New AFT task force focuses on LGBTQIA+ community

It’s Pride Month, and people are flocking to parades and celebrations, flying rainbow flags and filling the media with stories from the LGBTQIA+ community. But this year that joy is coupled with fear, as attacks on LGBTQIA+ freedom increase—from the attempt to violently disrupt a Pride event in Idaho, to criminalizing parents for providing gender-affirming healthcare for their children, to “don’t say gay” legislation that threatens educators for teaching about gender.

Pride Month
credit: eyegelb/iStock/Getty

It is an opportune time for the AFT’s newest task force to begin its work. On June 24, the AFT’s LGBTQIA+ Task Force will hold its inaugural meeting in New York City, near the historic Stonewall Inn—the backdrop of the world’s largest Pride celebration and the birthplace of the modern movement for LGBTQIA+ rights. Incidentally, the AFT has its own history as the first international union to support protections for LGBTQ workers.

Jeff Freitas and Phillippe Abraham
From left, Jeff Freitas and Philippe Abraham at an AFT Higher Ed conference in 2019.

“I’m very proud the AFT is focusing on these very personal and member-focused issues,” says task force co-Chair Jeff Freitas, an AFT vice president and president of the California Federation of Teachers. At the same time, he says, the AFT’s task forces—including those on racial equity, Latinx, and Asian American and Pacific Islander issues—have a broader reach. “We not only fight for our members, we also fight for the people that we serve.”

“Now, more than ever, we need to have a united voice,” says task force co-Chair Philippe Abraham, an AFT vice president and secretary-treasurer of New York State United Teachers. “People of color, LGBTQIA+, you name it, we’re all suffering from the same attacks and assaults.”

The AFT has advocated for LGBTQIA+ rights for decades, and many people take for granted that an organization led by AFT President Randi Weingarten, the first openly gay leader of a national labor organization, would fight for LGBTQIA+ rights. She and other AFT leaders have been outspoken about these rights. But as the nation’s climate shifts, they are underscoring that commitment.

Nancy Vera
Nancy Vera

Task force member Nancy Vera, president of the Corpus Christi (Texas) AFT, says she applauds the AFT for going forward with the group, and feels a particular responsibility as a union president to represent her members, many of whom are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. “We do need representation, especially now that there is a lot of hate legislation cropping up all across the country,” she says. “We just can’t have that. We cannot have our members treated that way.”

A 2021 AFT resolution supporting LGBTQIA+ youth and educators notes the damage wrought by a former administration that “relentlessly sowed hate, fear and division,” and the continuing threat to LGBTQIA+ youth, who are four times more likely to die by suicide, more likely to be kicked out of their homes and more likely to experience harassment. Research shows that LGBTQIA+ educators can reduce those negative experiences, and the resolution pledges to help AFT locals recruit and retain LGBTQIA+ educators, expand Gay-Straight Alliance clubs and “ensure that the nation’s LGBTQ youth are valued; have a place in our classrooms; and deserve the opportunity of a diverse, full and safe education.”

The work is essential, says Freitas. LGBTQIA+ educators should not fear for their jobs, and they should have the opportunity to connect with students as part of a welcoming environment in which LGBTQIA+ students are comfortable and able to thrive.  

Freitas’ work on the task force is inspired in part by his own experience. He left the U.S. Military Academy at West Point—of his own volition—when “it was a crime to be in the military and to be gay,” in the early 1990s. He became a high school teacher and remembers a colleague using a slur against him; even though Freitas was not out at the time, he wore an earring that, in his colleague’s mind, branded him as close enough.

Freitas was afraid he might lose his job. The incident passed, but it rattled him.

Now he wouldn’t be fired for being gay, but educators face new threats: state laws that ban teaching or talking about gender and sexuality. Those policies could be applied to something as simple as explaining why one child has two mommies, sharing weekend plans with students and mentioning a same-sex spouse, or supporting a student who is questioning their gender identity.

“It is our responsibility to show acceptance not only among each other but among our children,” says Vera. “Every child, no matter who they are, where they come from or what their abilities, is accepted in our classrooms, because if they are accepted in our classrooms, society will be more accepting of who we are.” The task force will help advance those goals.

“Folks should be able to live full lives without fear of retaliation,” says Abraham. “We are about justice for all, and fairness—that is what unions are about.”

[Virginia Myers]