By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
(Part 5 of our five-part series on how anti-LGBTQ political attacks are harming educators and students)
For those who didn’t hear the important news in late July, MEA member Anthony Pennock wants it noted the Michigan Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that individuals cannot be fired, evicted or otherwise discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The historic decision handed down on July 28 found the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 includes protections against discrimination based on an individual’s LGBTQ status.
“People maybe haven’t heard or don’t realize or understand because the ruling just happened, but we have that protection in state law,” said Pennock, a gay man who teaches and leads the local union in Battle Creek and also serves as co-chair of MEA’s three-year-old LGBTQ Caucus.
However, as with the U.S. Supreme Court ignoring longstanding precedent to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision last June, Pennock also points out that court rulings do not offer guarantees. “People are fearing that if one right can be taken away, what will be next?”
Accelerating attacks against the LGBTQ community across the country drove Pennock to testify recently at his alma mater, Pennfield Schools in the rural outskirts of Battle Creek, where a majority on the school board had talked of removing so-called “divisive concepts” from school curricula.
With their comments at a meeting in July, the board members appeared to be targeting books and lessons that discuss issues of race and gender, Pennock said, but he added, “They’re getting a huge backlash from the community, thankfully.”
A number of people turned out to speak against stripping the curriculum of inclusive materials and ideas at the monthly meeting in August, including educators, students, parents and community activists. Similar battles are being fought over library books and reading materials in various Michigan districts.
Pennock drew cheers – and afterward a hug from his former music teacher, MEA member Steve Bowen, who also spoke out against potential changes – with powerful remarks about the bullying he endured that led him to contemplate suicide in the eighth grade.
“Luckily, I did not go through with taking my life,” Pennock said, his voice shaking with emotion. “But I did make a promise to myself to do everything I could to ensure other children never had to go through the torment I did – in any school – and now I see this board acting like my bullies.”
Pennock offered ways to help students learn better – by welcoming, standing up for, and including all students in classrooms, books and curricula. “I would be happy to inform and educate you to clear up misconceptions you may have because that’s my job. I’m an educator, and I’m here to protect students.”
The increasing legislative attacks and hateful rhetoric against LGBTQ people affects young people in every realm – psychological, physical, emotional and academic – Pennock said in an interview, citing frightening statistics on the mental health of LGBTQ youth in the U.S.
The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 45% of all LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, with even higher rates among young people who are transgender and especially Black and Indigenous youth and people of color.
No one deserves to feel that way, Pennock said. That’s why he successfully fought a few years ago to have his district’s non-discrimination policy include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
It’s also why he continues to share his experiences publicly, even though they remain painful.
“I’ve always learned as an educator, as a leader in our union, and as an advocate that our power comes from our stories,” he said. “We have to give voice to it, because the students who are speaking up in large numbers across the country need to know we are with them.”
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’