by Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
(Part 3 of our five-part series on how anti-LGBTQ political attacks are harming educators and students)
MEA member Owen Bondono remembers well-meaning advice he got from a professor when he came out as transgender in college: either don’t transition or don’t become an educator. He would go on to do both – and be selected as Michigan Teacher of the Year in 2020 after five years in the classroom.
“Her other option for me if I transitioned was to do it really well and keep it a secret – never tell anyone – and then I could still work as a teacher,” he said.
Bondono kept his personal life a secret for the first three years of his career in Oak Park Schools for fear of being fired, but helped by a supportive administrator and union he came out in 2018. The growing weight of not being the teacher he needed in high school had become too much to carry.
“I remember my principal being very surprised that I didn’t know she was fully supportive of me, and I had to explain to her that I know she supports me, and I know that she’s wonderful, but no one knows how they’re going to behave when the mob is there,” he said.
These days Bondono’s early concerns about his safety as an openly transgender educator seem prescient.
Nationwide hateful rhetoric against LGBTQ educators and students has ramped up over the past year alongside restrictive new laws in at least 13 states aimed at silencing their voices and denying their humanity. The most prominent example is Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Last spring Bondono faced the threat directly as he confronted a “terrifying” internet mob directed at him by a right-wing Twitter account dedicated to whipping up extreme anti-LGBTQ fervor among its 1.3 million followers.
“I had mobs of anonymous internet strangers flooding all of my social media, flooding my emails – including my work email – accusing me of being a pedophile and groomer, talking about how I should kill myself and more.”
The hateful names, calls for his firing, and threats to his safety left him fearful and exhausted for several weeks after the April tweet targeting Bondono by “Libs of TikTok,” an anonymous account echoed by conservative hosts on FOX and other right-wing sites, such as The Daily Caller.
“It was a very vulnerable feeling, like there was a boogie man in every shadow, and my body was in fight or flight all the time,” Bondono said. “It was a little bit comforting that it was all happening online, because I knew most of these people are not my community, but still it was terrifying because you know—it only takes one, right?”
Bondono believes the current wave of attacks marks a reactionary push-back against recent civil rights gains. But it’s rooted in a long history of homophobic and transphobic bigotry that dehumanizes LGBTQ people and equates them with pedophiles who pose a danger to children and society, he notes.
“There’s a reason that queer people were targeted just as viciously as Jewish people by the Nazis. We’re an easy target; we’re visible, and we’re different, and different can be scary. How many times through history have we heard ‘We have to protect the children’ as a way to further bigotry?”
Bondono is concerned for individual educators and the profession as a whole, but more so he worries about young people who are seeing and hearing the vitriol aimed at their community.
“We already know that queer youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight cis-gender peers, and they make up 40% of homeless youth in the United States. The rhetoric that is happening is going to result in some kids harming themselves because they feel hopeless and unseen.”
What brings him hope is activism joining LGBTQ folks with other allies in the fight for human rights: “Martin Luther King Jr. said the long arc of history bends toward justice, and what I have learned is that only happens if we make it so – because we don’t stop fighting to make it so.”
On that front, Bondono is bringing his voice to a new policy arena. In August, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed him to serve on the Governor’s Educator Advisory Council for a term ending in 2026.
Editor’s Note: This story is one part of a larger picture showing detrimental effects of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and actions on students and educators. Read all five stories in our series, The Toll of Attacks on LGBTQ Rights:
- Chilling effects from ‘Don’t Say Gay’
- Echoes from history of the worst kind
- Award-winning teacher faces threats
- Loving families won’t return to shadows
- ‘Our power comes from our stories’