In 1972, Jim Gaylord was teaching social studies at Tacoma’s Wilson High School. He was 35 years old, popular with the students and his co-workers, and a confirmed bachelor, which was what most people called gay men in those early post-Stonewall days.
Jim knew he was gay — he’d known since he was quite young — but it wasn’t until the early 70s that he came out to himself and began seeking out other gay men for friendship and companionship, being very careful to keep his private life private; even his colleagues had no idea he was gay.
One day, though, one of his students, who knew a gay adult friend of Gaylord’s, came to talk with Jim about his own attraction to other boys. It was a brief conversation, at best, and Jim barely recalled much of it, but a time later that young boy tried to take his own life.
He survived, but while being interviewed by the police the boy said he’d spoken to Jim Gaylord because he assumed he was gay. What happened next was, and is, shocking.
The police took that information to the vice principal of the high school, who came to Jim’s house one night and asked him point blank if he was a “homosexual.” Jim decided then and there that he was tired of lying by omission and said it was true, he was gay.
A few weeks later he received a letter of termination; it said, in part:
“The specific probable cause for your discharge is that you have admitted occupying a public status that is incompatible with the conduct required of teachers in this district. Specifically, that you have admitted being a publicly known homosexual.”
Jim Gaylord, now 76, never taught school again.
But Jim fought back; openly gay — even to his parents who hadn’t known their son was gay until he was fired — Jim, who’d always taught his students about civil rights and equality and standing up for one’s self, was not going to just quietly sit back and do nothing.
He was jobless, with a mortgage to pay and no income, but thankfully his local teacher’s union stood behind him, even hiring him as their office manager so he would have an income and support.
So Jim appealed the termination to the school board, whose five-member panel had met in secret to fire him but, at his hearing only three showed up; it was still enough to let his termination for being gay stand.
But Jim wasn’t done, and he decided he would sue the school board for wrongful termination. And while many of Jim’s fellow teachers and more than a few students testified on his behalf — and just as many testified against him — a judge ruled in favor of the school district, saying that, in effect, being gay was immoral and the district was within its rights to fire Gaylord.
Jim then appealed his case to the Washington state Supreme Court where, in 1977, five years after being fired, that court ruled that a school board can discharge a teacher if it feels the teacher’s ability to do the job is impaired, and they felt that the complaints about Jim being gay did, in fact, impair his ability to do his job; ironically, though, the complaints about Jim being gay came out after he was fired.
Jim still refused to surrender and appealed his case to the US Supreme Court, who declined to hear his case at all. He would never get his job back. What he did get, though, some forty-two years after being fired, was quite unexpected, and yet quite welcome.
Another young gay man wanted to talk to Jim Gaylord, though this young man came to Jim to talk about being fired for being gay as part of an Oasis — Tacoma’s support and resource center for LGBT youth — oral history project.
Seth Kirby, the executive director of Oasis, was unaware of Gaylord’s story, but began wondering if the Tacoma school district would consider an apology to Gaylord? After placing a number of calls, climbing the ladder of succession, Kirby finally spoke with Kurt Miller, the Tacoma School Board president, who said an apology to Jim Gaylord was long overdue.
And when Oasis presented its oral histories project — including Jim Gaylord’s story — during its annual fundraiser, Proud Outloud, Kurt Miller formally apologized; Miller also spoke about the differences in Tacoma’s public schools from those old days when Jim Gaylord taught, noting that the school board recently passed a nondiscrimination and equity policy for students that deals with gender identity and sexual orientation; and the district has the same policy for its employees.
Jim Gaylord, who still lives in that Tacoma house where the vice principal knocked forty-two years ago, is a retired librarian — a job he took when his case when unheard by SCOTUS — and says he’s happy with the apology, even though he never asked for it.
“It helps put a relatively pleasant end on an unpleasant situation.”
And an end to an unpleasant time in this country where it was commonplace for gay men and women — especially those in education — to be fired simply for being gay, a condition that still exists in many parts of this country to this day.
And while the apology may seem a little too late, it does offer proof that the times have changed, and are changing. Jim Gaylord never taught again, but he stood up for himself, as a gay man, and stood up for an entire community. He may not have won his case, but he fought for himself as a gay man and that’s a lesson that keeps on giving.
If Jim Gaylord could stand up for us in 1972, then we can keep standing up for all of us in the LGBTQ community in 2014, and beyond.