Local teacher Tom Greene had the idea for the Proud Apple Social Club after meeting a number of openly gay teachers on Duke’s campus at last year’s North Carolina Pride Parade.
Greene, a government and economics teacher at Chapel Hill High School, started the club to provide an open forum for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teachers to discuss issues both related and unrelated to the LGBT community.
At the beginning of each month, the organization convenes and acts as a social group and support network for educators who are open about their sexual orientations in their professional lives.
“It dawned on me that it would be good to see these teachers more than once a year at [the parade], and that it would be a good support network,” Greene said. “We could talk about difficulties and be there to support one another because we have similar experiences, not only being gay but also in our professions.”
The club spread through word of mouth and its Facebook page, which has 45 members as of Monday night. Meetings are held the first Thursday or Friday of each month— usually in a nearby restaurant or bar.
Greene said the group helps its members deal with the challenges associated with being an openly gay teacher. For example, he described a teacher who had a student pulled from her after-school program when the student’s parents found out about her sexual orientation.
“We’re in the public eye a little bit,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to be open because of past or current negative reactions. The group helps [members] navigate any issues.”
Many members have expressed interest in expanding the club from a social group to an advocacy group.
“There have been a lot of suggestions to make the meetings more formal and to hold events,” Greene said. “I foresee this club evolving and taking on advocacy, but it’s based on what the other members want to do and our shared vision.”
Greene added that many members are sponsors of gay-straight alliances in their respective schools and adopt “an aggressive approach” to offensive language in the classroom.
“We see ourselves as not only advocating for ourselves but also for students,” he said.
Member Nick Winstead, an English teacher at Northwood High School in Pittsboro, said taking action to address issues that affect the LGBT community would be a “natural” next step.
John Pickett, who teaches first grade at New Hope Elementary School in Chapel Hill, also emphasized the importance of advocacy.
“The amount of LGBT youths taking their own lives recently has been shocking,” he said. “As educators who can relate to the struggles of these youths, I think that our group has a strong desire to address the bullying and school climates that lead to LGBT youth suicides.”
Kaela Cogswell, a senior at Chapel Hill High School and president of the school’s Queer-Straight Alliance, said the students at CHHS are generally more accepting of gay students and teachers compared with students at other schools. Some LGBT students from neighboring institutions had to transfer to CHHS in order to feel safe, she said, and for that reason support groups are important for members of the LGBT community.
“Students can’t possibly achieve in school and teachers can’t feel confident if they don’t feel accepted and don’t have a support group in place,” she said. “That is what [gay-straight alliances] and clubs like the Proud Apple Social Club are [for].... They give that needed support to students and teachers.”
Winstead said the Proud Apple Social Club members can serve as positive role models for gay students.
“It’s good that we have so many proud and out teachers in this area who are willing to be visible,” he said. “We can give a positive image, and that’s very needed these days.”
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