminated against,” Miller said.

The district has the same policy for its employees.

Today, Tacoma high schools have gay-straight alliance clubs and openly gay and lesbians teachers walk the halls.

“They’re accepted,” Miller said of the district’s LGBT teachers. “They’re out to their students. We’re very supportive of that. And they have children of their own.”

While Tacoma schools have changed, it’s not the case in all of Washington’s schools. Mark Zmuda, a vice principal at Eastside Catholic School in Sammamish, was fired in 2013 after he married his male partner.

APOLOGY ACCEPTED

Gaylord still lives in the same Tacoma house he’s had for 49 years.

He collects and restores old radios. He retired as a librarian with the Pierce County library system – a career he ended up preferring to the more stressful life as a teacher.

Though he didn’t seek an apology, Gaylord said knowing it’s going to happen is a good feeling.

“It helps put a relatively pleasant end on an unpleasant situation,” he said.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com @crsailor

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