Every summer for the past few years, Randy Fair worked on his book. A retired Atlanta educator who now lives in Florida, Fair felt called to document his time in the classroom, hoping it would serve as a tipping point to discuss treatment of LGBTQ teachers and students.
Southern. Gay. Teacher. begins with a high-school-aged Fair in the 1970s, and continues through his teaching experiences all the way through retirement two years ago. The book is slated for publication Feb. 1.
“It was very therapeutic,” he said. “I entered this into a lot of contests and kept getting rejected.”
Finally, Atmosphere Press approached him with the desire to publish, but some cuts were necessary. Fair’s editors advised focusing on the school atmosphere aspects, and depending on how this book is received, they’ll consider publishing Fair’s personal memoirs as a second volume.
“School is something we make everyone do, so you send these kids into these places that in my view are some of the most homophobic places left in our society and they’re forced to go there, and then oftentimes they’re subjected to emotional and sometimes physical violence because we force them into this situation they have no control over. They can’t choose not to go,” Fair said.
After decades in the classroom, Fair did see improvements on how LGBTQ students are treated: efforts of school administrators to meet with transgender students before school started to address their bathroom needs, for example. But it’s a far cry from where it could be, where out students and teachers are treated the same regardless of sexual orientation or gender.
Welcome to Atlanta
Fair grew up in Weaver, Alabama, a town with a population of approximately 2,000. Kids weren’t always directed toward college at the time, and Fair sought the advice from a favorite teacher on what to major in.
She told him he was going to be a teacher, too, and he wound up at Jacksonville State University soon after. Fair took a sociology class that included a field trip to the ATL. They visited prisons, nursing homes, and ended the trip with a visit to a gay bar called Illusions.
“Illusions was a huge, gigantic bar. They did drag shows and I didn’t even know what a drag show was,” Fair said. “They were having the Mr. and Ms. Gay Atlanta pageant and I was so shocked by these guys that were coming out competing … they were so opposite of what my stereotype of a gay person would be.”
Later in his college years, a couple of friends took Fair back to Atlanta to cheer him up with a visit to a different gay bar.
“I knew there just was nothing in Alabama for a gay man in that time period. So I graduated on a Friday night and I moved to Atlanta on a Saturday morning,” Fair said. “I was so amazed there was this culture there and this place could be like that. It was the only place that I knew of that had any kind of gay culture at all.”
Gay Culture, Yes … Gay Educators, Not So Much
“I’d heard stories about how you could be openly gay and teach in Atlanta, and then I got to Atlanta and found out that wasn’t actually true,” Fair said. “I never really have honestly known any teacher who is what I would call truly, openly gay, including myself. Even though the kids knew it, we didn’t discuss it.”
For example, straight teachers tend to have photos of their spouse and kids on their desks, and incorporated their families into analogies or stories for the course.
“The LGBTQ teachers that I’ve known, I’ve never known them to do that. In a way it’s like teaching with one arm tied behind your back because you can’t use all the tools that a straight teacher would use,” he said. “The LGBTQ teachers I’ve known have approached this by being so overly qualified and good that you can’t say anything about it. It’s almost like they have to be perfect in every way. Most of the people that I knew, especially at one school where there were a whole lot of LGBTQ teachers, it was treated like an open secret.”
A Groundbreaking Topic
When Fair first moved to Atlanta, he shared an apartment with a woman who later nominated him for the Smithsonian’s National Faculty fellowship. While in that program, Fair met a black Ph.D. student writing her dissertation on the Great Migration, and was immediately inspired.
“She talked about it a lot and that’s the first time it dawned on me that you could do something so specific for your dissertation,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m going to direct every paper I do toward something called lesbian and gay stuff.’ When I got back, I enrolled in a specialist program and I directed every paper; every class; I would come up with a way to make the paper have something to do with lesbian and gay studies. I was scared, but far from being hostile to it, I suddenly found out that the professors at Georgia State really loved this because they were so sick of reading the same kind of papers over and over again. In that day and time it was kind of groundbreaking having this topic discussed.”
Another thing that’s changed since Fair first stepped foot in the classroom as a Southern gay teacher: it’s no longer groundbreaking for LGBTQ Americans to openly discuss their fight for equality.
“If I could have my dream happen with this book, it would be to start these conversations, especially with the general public, but more importantly with people who plan on becoming teachers. Most teachers go into this and they don’t even think of LGBTQ concerns, so when they are happy they’re caught completely off-guard because they don’t know how to handle this,” Fair said. “That’s what I want to accomplish in 2020.”