Betsy Parsons was born in 1954 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents soon moved to Streator, a small Illinois corn town, where her father practiced medicine and her mother taught high school English. Each summer, Betsy’s parents took her to Maine, where they had grown up. From early on, Betsy knew the Pine Tree State would eventually be her home as well.

Immediately after college, Betsy moved to Portland, Maine, and began teaching English there. Gradually, Betsy came out to herself as lesbian. For many years, however, coming out at work seemed like an impossibility. But in the late 1980s and early 90s, Betsy noticed a frightening shift in the social and political climate for queer kids, especially as HIV/AIDS created extraordinary levels of fear and anxiety in the general public. She saw bullying and harassment of LGBTQ students increasing sharply. Something had to be done. In 1996 Betsy helped found the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) of Southern Maine. Two years later, she bravely came out herself, the first teacher in Maine’s largest school system to come out as LGBTQ and keep his or her job. 

Over the next 15 years, Betsy helped Maine students start and sustain Gay Straight Trans Alliances (GSTAs) across the state, advised a regional GSTA youth leadership team, and supported GSTA faculty advisors statewide. Betsy’s commitment to youth leadership, equal educational opportunity and nonviolent social change were rooted in her deep religious faith, her conviction that every child deserved the chance to succeed on his or her own terms, and her simple love for her students. 

Today, Betsy today serves on the LGBT Collection Advisory Committee for the University of Southern Maine’s Sampson Center for Diversity. She’s a longtime member of Portland’s Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church, and has sung for 22 years with the chorus Women in Harmony, which performs and harmonizes for the cause of social justice. She loves kayaking, reading, spending time with her extended family, and communing with her aptly-named felines Hawthorne and Will.

OUTWORDS interviewed Betsy on our first major East Coast trip in the summer of 2016. Along with her thoughtful, moving interview, it was particularly inspiring to take Betsy’s photo with her hand-painted marching sign that reads “Proud Lesbian Teacher for 30 Years”. Betsy fought hard for the right to hoist that sign publicly; and as a result, Maine today is a safer place not only for queer kids, but for any kid who needs space to learn, breathe, and grow. 
Mason Funk: [00:00:00] Do me a favor and start by telling me your first and last name.
Betsy Parsons: I'm Betsy Parsons.
Mason Funk: Could you please spell those for me?
Betsy Parsons: B-E-T-S-Y P-A-R-S-O-N-S.
Mason Funk: Okay. Let's just start at the very beginning and have you tell me where and when you were born and what family you were born into. Who is your mom? Who is your dad?
Betsy Parsons: Okay. I was born in Boston in 1954 to native Mainer parents
Betsy Parsons: [00:00:30] who grew up here in urban and rural poverty actually, in the depression. We're part of the generation that had to leave Maine after the war for more education. The programs weren't here. They went to Boston and had me. My dad had grown up in the Carrabassett Valley on a very difficult farm.
Betsy Parsons: [00:01:00] Beautiful but difficult land to farm. As so many young men his age, he went off to World War II and served almost four years and then came home and went to school on the GI Bill. What he really wanted to do, his dream was to go back to the Carrabassett Valley as a medical doctor and provide care where there had not ever been any beyond the home remedies.
Betsy Parsons: [00:01:30] Anyway, my mom learned to be an English teacher and did her student teaching here in Maine. When time came for him to finish his training, they went to Chicago. The family ended up in the Midwest. They in fact settled in a small corn town about 100 miles outside of Chicago, which is well beyond suburbia and raised a lot of kids there.
Betsy Parsons: [00:02:00] My parents are both still living. Dad is almost 92. He just stopped taking care of people a few months ago. My mom raised us and then taught for 25 years.
Mason Funk: You effectively grew up in this small town in Illinois.
Betsy Parsons: [00:02:30] Right. Right. Although our ties to Maine were really deep because every relative we have in the world was back here. Every summer, they'd throw us all into one of those great, big old station wagons and they would bring us back here to stay with relatives for a week or two. I just fell in love with Maine. I just knew that this was a place I would always love to be.
Mason Funk: Great. What kind of folks were your parents in terms of any ... Did they or did other people plant seeds of
Mason Funk: [00:03:00] what we might call activism or social consciousness or social justice, orientation, tolerance or embracing difference? What lessons did they or did they not teach you at an early age?
Betsy Parsons: That's a great question. I think my folks often felt a little ... They loved the town that they chose to raise us. In fact, they lived there for close to 60 years.
Mason Funk: [00:03:30] Say the town in Illinois.
Betsy Parsons: Sorry. Streator, Illinois, my hometown. They chose that town and they stayed there until less than a year ago. They just loved it with all their hearts. I think they also always felt a little bit like immigrants to the town. They had New England accents. Students in school would say, "Mrs. Parsons, what country are you from?"
Betsy Parsons: [00:04:00] They felt a little bit different and they brought with them Yankee attitudes about a lot of things and typically somewhat more liberal or progressive political views. It was a very conservative Republican part of Illinois. I've often given thanks that my mother was raised here at Woodfords Church in the United Church of Christ Church where
Betsy Parsons: [00:04:30] she had very strong social justice teaching from a minister who became a very influential person in her life. In fact, they brought all their babies back to be baptized by this guy because he had been so powerful in her life in such a positive way. My parents are both people who read constantly and are constantly educating themselves. That's still true. Obviously,
Betsy Parsons: [00:05:00] they were aware of the social justice issues around them in their community. I think in dad's case, he tended to deal with those mostly by providing excellent care in a very ... He just wouldn't put in bills when families were in trouble. In my mother's case, she got involved in fair housing issues in the '60s and then in other kinds of causes in our little town
Betsy Parsons: [00:05:30] that were often seen as suspect because they were too liberal. I think now in looking back, I realized that a lot of their ability to accept me without a lot of struggle or at least a lot of overt struggle really came, I think principally out of a combination of the back Maine live
Betsy Parsons: [00:06:00] and let live philosophy and my mother's social justice teaching as a teenager. Does that help?
Mason Funk: Totally great. Yeah. Totally great. It's always nice to have a sense of where one got some tools. When was it that you began to feel that you were different?
Betsy Parsons: This was one of those that's hard to quantify or talk about
Betsy Parsons: [00:06:30] because for such a long time early in my life, there was no language to identify the difference that I felt. I tended, as I think many people in my generation, to just simply repress it or ignore it or not validate it in any way. I would say in retrospect, it looks very different to me looking back than it did as I was experiencing the unfolding of my life.
Betsy Parsons: [00:07:00] I can remember feeling different in some way that I shouldn't talk about as early as four. Certainly, I was wildly in love at 14. There was no consciousness of LGBT relationships among the people that I was surrounded by. There was also no way to really understand or talk about the intensity of that.
Betsy Parsons: [00:07:30] We were "best friends" for four years. Also, it was an innocent enough society in certain ways that we could just live like that, spend a lot of time together. Obviously love being in each other's presence and nobody bothered us. That's the big difference I think between my adolescence and the adolescence that I was watching unfold in the '80s and '90s among my students.
Mason Funk: [00:08:00] Right. That's really interesting. We'll go back. Watch out for it and go back but what you just said made me realize that once there began to be an awareness of gay and lesbian relationships, she was going to close that door.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: You couldn't flag your radar.
Betsy Parsons: Exactly.
Mason Funk: Yeah. Hold on just one second until she gets back.
Betsy Parsons: Sure.
Mason Funk: Just take that part and expand a little.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah. Yeah.
Mason Funk: [00:08:30] Once you became a teacher and it was the '90s, and just essentially what you were saying that there began to be some awareness so it got to be harder on you.
Betsy Parsons: Right. As our society became more broadly aware of lesbian and gay people and later, bi and trans people, it was as if a certain protective veil was removed. Now in the '80s and '90s, you have young people coming of age with
Betsy Parsons: [00:09:00] the people around them aware that sexual orientation exists and also gender identity. That people can be different in these ways. Therefore, they can also be targeted based on those traits. Frankly, given what was happening in the '80s with the onset of HIV and AIDS and the level of stigma and fear being so magnified by that pandemic,
Betsy Parsons: [00:09:30] I just felt as a teacher that I was seeing for the first time this dark underbelly of my school in a way that I had really been oblivious to before. It was horrifying to me. Of course, I wasn't nave. I mean, kids ... It's just part of growing up to sometimes make mistakes and to be mean to other people.
Betsy Parsons: [00:10:00] Some folks unfortunately stay with that longer than others. I had never sensed this kind of unleashing of the gates to any form of harassment and any hate language that could just be used with impunity in the school environment. That I was not really accustomed to. It was frankly shocking to me.
Betsy Parsons: [00:10:30] I had to try to figure out how I was going to position myself as a teacher in relation to that. Of course, at that very time, that became a complicated proposition for me because I was coming out to myself, so those things. I was a late bloomer. I didn't really come out to myself until I was in my late 20's, early 30's. Yeah.
Mason Funk: Let's start this as a fresh story.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: This is an important stage. We don't want to back into it. One sec.
Betsy Parsons: [00:11:00] Really? I feel like I'm going into the shadows here.
Mason Funk: We're going to a darker part of your story.
Betsy Parsons: Also, I keep feeling that my glasses are not really settled on my face. If they go askew, okay. I don't want to look silly. Yeah.
Mason Funk: [00:11:30] What you probably feel like is you're like-
Betsy Parsons: It does. It does feel like that. It does.
Mason Funk: Don't worry. I won't let you be there.
Kate Kunath: All right.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Betsy Parsons: Okay?
Mason Funk: She just needs a little workout. Okay. You were just talking about how you went out to yourself.
Betsy Parsons: Right.
Mason Funk: [00:12:00] I can relate. For the sake of time, why don't you just essentially talk as very quickly through, you went away to college.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Get us to the point in your life when you began to finally decide to come out.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: When you began to come out to yourself.
Betsy Parsons: Okay. Okay.
Mason Funk: Yeah. Give us a sense of when that was in your life. Give us the major leads that got you to that point. Just in terms of basic life experiences like I went away to college. I still wasn't out. I don't know.
Betsy Parsons: [00:12:30] Yeah. Okay. I was, as I said, madly in love for all of high school and had tremendous-
Mason Funk: Don't say as I said. Just say it.
Betsy Parsons: I was madly in love for four years of high school. When we parted, I experienced a lot of grief but because the intensity of our love could not be acknowledged in any way, and it was hard. She was just supposed to be another friend going off
Betsy Parsons: [00:13:00] and that was very much not what it was to me. Yet I knew I shouldn't talk about that. I couldn't talk about that, etc. Off I went to college.
Mason Funk: Wait a second. I'm sorry.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Kate, are those people in the shot? I'm going to go there at least. I don't think I want people just standing there.
Betsy Parsons: People are standing there?
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Kate Kunath: We're okay when they walk through but just standing and being there.
Mason Funk: [00:13:30] There's no better way to make people feel uncomfortable and embarrassed and awkward than by telling them that they somehow interrupted your shooting. It's as if they're thinking you were making an Academy Award winning film. They messed it up no matter what you say.
Betsy Parsons: [00:14:00] I'm sitting here wondering if Im, am I at all giving you what you need.
Mason Funk: Totally. Totally, totally.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: I'll take care of it.
Betsy Parsons: All right. All right. Yeah.
Mason Funk: Just start again.
Betsy Parsons: Sure.
Mason Funk: Just where you started before. You're madly in love for four years in high school with your best friend.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah. I was madly in love with my best friend for four years of high school. When we had to part at graduation, there could be no acknowledging of how special and important this relationship was.
Betsy Parsons: [00:14:30] That was just really hard. I knew I couldn't talk about it with anyone, not even her nor could she with me. We didn't have language for what that was. We lived in a world where we were allowed to just be best friends without being harassed or harmed. I suffered a lot of grief when I first went off to college missing her and feeling forced to date men
Betsy Parsons: [00:15:00] and not really enjoying that very much and not knowing why. Just assuming that I hadn't met the right guy for me. That just continued like that through my 20's, basically. I threw myself into learning and then into teaching. I just gave that all my energy. It was really not until I truly fell in love at almost 30
Betsy Parsons: [00:15:30] that I said, "Oh. Oh, I guess I was looking at the wrong half of the human population. Whoever would have thought of such a thing?" Of course but that time, I was also aware that gay and lesbian people existed. It was possible to be in a gay or a lesbian relationship. It was loaded for me in lots of ways because of my profession and because of where we were in history.
Mason Funk: [00:16:00] Do me a favor.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Start that again by saying, it was really loaded for me because I was a teacher. This was in the 19 whatevers and then continue on.
Betsy Parsons: It was really loaded for me because it was-
Mason Funk: One more time. Being in love with a woman for the first time and contemplating coming out was really loaded.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah. Okay.
Mason Funk: This was the 19 whatevers, start. Okay.
Betsy Parsons: [00:16:30] Right. Having fallen really in love with a woman and having it be really clear to me that this was love, that this is the way it was supposed to feel, that there was a rightness about it was both wonderful and blissful and ecstatic but also deeply problematic because I was a public school teacher. It was 1984. There was no history of any public school teacher surviving,
Betsy Parsons: [00:17:00] being outed, at least here in Maine. To be outed as a lesbian at that time meant the loss of career. Usually meant you had to leave the state. In addition to loss of family and faith community and friends and important parts of our lives. I did what everybody up until that time that I had any awareness of had done,
Betsy Parsons: [00:17:30] which is to go deep into the closet. I was there for almost 12 years. Yeah.
Mason Funk: Now adding the layer that in addition to this being a critical role in your life, it's also a critical moment in terms of what was going on with AIDS and also here in Maine.
Betsy Parsons: Right. Okay. Yeah.
Mason Funk: Try and paint us a picture of that time frame here and there, how it's created.
Betsy Parsons: [00:18:00] Yeah. In the early 1980's, HIV had emerged and had puzzled the medical community. The general panic about AIDS was spreading rapidly as the public learned about this illness and learned that they thought it was primarily associated with gay men. In this atmosphere of tremendous fear
Betsy Parsons: [00:18:30] and greatly magnified stigma, I am coming to terms with myself as a member of the LGBT community, a part of the stigmatized group. At that time, there wasn't anything positive about that for me except that I was in love. Everything else about it was problematic. Partly because of this societal conditions and the level of fear and prejudice that people were carrying,
Betsy Parsons: [00:19:00] what a punishing time it was. What a really fearful time and partly also because of the rather notorious hate crime that took place here in Maine in that same summer. In the summer of 1984 was when I was really finally able to say to myself, "I'm in love and I'm in love with this woman. This is the person I want to spend my life with." Just at that same time, literally in that period of just a couple of weeks,
Betsy Parsons: [00:19:30] three Bangor High School students threw a young gay man off a bridge in Bangor. His name was Charlie Howard. He was walking home from a pot luck supper at the Unitarian Church in Bangor on a Saturday evening. These three young men, they were with a group of friends actually but they had been for many, many weeks and months
Betsy Parsons: [00:20:00] engaged in what they called Fag Bating, a sport basically, a way of entertaining themselves by going out around town drunk in cars and finding people who might be gay to harass. Charlie Howard was 23 and was somebody who couldn't pass as straight. They confronted him on this bridge. Got out of the car.
Betsy Parsons: [00:20:30] He was very afraid for his life. He told them that he couldn't swim and begged them not to hurt him. They picked him up and swung him multiple times out over the water and then finally just let go. He drowned in Kenduskeag Stream in downtown Bangor. This year in Bangor Pride, they painted part of the walk on
Betsy Parsons: [00:21:00] that little bridge in rainbow stripes right by his memorial. That was a dreadful, dreadful crime. I think it really shocked all of us in Maine and everybody not just LGBT people. Certainly for me, it was another layer of reminder that by loving this woman, I was really putting my own life in jeopardy.
Mason Funk: [00:21:30] Wow.
Betsy Parsons: Not a fun way to come out.
Mason Funk: Yeah. That's crazy.
Betsy Parsons: To myself. Yeah.
Mason Funk: Yeah. What was it like? We're going to come back to Charlie Howard. You say you went deep into the closet for-
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: 12 years.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah. I was really scared. I was really scared. I was scared both because of the way people were behaving about AIDS and the fact that a hate crime, a murder like this
Betsy Parsons: [00:22:00] could be committed by three young men who were exactly like the boys I was teaching up there on the hill at Portland High School. I loved my students but it was the first time that I ever had to look at them as people who could possibly hurt me. That was just a novel idea to me. It was very sobering and upsetting.
Betsy Parsons: [00:22:30] There was some way in which there's a moral relationship there that really I wasn't in the habit of having to worry a lot about protecting myself. For me, teaching was always about who's this human being in front of me? How am I being of service to this young person? Who is this person becoming? How can I help that growth? All of a sudden, there's this new piece that I didn't want to be there.
Betsy Parsons: [00:23:00] Am I also taking care of myself? Am I also protecting myself from anti gay bias? Teaching became more complicated. Of course, I had to think about whether I wanted to continue to teach in public schools. You see, that had always been my dream and my great passion. That's really all I ever wanted to do with my life. I could not more imagine giving that up than I could imagine just saying, "Okay. I'll stop breathing."
Betsy Parsons: [00:23:30] That was not going to work for me. I stayed with it but I did have to build that tremendous firewall that people have to build between their personal and professional lives. I had to present as single at school. I was very much not single. There were generations at home to care for. I had to learn a whole set of skills that were very uncomfortable for me.
Betsy Parsons: [00:24:00] I had grown up in this small town that I told you about in the Midwest where it was living in a gold fishbowl. There was no privacy there. Everybody knew everything about everybody. All of a sudden, I had to learn habits that had never been part of my nature. How to lie, how to omit, how to distort for self-protection. That was very distressing to me. I knew that it was bad for my spirit
Betsy Parsons: [00:24:30] but I also felt that the alternative was the kind of complete ruin that I just described where you lose your job and your career and all those other things go, too. To me, it just seemed like an impossibility to resolve this conflict. What I had to do was simply split myself. I could have a private life at home, have a very different life at school. I put a lot of energy into keeping those separate.
Mason Funk: [00:25:00] When you say there were generations to raise, what do you mean by that?
Betsy Parsons: To care for.
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Betsy Parsons: I mean that there were elders who were in decline.
Mason Funk: Can you be a little more specific? Can you just say, during this time, it's not really that important. I guess. I thought maybe you meant that you or your partner, you or your lover had kids but I just-
Betsy Parsons: [00:25:30] My partner had children by marriage to a man. Those children were almost fully grown but not quite. They were still at a stage where they needed a lot of parenting. I was involved in that. I was also involved in the care for an elder with dementia. There were a lot of responsibilities. Those of course had to be not presented at school.
Betsy Parsons: [00:26:00] A pattern that semi amused me but also annoyed me was that in my large English department, the attitude was, "Well, Betsy will do it, because of course, you know, Betsy doesn't have a life. We can just ask Betsy to do it." Of course, I would take on more and more and more at school because I was young and healthy and single apparently. Therefore, I could carry those loads. Of course, that really wasn't the truth of my life but I had to try to make it work.
Mason Funk: [00:26:30] Wow.
Betsy Parsons: Does that?
Mason Funk: Totally.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Totally. Give me one second while these gentleman pass by.
Betsy Parsons: I feel like this is all very earnest.
Mason Funk: I guess it is but honestly, I hope it doesn't bother you.
Betsy Parsons: As long as it's okay with you.
Mason Funk: It's totally okay with me.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: For better or for worse, this is not intended to be the laugh factor.
Betsy Parsons: I've never been a quipster. I really enjoy other people's humor but I'm not the originator of it usually, so okay. Okay. Are my glasses still okay? They're driving me crazy just so you know.
Mason Funk: [00:27:00] They look great. They look like this. Okay. What changed? What changed? When you said you put on a certain amount of time on being in the closet, deep in the closet. What changed?
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Set this off as a fresh story.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: By the time I was maybe X or in my early whatever, or in my life whatever because I've been teaching for X number of years completely in the closet, like that.
Betsy Parsons: [00:27:30] Right. Okay.
Mason Funk: If it's possible to do it that way.
Betsy Parsons: I had been teaching almost 20 years when I realized that I ... Sorry.
Mason Funk: It's okay. Are you okay?
Betsy Parsons: [00:28:00] Yeah. I just get dry. That's all.
Mason Funk: That's okay.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: Okiedokie.
Betsy Parsons: As we were coming to the end of that dozen years in the closet, I was now almost a 20-year teacher. It's very seasoned, still loving teaching like crazy.
Betsy Parsons: [00:28:30] Yet these shifts were happening around me. The pre-occupation with the level of fear and actually the terror around HIV AIDS and this new level of unbridled harassment of its sort that I had never seen before.
Betsy Parsons: [00:29:00] There was something qualitatively different about it. It was emerging in the mid to late '80s and into the '90s in ways that were truly horrifying to me as an educator. I think a lot of us didn't see it. Those of us who did really didn't know what to do about it because there was such broad societal permission for people to misbehave in these ways. Schools are nothing more than a mirror of society.
Betsy Parsons: [00:29:30] Our public schools just show us what is in the larger society. I had to try to figure out how I was going to position myself in relation to this steady stream of vitriol that appeared in my school that didn't feel to me like it had been part of my school community before. I felt obviously unhealthy and dangerous.
Betsy Parsons: [00:30:00] I felt a responsibility to try to be one of the people who stood up against it. Yet I myself was a part of the target group. That was an increasingly tense situation for me but by this 20-year point, I have been shifted across the city to a different high school.
Betsy Parsons: [00:30:30] I was seeing even more blatant anti gay hate language and harassment. It was just such a part of the air that everybody breathes.
Mason Funk: Let's just have you start fresh.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: We're all over the time and this is a standalone source.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: By around the 20-year mark of my teaching career, I moved to a new high school but I was still seeing a high level of-
Betsy Parsons: [00:31:00] Worse.
Mason Funk: Worse.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Then just make that point and then move on to what you decided to do.
Betsy Parsons: Okay. Does it matter at all about what I did about AIDS at the first school?
Mason Funk: Not for the time being.
Betsy Parsons: Okay. Okay.
Mason Funk: Maybe we'll have time to come back.
Betsy Parsons: Okay. By the 20-year point in my teaching, I was at a different high school in the city and seeing even more freedom to harass,
Betsy Parsons: [00:31:30] even more of this vitriolic language and this soup of hate that was really infecting our whole school environment, and I was seeing individual students suffering the long term consequences of being targeted.
Mason Funk: Can you just say what this language was about? In other words, make it of anti gay.
Betsy Parsons: I'm sorry. I guess I said that earlier but not this time.
Mason Funk: [00:32:00] Yeah.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah. Okay. Yeah. What was particularly shocking and distressing to me of course, was that the most prevalent form of hate language in the school was anti gay language. Just every slur, constant ridicule and verbal harassment coupled with physical harassment, shoving, tripping, kicking, punching
Betsy Parsons: [00:32:30] and there seem to be mass permission for this kind of behavior to go on in the hallways and even sometimes in classrooms. Teachers would not typically intervene because to target LGBT people was acceptable. Of course, it wasn't acceptable to me. There was also the risk when you intervened that, then that form of accusation would come back at you. T
Betsy Parsons: [00:33:00] here were those constant challenges about how was I going to navigate this? The only comfort that I can take in retrospect is that I had made a decision when I began teaching that I would never once, not once on my watch would I clearly observe an offense of this nature and not respond to it. I kept that promise to myself. I'm really glad I did even though it put me at risk in lots of ways.
Betsy Parsons: [00:33:30] No teacher is ever is at much risk as a teenager in the school. Those equations, people always having to calculate those equations. How safe am I? How safe is this person? What are we going to do to keep everybody safe? It was just really difficult. A student came into my junior class in the fall having been targeted since the middle-
Mason Funk: [00:34:00] What year? Would you say roughly the time?
Betsy Parsons: In the mid '90s, a young man entered my junior English class having been outed halfway through his freshman year. He had been targeted continuously for a year and a half for the most severe and constant anti gay harassment that I had ever seen to that point.
Betsy Parsons: [00:34:30] I had experienced students disappearing from school without explanation. I had always been bewildered by that but this was a situation where I could actually see and hear what was happening to this young man. It was so blatant by the mid '90s that there was ... All I could do was say, "That will not happen in my presence. That won't happen in my classroom. This is a safe zone."
Betsy Parsons: [00:35:00] I would react immediately when I could see or hear anything that was inappropriate around anti LGBT harassment. By that time, he was so far advanced into post traumatic stress disorder and depression that he really couldn't function in the English class at all. This was a very bright guy who couldn't remember anything that he read.
Betsy Parsons: [00:35:30] Even a pretty simple American novel, he would try to read it and he couldn't remember any of it. This is when of course, I early realized that he was already suffering from such extreme ... He was suffering the full psychological effects of living with that kind of harassment. I did everything I could for him as his teacher. Fortunately, he had supportive parents who fully accepted him and who advocated for him with the school.
Betsy Parsons: [00:36:00] The school's disciplinary procedures were just completely ineffective. There was very little will to follow up on the things that happened to him. Again, this mass permission, adults not taking responsibility for keeping these young people safe and giving the message. Okay. I don't want you to say anything racist. I don't want you to talk about the size of girls' bodies or this or that.
Betsy Parsons: [00:36:30] The anti gay stuff, yeah, fine. Do whatever you want. Again, my attempts to constantly intervene also put me in difficult situations within the administration that was not going to do what I thought was his job. This does not endear a teacher to administrators. In the meantime, this young man, he did get a lot of support
Betsy Parsons: [00:37:00] and help from a counselor and a social worker, some of the support staff of the school but his experience had been too severe. He was so harmed his ability to learn had been so negatively affected by this barrage of hatred that he had experienced non-stop for a year and a half that he really had no option but to drop out of school. He dropped out of our high school. Later on got a GED.
Betsy Parsons: [00:37:30] He's in his 30's now. I'm still in touch with him. He's taking college classes but that young man was deprived of his right, his civil right to a public education. It was just utterly unacceptable to me.
Mason Funk: How did this affect your journey?
Betsy Parsons: I just became enraged. I'm watching civil rights violations happen in front of me and nothing being done about it.
Betsy Parsons: [00:38:00] If there's one thing I went into education to do, it was to try to equalize the playing field for poor kids, for minority kids of every kind. I'm a big believer in the public schools. I know they're not perfect. I really do see them as the foundation of our democracy. For me, it was not a platitude but a living, breathing truth.
Betsy Parsons: [00:38:30] To see this institution that I believed in be so cavalier about the rights of these students and then of course, eventually the more you see, the more you see. It becomes more and more evident. What is going on around? To me, it became more evident what was going around me and how many students were suffering from this kind of abuse including students who actually didn't identify as LGBT
Betsy Parsons: [00:39:00] but the level of hate language and harassment was still applied to them because it was the weapon of choice. The expression, "That's so gay," was just everywhere.
Mason Funk: I'm sorry.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: I think we just for the interest of time, I was trying to get to where you made a decision to come out I guess more publicly to yourself.
Betsy Parsons: Right.
Mason Funk: You had said you were in the closet for 12 years.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: I'm trying to get to just again in the interest of time.
Betsy Parsons: [00:39:30] Yeah.
Mason Funk: When you feel like you began to change your-
Betsy Parsons: Okay. Here, I have to start going into a bunch of political stuff.
Mason Funk: Okay. Let's-
Betsy Parsons: It's all linked. There's no way to talk about what was happening to me at school without talking about six statewide referendum that Maine had on LGBT civil rights issues.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Betsy Parsons: That was a part of the pressure.
Mason Funk: Okay. Part of the pressure on you?
Betsy Parsons: [00:40:00] Yeah.
Mason Funk: Maybe you can just pick up by saying, meantime and then we don't have time to paint a whole history of the whole process here.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: We will get that eventually through multiple interviews.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Again, I want to stick to your you as a teacher eventually began to present yourself more openly to your students.
Betsy Parsons: Right.
Mason Funk: You told me that for a long time you didn't and then a certain point, you did. I want to try to get to that part of the story.
Betsy Parsons: [00:40:30] Okay.
Mason Funk: How did you do that? I know it's hard.
Betsy Parsons: I just said I can't do it without referring to what was happening in the wider society because that's what made it happen.
Mason Funk: Right. Okay.
Betsy Parsons: It was a combination of what was going on in the media and then in the political world with what I was observing happening to my students.
Mason Funk: Maybe you can say, at the same time that I was seeing all the stuff happening in the school, a lot of other stuff was happening with the state.
Betsy Parsons: [00:41:00] Yeah.
Mason Funk: Then give us, just paint us a brief picture how this all was building up on you.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: Try to keep it as brief as possible.
Betsy Parsons: I'll do my best.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Betsy Parsons: At the same time that I was watching this particular boy whom I call Steve struggle and be driven out of our school and out of my class despite all my efforts, there were political movements of foot in the wider society.
Betsy Parsons: [00:41:30] There was a group of conservative Christians who initiated a ballot question that every voter in Maine was going to have to vote on. The question was, shall we prevent LGBT people in Maine from ever having any civil rights at all? Suddenly, there's a public debate about whether I, as a human being have civil rights. This was new.
Betsy Parsons: [00:42:00] It's profoundly upsetting to me. You can imagine that public debate and all the hate in the media carried over into school and gave even further permission to harass. That fall of '95, an incredibly outstanding young man in Lewiston, about the same age as the boy that I just described died. What happened was he disappeared for 10 days.
Betsy Parsons: [00:42:30] He was later found to have died by suicide but they didn't find him for 10 days. Every morning, the first thing I would wake up to in the morning that September, in the middle of this political campaign, I would wake up to the fact that this boy hadn't been found yet. Somehow, I knew from the very first announcement of who's being missing that he, I don't know. He was the football captain and a straight A student. He had 50 college offers on his desk but somehow,
Betsy Parsons: [00:43:00] I knew that he was dead and that he was gay. Both of those things did turn out to be correct. I was deeply, deeply shaken by that suicide. By the near suicide of the young man who was in my own hands and also about the same time, a former student came back to tell me. She was a college grad now but she came back to tell me about what her ninth grade year had been like in my class.
Betsy Parsons: [00:43:30] She was a young lesbian. She had been out to herself and to no one else. She, too had been very, very close to the brink of suicide the entire year that she was in my class. I thought her life looked perfect. When I heard eight years later what that had really been like, it was just shocking for me. I asked what could I have done to have made your ninth grade year less painful
Betsy Parsons: [00:44:00] and less frightening. That's when she said, "Well, you know," she said some things that I had done that helped her but then she said, "You know, you could have been out. You could have been out to everybody. That would have given me hope for my life. That would have helped me believe that I could grow up and have a family and be trusted with a job, commensurate with my abilities and just have life."
Betsy Parsons: [00:44:30] Those personal experiences with former students and the experience of losing kids out of my very hands at my school and having other kids die in such horrible and needless ways and this ugliness in the wider political sphere and in the media, all of that amounted to a conglomeration of pressures
Betsy Parsons: [00:45:00] that made me realize that I was going to have to either leave public school teaching or find a way to stay in and teach fully out. That had not been done in my city at that time. We did have non-discrimination protections for city employees of which I was one but six years had gone by or quite a number of years have gone by and nobody had tested those protections.
Betsy Parsons: [00:45:30] Essentially, what I had to do was very sadly extricate myself from the long relationship that I did not want to leave because I loved her but this was not a journey she was going to take with me. I had to choose and I did leave that relationship. I did some other work for a year or two and then went forward with the steps of coming out at school first in the context of second referendum campaign
Betsy Parsons: [00:46:00] where I came out to colleagues through a letter that I wrote to 150 colleagues because of course, at this time, I'm a long term teacher. I know everybody. Later through trying to work with my principal to be a fully out teacher in the school so that everyone in the school community was aware, parents and kids both
Betsy Parsons: [00:46:30] that their entire faculty was not straight. That was a controversial thing. It turned out to be challenging in lots of ways. It was a little harder than I expected it to be actually. I had a pretty high confidence level because I was such a known quantity. I was teaching my second generation of students. I just thought it would go pretty smoothly for me. With students and parents, it really did mostly go smoothly but with some of the school department personnel, it didn't go so smoothly.
Mason Funk: [00:47:00] Let's pause for a second.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Tell me about, because you did in the end, you sped things up a little bit. Some parts were easier and some parts were harder. Just paint me a picture of what it was like when you finally came out to your school community. Tell me,
Mason Funk: [00:47:30] just give me brief examples of what went well and to the extent that you can without burning any bridges or whatever. Tell us about some of the things that were harder than you expected.
Betsy Parsons: Okay. I think my principal at that time was-
Mason Funk: Tell me what time you're talking about.
Betsy Parsons: Okay. In 1998, the year that we had that second statewide referendum,
Betsy Parsons: [00:48:00] which by the way, we lost, any setback like that always degrades the safety level and the sense of being able to function easily in your environment. I went to see my principal to try to make a plan for
Betsy Parsons: [00:48:30] how this coming out at school could be handled in a way that was going to be the most beneficial for the school particularly if there were any kind of push back, any kind of media, anything like that. How could we be ready for all that and know when to count on each other for in order to pull together as a school community and make this a positive thing? What was hard about that was that I was surprised
Betsy Parsons: [00:49:00] that it was clear that the building level administrators did not want me to take the step. Yet it was my legal right to take that step. That right had been affirmed and reaffirmed by both the city council and the school committee. There was no ambiguity about it. It turns out that having a law or an ordinance in place or a resolution is not the same as
Betsy Parsons: [00:49:30] really having people be okay with having you do it. What that meant was that there was a lot of pressure for me not to do it, a lot of push back from the school adults who basically didn't want any kind of political ripples. I didn't feel that I could negotiate about that. I became willing to negotiate the conditions for how it would happen, which I didn't have to do
Betsy Parsons: [00:50:00] but I did it to try to help it not be quite so difficult for them. I agreed to the condition that I would wait to disclose. Just simply to say the word lesbian about myself, that I would wait for that to happen until students raised the question in class and actually asked about LGBT issues.
Betsy Parsons: [00:50:30] Then I would use that moment to cross the line. I'm a teacher of literature. It probably won't surprise you that number one, that it took a whole semester for that to happen. Number two, that it happened in the context of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter where the discussion was all about stigma and judgment and how communities respond and how individuals, what sorts of moral choices individuals have
Betsy Parsons: [00:51:00] when they are operating in the face of some mass community stigma. Somebody in the class finally said, "Well, this is like gay people. We did this to people in school all the time. We're just like these Puritans victimizing people and judging them and saying terrible things about them." That gave me the opening to say, "Well, I know something about that. I'm a lesbian teacher. So far, when you look at the characters in this novel,
Betsy Parsons: [00:51:30] you'll see different ways of responding to stigma. You'll see Dimmesdale's way and what that does to him and what kinds of consequences that has for his community. You'll see Chillingworth's way of revenge and what that does to him. You'll see Hester's way of living openly and turning her energy into something healing for the whole community. I am now changing my way to Hester's way.
Betsy Parsons: [00:52:00] Let's think about what this means for all of us. What does it mean to make these choices on whatever stigmatized issue you might be carrying?" "How will you decide how you're going to bear it? How will you make it bless or burden the people around you? This is what I want to talk about." We had one of the best discussions of my entire career. What can I say? I still had an unhappy principal but it turns out unsurprisingly,
Betsy Parsons: [00:52:30] of course, there were LGBT students in that room who were closeted, who came out to me later for whom that was a major liberating moment. It's lovely that they're still in my life all these years later.
Mason Funk: It goes so much to the heart. There's lots of conversations about the roles of teachers in our society. Some people get mad. Teachers get mad. I'm not a surrogate parent. Hello. Nevertheless, there's nothing like a teacher especially in public high school.
Betsy Parsons: [00:53:00] Right. Teachers are powerful. It's a question of how we use our power. Some of the authority figures in my district were saying, "You have to teach with both hands tied behind your back." I said, "No. I won't do that anymore."
Betsy Parsons: [00:53:30] I'm glad I made that decision. It gave me another close to a decade to be really visible. One of the best things that happened was that right away after school, about 18 kids showed up at my door, all kids I didn't know. Scuffled around, giggled and blushed and said, "Will you help us start a gay straight alliance?" At that point,
Betsy Parsons: [00:54:00] I said, "Yes." We got going with one of the early GSA's in Maine. That actually began with a couple of the earliest schools that had formed one of these clubs to work to reduce anti gay hate language and harassment in their school environments. Those little clubs began to sprout up and we eventually together, teachers and young people mostly student-led
Betsy Parsons: [00:54:30] really created a movement so that now, many, many high schools in Maine have those groups that work. They are improving the climate in their schools. That's old news now but it's revolutionary at the beginning. That was just one really beautiful thing that came out of my openness. It actually allowed me in a way I hadn't looked for. It put tools in my hands not only for pushing back against all that hatred
Betsy Parsons: [00:55:00] and all that ugliness that I was seeing in the school climate but not from an authoritarian position. It allowed me to do what I do best as a teacher, which is to give power to young people to lead themselves. It provided all these leadership training opportunity and all this chance to be supportive of their development and their growth and I think it made me a better teacher. It was just deeply, deeply rewarding for me. I'm really grateful to them.
Mason Funk: [00:55:30] Yeah.
Betsy Parsons: I kept doing that until I finally retired from it and passed it on last year.
Mason Funk: Tell us after this pivotal moment when you had that classroom session, I read somewhere that in the remaining part that you would actually introduce yourself to your students and say you're a lesbian.
Betsy Parsons: [00:56:00] Yeah.
Mason Funk: Can you just tell us about that?
Betsy Parsons: Sure, very simple matter. I just included the word lesbian in my personal introduction.
Mason Funk: Tell me that in a full story. In the latter part of my career, once I had come out, I adopted this certain practice and just tell us what that was.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah. Sure. It was important to me to be visible to everyone in the school community meaning I really needed to know that there couldn't be a lonesome,
Betsy Parsons: [00:56:30] scared adolescent anywhere around school who believed that he or she was the only LGBT person. It was very important to me from that time of coming out to that particular class in the context of literature discussion. I met all new classes every semester. It was important to me that as part of our creation in the discussion community, everyone in the room introduced him or herself to everyone else.
Betsy Parsons: [00:57:00] I invested a lot of time in every course because it was so important to the quality of what we would learn later. As part of my own discussion, I just simply said, "I'm a lesbian teacher. Here's my family situation." I would say what that was and then I would go on to introduce the books that I was reading and talk about why I love to read, which is what everyone had to do in the room. Everybody had to bring a book in and talk about.
Betsy Parsons: [00:57:30] We began to share our reading and writing lives with each other and my inclusion of the word lesbian was simply a part of that introduction. It didn't get belabored. It didn't get questioned by young people. They just took it as a matter of course because it was offered that way. What it did do though, which was really healthy for my classroom is that it created,
Betsy Parsons: [00:58:00] because obviously, everybody knows it was a stigmatized identity. It created discussion space in which we could talk about difficult or sensitive matters. In lots of ways that had nothing to do with LGBT issues, we had a healthier discussion climate. I think it also created more authenticity in my relationship with them. That they trusted me more and that I was able to be more used to them basically because they knew I wouldn't lie to them and they were right. Does that answer? Yeah.
Mason Funk: [00:58:30] It's wonderful. Yeah. I wondered if you would just tell me again the story of the student coming to you, now a college graduate who came to you. You told that into another narrative but rather a longer narrative.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: I wonder if you can tell me that story as a standalone story and what you learned from it.
Betsy Parsons: [00:59:00] This young woman was an absolutely extraordinary human being even at 14. She was brainy and beautiful and athletic and musical, just multi-talented. I knew her parents. They were semi-friends of mine. I knew she was well loved and well supported at home.
Betsy Parsons: [00:59:30] She just looked like a teenager who had everything in place. Her life seemed ... I'll just be specific and say that every year I did it, I had a triage system. I had 110 or 120 students on my list every year. I would go through the first week of school and put them in an order of
Betsy Parsons: [01:00:00] where my most urgent attention had to go. I call her Laurie. It's not her real name. Laurie was the last person on the list. What I didn't know was that Laurie was so alone and so terrified and so hopeless about her life that she had the means to die and she thought about dying everyday. She had a plan.
Betsy Parsons: [01:00:30] All of the danger signals were all in place but they were completely hidden from me. She went home every night from our school and had to make a decision about whether she was coming back the next day for an entire school year. I learned this after she graduated from college when she came back to see me and we went and had a picnic at Portland Head Light. We're sitting out there in this perfect Maine summer day
Betsy Parsons: [01:01:00] just talking about our lives. She was in a new relationship with a woman that she was really crazy about. I felt at that point that I could be out to her about the happiness that I was experiencing in my relationship. At that point, she just needed to talk to me about what ninth grade had really been like for her. I just was stunned speechless by how terrible it had been.
Betsy Parsons: [01:01:30] Of course, by the time I heard all the details of just how dark and frightening that time had been for her and how close we came to losing her, I had tears. I asked her, "Laurie, what could have I done to have made your ninth grade year more bearable? What could I have done?" She did tell me some things that I had done that helped her a lot that year but then she looked me right in the eye
Betsy Parsons: [01:02:00] and she said, "But you know what you really could have done that would have made the difference?" She said, "You could have been out. You could have been fully out to me and to everybody." She said, "My parents respected you. Everybody respected you. Everybody knew what a good teacher you were. Do you realize what that would have meant to me? To know that you and I were alike in this way? I would have had hope for my life." That was a point of no return for me. Did I answer your question?
Mason Funk: [01:02:30] That's great. Thank you.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Let me check the time.
Betsy Parsons: Good.
Mason Funk: What do you feel like we haven't covered? I know there's a lot of main political history or issues that we haven't covered but I think first of all, these are the you in your journey.
Mason Funk: [01:03:00] Is there anything important that you feel, any important story or anecdote from your teaching career that you feel we haven't covered or lesson you learned?
Betsy Parsons: [01:03:30] I don't know if this is useful to you but we're about to potentially face a seventh referendum question in Maine on LGBT civil rights. Meanwhile, we've come so far. We've secured fundamental civil rights protections, jobs, housing, credit, public accommodations and education. They're really comprehensive and they're trans inclusive. Of course, marriage equality.
Betsy Parsons: [01:04:00] Those that took six referendum to get but one of the people who was responsible for the early ones, who led the opposition to our community is now claiming to be mounting another one. When I look back at my years in a public school classroom, he was the biggest threat.
Betsy Parsons: [01:04:30] The question was, how crazy would he be? How much trouble would he come into the school and make for your principal, for certain parents and certain kids. Who would get harmed by this blind hater and by his lack of boundaries? The whole time that I was teaching fully out in public school, I felt like I had walked right into the crosshairs.
Betsy Parsons: [01:05:00] I was just living in the crosshairs everyday. I was saying, "Come and get me." I kept waiting for him and his hench people to show up with media trucks and cameras spewing crazy things and then wondering if the people that I needed around me would respond in rational ways or not.
Betsy Parsons: [01:05:30] I lived with that fear all the time. That actually is a debilitating fear when you live with it for many years as I did. I find it comical at this point. I just find it comical that I was so findable. I was the only out teacher in the state's largest city. I was really findable for years and years and years. That guy never had the guts to come and get me.
Betsy Parsons: [01:06:00] That's a strong learning for me. That when we step out and do the things that need to be done for the sake of our young people, it doesn't necessarily ... I mean, we may pay some prices but the things that we most fear will happen may not happen because it may be that the people who are trying to terrorize everyone are actually cowards.
Betsy Parsons: [01:06:30] That is certainly the case with him and a number of people who helped him. They're just cowards. The more that we can disempower them from the negativity that they cultivate from the harm that they do to people, I don't know. I'm not responsible for him
Betsy Parsons: [01:07:00] but if some way could be found to divert his energies into something more positive in this world, than just constantly trying to hunt down a stigmatized community and make their lives miserable. It's always very sad when people choose that path. Our community has joked for years about
Betsy Parsons: [01:07:30] the fact that this is just unresolved issues about himself. There have been a tremendous number of people not just harmed. There are young people who are dead. I went to too many funerals for too many years. I got too many phone calls at home from all over the state of Maine about kids who are gone. I don't condone his behavior.
Betsy Parsons: [01:08:00] Important insight for me is that it was important to stand up to him. It was important to live in those crosshairs. He made a lot of noise about schools and teachers. He said dreadful things about teachers in the media every chance he got. Yet really, when there was a teacher, he could have come and gotten, he didn't.
Mason Funk: You referenced the number of kids in Maine who were lost.
Betsy Parsons: [01:08:30] Yeah.
Mason Funk: Either dropped out or much worse, died. What can you tell us about Maine that is both so beautiful and it is sometimes so dark? In terms of a place to grow up if you don't fit in and just what you've witnessed of this state's tragic,
Mason Funk: [01:09:00] I mean again, it's a beautiful place to vacation let alone license plates, but what makes Maine, Maine when it comes to being a gay, lesbian, trans and bisexual young person?
Betsy Parsons: I think that's actually a complicated question.
Mason Funk: Let me know what question you're responding to. The question of?
Betsy Parsons: I'm not sure it's possible to give one answer to that question.
Mason Funk: [01:09:30] We won't hear my question.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: The question of what makes Maine or what makes it particularly difficult to be an LGBTQ young person in Maine. Start that way.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: Then whatever you need to say, it's very complicated or whatever.
Betsy Parsons: Okay. In the '80s and '90s when I was becoming aware of the suffering of LGBT youth and becoming more and more conscious of
Betsy Parsons: [01:10:00] the young people that we were losing, my phone was a call number for families who needed help or schools who needed resources. I tended to learn about them all over the state. That was really difficult. I certainly never grew complacent. The hardest part of some of those stories
Betsy Parsons: [01:10:30] I think had to do with the rural nature of Maine, the great distances, the tiny communities, the rural culture. In some cases, the very strict religious culture, both Evangelical Christian and also Roman Catholic, which are high populations among the religious landscape of Maine.
Betsy Parsons: [01:11:00] It was easy I think for young people to feel very, very alone, particularly before the internet. The internet has made a major, major difference in breaking down the isolation, the lack of access to information. It's hard for young people today to imagine a time when you had to go to a public library and try to look for a book and hope nobody would see you,
Betsy Parsons: [01:11:30] to even learn anything about what it meant to be LGBT. That kind of paucity of information coupled with tremendous cultural pressures either not to know or not to acknowledge an LGBT identity is I think very typical for most of Maine. Even here in the biggest city, it was not easy for young people in those years.
Betsy Parsons: [01:12:00] It's not that it's easy now. It's just not as bad as it was. Does that answer the question?
Mason Funk: Yeah. Yeah.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Yeah. People think of places like Kansas as being tough on LGBT youth.
Betsy Parsons: It is.
Mason Funk: Yeah. It's not that it's not but I think Maine is unique in the sense that it is so vast and it suffers these incredible winters.
Mason Funk: [01:12:30] It's so dark during the darkest part of winter and so dark for so many hours a day. It's just so hard. It's a place that has a lot of poverty.
Betsy Parsons: Well, there's a lot of poverty and it's also important that Maine has a very thriving gun culture. What that means is that young men, primarily, who need access to a means, very often have it. That really raises their risk of suicide.
Mason Funk: [01:13:00] It's just all adds up in my mind. I love this state. I never had to be an LGBT youth here in a small town in Maine.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah, I know. I'm telling you and especially in the Catholic mill towns, really difficult, really difficult.
Betsy Parsons: [01:13:30] I'm grateful that we've made as much headway as we have. I don't take for granted for a minute all of the various rights that we've had to fight for over and over again and won because every time we had to fight, that meant we had to talk to people. That meant more of us had to come out and be visible. That meant that more conversations were possible. I think over the course of the last 20 years, we've done a tremendous amount of educating in this state. To the point now where
Betsy Parsons: [01:14:00] if this persecutor can even get enough signatures to get that measure on the ballot is questionable at this point. He says hes going to. We won't know until next year. For some of us who've been through it six times already, it still sends a shiver down our spines because we know that those periods are ugly. It brings out the worst in people.
Betsy Parsons: [01:14:30] Yeah. Our last campaign, the campaign in 2012 in which we won marriage equality and this is actually directly related to my teacher identity because so many young people in gay, straight, trans alliances helped to win these rights. They were deeply, deeply involved in campaigns. They learned to be activists not only inside their schools but out in the world because of those campaigns.
Betsy Parsons: [01:15:00] That's work that we all did together. It's very, very rewarding. The tone of the last campaign was really so different. It was such a compassionate and listening tone. That was part of the strategy of our second try at marriage equality was to really come at it from a very different rather than a rights perspective, let me tell you how unfair it is that you have 1,138 rights that I don't have.
Betsy Parsons: [01:15:30] That didn't work in 2009. We abandoned that approach. Instead, we took on a listening approach. I saw young people just coming of age who learned how to do this. They learned to listen to the fears. They learned to listen to all the reasons why people don't want LGBT people to have equal rights and to discipline themselves
Betsy Parsons: [01:16:00] and to respond compassionately to that and to give people room to hold their old fears and their old bad teachings and their old reservations and not be judged negatively for that. Instead be given space to grow. I think that was just tremendously empowering. It was a certain maturing in my view of our LGBT community in Maine that we learned how to do that.
Betsy Parsons: [01:16:30] That we were willing to take the pain of it because it was painful. I saw even 14 and 15 to 16-year old LGBT young people able to do that and hold on to themselves. It's like, "What great training." Talk about teaching not only self-discipline but also compassion and leadership and responsibility for the whole community. It was really blessing to be part of that. I don't know if I-
Mason Funk: [01:17:00] That's really cool.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Mason Funk: That's really awesome.
Betsy Parsons: You can see how my school life and this other life are so intertwined. Yeah.
Mason Funk: Yeah. It makes me just want to ask even though it might seem obvious but actually not. I've never been part of the gay straight alliance.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: Yeah. Go ahead.
Betsy Parsons: [01:17:30] Gay straight alliance is a student club that works against anti LGBT hate language and harassment in the school. By doing that, by being willing to be seen as people who will speak up, who will ask others to be more thoughtful about their language, or who will support someone who's been targeted,
Betsy Parsons: [01:18:00] by doing that, they improve the school climate for everyone. It turns out that in a Canadian study in which all the high schools of British Columbia were studied, any high school that had a gay straight alliance for three years or more had astronomically lower rates of suicidal ideation, meaning thinking about it and actual suicide.
Betsy Parsons: [01:18:30] Really, it would drop for different populations by at least half, sometimes more than half in those schools. It's clear that the very existence of a visible gay straight alliance in a school does something positive for the climate for everybody. Everybody feels safer. Everybody feels more affirmed. It's just good for learning and good for community. Here in Maine, at a certain point, we were very concerned about transgender youth.
Betsy Parsons: [01:19:00] We asked all the GSA's in the high schools. Would they please consider renaming themselves, gay straight transgender alliances. We began to call them GSTAs here in Maine. Again, every school named its own group. There was no group of adults that dictated to anybody. We would periodically advice or guide or suggest
Betsy Parsons: [01:19:30] and young people usually were quick to move in any way that they saw would be more inclusive or more just in their schools. That request was often accommodated. You'll hear GSTA used now although interestingly, now the language continues to evolve. Now some young people are calling their groups, they're going back to GSA but what it stands for now is Gender and Sexuality Alliance.
Betsy Parsons: [01:20:00] Gender and sexuality, other inclusive names are rainbow alliance or whatever but they often will find ways to have creative names that really don't leave anybody out. I just think that's fabulous. Does that help?
Mason Funk: Yeah. That's fantastic.
Betsy Parsons: I need to have a tissue here. Okay.
Mason Funk: [01:20:30] Let's talk about Charlie Howard briefly. What I want to go for, I'll just tell you exactly what I'm thinking.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: This could be helpful to OUTWORDS as a project. What I'm hoping you can do is because I'm envisioning this as maybe a little standalone one and a half minute to two-minute piece of video where you will simply say in 1984, Maine had a horrendous experience when a young man named Charlie Howard was murdered,
Mason Funk: [01:21:00] thrown off a bridge by three teenagers. You can describe it a little bit but what I'm hoping you can do is turn the corner from that to saying, this is why incidents like these or maybe here in Maine weve really worked to keep this incident in our memory. We honor him every year. This is the importance of making sure that, something like and we feel like not forgetting incidents
Mason Funk: [01:21:30] like these are key to remembering where we were, where we are and making sure something like this never happens again. Something like that that I could use almost like a short, because that story is so emblematic of one of the reasons why I'm trying to get OUTWORDS to be a thing. Not letting incidents like this ever fall away from our memory.
Betsy Parsons: Do I?
Mason Funk: [01:22:00] That's a tall order. It's a little bit TV-ish where I'm saying, can you tell me that story in 30 seconds?
Betsy Parsons: Okay. I do need to tell the actual story again. No, shorter.
Mason Funk: Very short.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: He was thrown off a bridge by three teenagers and that incident is seared on our collective memory.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah, it is. It is, yeah.
Mason Funk: In other words, the simplest of details but obviously letting us know.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: [01:22:30] How this is important to never forget.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah. I don't need to say how it affected me.
Mason Funk: No.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah. This is just, yeah. Okay. Yeah. In early July 1984, three Bangor High School students attacked a young, gay man who was walking home from a pot luck at the UU Church.
Betsy Parsons: [01:23:00] They attacked him on a bridge in Bangor and eventually threw him off that bridge to his death. His name was Charlie Howard. He was 23 years old. He was a young gay man. The fact that high school students committed this crime was so shocking to all of us in the whole state. It was just such a horrific crime.
Betsy Parsons: [01:23:30] In fact, the memory of Charlie Howard has been seared into the consciousness of not only the LGBT community but the wider community in Maine. We do remember Charlie every year. There's a memorial to him at the spot where he was thrown off the bridge in Bangor into Kenduskeag Stream. A number of things have been named for him.
Betsy Parsons: [01:24:00] There are a number of ways that we keep his name and his memory very present obviously in hope that nothing like that would ever happen here again. Does that do what you need?
Mason Funk: That's great.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: That's wonderful. Yes. Thank you. Now let's talk about your faith journey.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah. I mentioned earlier that my mother had been raised in the United Church of Christ.
Mason Funk: [01:24:30] Don't say I mentioned earlier. Just say my mother was raised.
Betsy Parsons: Okay. My mother was raised in a United Church of Christ tradition. My parents agreed to raise our family in that tradition. I was essentially born into, I was what we call a cradle UCC. It was a combined United Presbyterian and United Church of Christ congregation. Church was always part of our lives
Betsy Parsons: [01:25:00] and like a second family to me. I couldn't imagine a life that wasn't shaped by having a faith community, having regular worship, having regular attention to spiritual life in the company of other people who also found that important. Anywhere I went, even when I left home, through my student years and my early teaching years, I always sought out
Betsy Parsons: [01:25:30] a faith community to belong to and be part of. I also generally sang in the choir. We grew up in all these music in the church. I had been a member and a leader here in the United Church of Christ congregation for about 20 years when I finally reached that place of realizing
Betsy Parsons: [01:26:00] that I've been in a lesbian relationship for more than a decade but I still wasn't going to be able to be out at my church. To these people who were very, very important to me and very beloved to me, that faith community was not ready to accept any out LGBT people. Over time, I just became silently angry enough about that that
Betsy Parsons: [01:26:30] I really couldn't continue my life in that tradition. It was interfering too much with ... It's pretty hard to have a healthy spiritual life when you're just in a rage all the time. It was clear that I had to do something different. As a part of that whole package of leaving that closeted relationship, contemplating the work of coming out at school,
Betsy Parsons: [01:27:00] giving up the circles of friends that had been nested in my former church for me, finding a new place to do my musical life, which had always been centered in the church, all of these changes were happening at once in the mid '90s. I knew frankly that I would never be able to do the work of coming out at school and fight what were clearly going to be the struggles and battles in that five days a week
Betsy Parsons: [01:27:30] without having a faith community that could help renew me on the weekends. At age 42, I left the tradition I had been born into and I left very angry and very much grieving. I had read a book by a Christian therapist actually called Embracing the Exile.
Betsy Parsons: [01:28:00] I was angry that my congregation wasn't ready to embrace but rather was simply exiling. Yet I also didn't feel in a position to fight the battle there. I had to fight the battle at school. That's when I went to Unitarian Universalism, which has been my tradition for the last, almost 20 years and is very important to me. I'm really grateful because when I landed with the UUs,
Betsy Parsons: [01:28:30] I found a home with people who were energetically, they weren't just willing to put up with having me in their faith community. They were energetically embracing and passionately committed to social justice and equality for all people including LGBT people. I could be part of a faith community where I saw LGBT people in every possible leadership role in the community.
Betsy Parsons: [01:29:00] That was just such a blessing after having struggled for so long in a situation where I felt I could only be welcome as long as I were inauthentic, which is inherently to me a violation of the God in me. If you're not able to be authentic, you're not trusting and being with the divine light in you.
Betsy Parsons: [01:29:30] I had to find a place to do that. I was really, really grateful to be able to find that. I'm also really thrilled to be able to say that over the course of about 15 years, I was able to fully reconcile with my former congregation. That's a whole story of its own. They did begin to understand that they were driving away people that they loved by holding the attitudes and beliefs that they did. They started doing their work. Today, I'm really proud of them
Betsy Parsons: [01:30:00] because they're really one of the leading Christian congregations in Maine on LGBT issues. They even have a lesbian senior pastor. Who would have guessed?
Mason Funk: Wow.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah. They've marched in Pride for many, many years. They've done a lot of outreach to try to help protect and affirm LGBT youth. They've just done really good work. I'm really proud of them.
Mason Funk: Yeah. That's great.
Betsy Parsons: Is that enough?
Mason Funk: [01:30:30] That's wonderful. Yeah. Kate, what questions do you have for Betsy?
Kate Kunath: Nothing too burning but I do want to know if you had, after you came out, did you find any kind of ripple effect around you in terms of inspiring other teachers to come out? Did you feel as you were saying that you're the only out teacher in the city. I want to know when that lasted and how long have you felt alone in that.
Betsy Parsons: [01:31:00] That's a great question because I assumed. Okay. Sorry. Start again.
Mason Funk: Yeah. You will answer me then let Kate ask the question.
Betsy Parsons: Okay. Before I came out fully at school to students and families, I assumed that whenever the first teacher in Portland crossed that line that it wouldn't be very long before others would.
Betsy Parsons: [01:31:30] I just assumed. "Okay. We've had this legal protections in place. Nobody has wanted to test them. I'm a veteran teacher. For a lot of reasons, I have more security than many people. I'm going to put that to this use. Then it was break the ice and others will come forward and then we'll have a more authentic community
Betsy Parsons: [01:32:00] and a community where hopefully, there won't be any school in which kids who identify LGBT feel alone." I was wrong about that assumption because conditions were still dangerous enough and there weren't enough visible assurances that even though we had a law, a law is not enough. A law is not enough. Much, much more has to happen
Betsy Parsons: [01:32:30] before a people so stigmatized and so harassed and threatened will begin to feel safe. That's the job of the school district. That's the job of the people running the school district to begin to send those signals and to create conditions. Do the trainings to set up the kind of school world where people can do this. I was really alone for more than four years,
Betsy Parsons: [01:33:00] which was a great surprise to me and to be honest with you, really difficult. It was very, very stressful. You remember, I had left my relationship so I wasn't coming home to support at home, etc. It was hard. Eventually, one teacher my age and then a couple of younger ones did at my high school come out, which I was greatly relieved by.
Betsy Parsons: [01:33:30] I think still, the challenge is for public school teachers to come fully out to their communities and stay because often, what will happen is, people will take that step and then they'll leave at the end of that year or at the end of two years. I am not seeing many situations where they stay more than two years. I think that speaks still to the stress of that experience. It's a very difficult experience.
Betsy Parsons: [01:34:00] You feel vulnerable all the time. There are lots of ways in which the teacher's moral authority in the school organization is questionable or compromised. There's just lots of dicey problems that those teachers face that others don't. They're not getting enough help. I think what I would say in my own case is that I was aware that I was unsafe
Betsy Parsons: [01:34:30] from the day that I first came out to students and families. I was really lucky that I had a number of students and families who went out of their way to show support. I really was incredibly grateful for that. It was also true that I experienced harassment myself, of a nature that I had never experienced in the 20 years before. Both verbal harassment, incidents like spitting and shoving,
Betsy Parsons: [01:35:00] students spat in my face. I would write up these reports and nothing would happen so then it would escalate. Again, my building level administrators were not following through in the way that they would have with parallel incidents on other topics.
Mason Funk: Can I interrupt you for a second? You had students spit in your face.
Betsy Parsons: Uhm Uhm (affirmative)
Mason Funk: [01:35:30] Right now, you're talking about it in a little bit of [inaudible] this way but I don't think we realize necessarily the impact that this will have on individual listeners. Could you just describe a little bit in detail what it was like for you after you came out? I know you don't want to probably be laborious but I also think it's important not to just wash over it.
Betsy Parsons: [01:36:00] I understand. I agree. I agree because it was part of the prize of doing it. From the time that I first fully came out to students and families at school, I knew that I was leaving behind an era in which I was consistently safe in school. I knew that I would not experience that again. I didn't. There's constantly the awareness of who's around you, what time of day it is,
Betsy Parsons: [01:36:30] where you park your car. I chose to park my car a block from the school because the faculty parking lot wasn't safe. Too much of it was out of sight. I tended to come to school early and leave late. It was common for me to be alone on my way to my car. That was just not a situation that I could ever put myself in and didn't ever again.
Betsy Parsons: [01:37:00] I parked at a busy intersection where there could never be the absence of someone watching. Some people say, "What a strange thing to do," but no. For me, it made perfect sense. It kept me safe. Even walking from the school, that block to the car, there would be times when car loads of high school boys would drive by not usually anybody I knew but they would scream threats and slurs and just be gross.
Betsy Parsons: [01:37:30] I never knew when I was going to encounter that kind of treatment outside of school or in. Inside the school, you'd like to think that that would be really perfectly safe. Of course, it wasn't. There were 1500 teenagers at the school at that time or 1450. There was a wink coming from the building level administrators. We're not going to respond.
Betsy Parsons: [01:38:00] What that meant was tacit permission to harass, be inappropriate. What I can say is that I had no incidents with students who were my own students. The students that I was in community with in our learning journey, I had a couple of kids who they had their own homophobia to deal with. They weren't comfortable but never disrespectful or inappropriate
Betsy Parsons: [01:38:30] or violent or anything like that. The danger came from being a visible target in a school of 1450 adolescents where you're always going to have some kids who need to target people and act out whatever their issues are on that person. Usually, they'll do it with a peer. Once I came out, then I became an available adult to target. I did experience targeting from some of those students. What made it so dangerous for me
Betsy Parsons: [01:39:00] is that my administrators did not respond appropriately to those behaviors. Everything would be written up the way it always had and then the reports would just sit. If you consistently tell those young people who are trying to target that nothing is going to happen to them, there'll be no consequence for doing what they're doing, there'll be no even conversation about it, then what they will do is continue escalate. In my case, yes.
Betsy Parsons: [01:39:30] First, it was disrespect and creating needless confrontations in the hall. It was clear that certain ... I'm thinking of one particular young man who just clearly, it became an agenda for him to just confront me and do something inappropriate and against the rules and do something to make my life difficult every single time he saw me. That eventually escalated into spitting into my face. It escalated into tripping and shoving me in the hallway.
Betsy Parsons: [01:40:00] Eventually, it escalated to driving a car at me with the accelerator floored out in the street, which was actually a traumatizing episode because I really thought I was done for. That incident received no response from the administration despite my being down there for most of eight school days asking for them to do something.
Betsy Parsons: [01:40:30] The bottom line underneath all that is the awareness that I was in danger and that unimaginable things which never would have happened to me in the first 20 years could happen at any time. That is very stressful. It does leave a legacy of some PTSD because you have to be so vigilant all the time. It is harmful to health. Did I get to it?
Mason Funk: [01:41:00] Yeah, you definitely did. Let me just text Jay real quick. He was just wondering.
Kate Kunath: I have one more question.
Betsy Parsons: Yeah.
Kate Kunath: It's a pretty common thing when we ask people what their advice is for people coming out that they would recommend they have support system intact.
Kate Kunath: [01:41:30] Gloss over this a little bit but I think it's really important that when you were getting ready to come out, you felt like you needed to leave your relationship. It was probably a painful [crosstalk]
Betsy Parsons: Yeah. It was hard, yeah.
Kate Kunath: What was your thinking behind that?
Mason Funk: Just one second.
Betsy Parsons: Sure.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Betsy Parsons: [01:42:00] Okay. When I made the decision to come out at school, it was in the context of knowing that I would have to leave my relationship, that I would also have to leave the church that I loved and many other aspects of my life in order to do that work at school. If I'd had my druthers, I would much rather have had a companion on that journey. It would have certainly been a great deal easier to come home to support at home.
Betsy Parsons: [01:42:30] It wasn't going to work that way in my case because it was too frightening for my long partner. At a certain point, people have to make their own decisions about these things. That has to be respected. I had to go forward on my own but I did. I did think carefully about how I could build in support so that I could survive it. This is what I would suggest for anyone contemplating this decision.
Betsy Parsons: [01:43:00] It's really important to assess where your sources of support are and where you think they aren't. Your guesses about that are never 100% right. Lots of people who you think will be your supports will let you down. In my case, for instance, I went to an affirming church. I knew that every single person in my congregation could be counted on.
Betsy Parsons: [01:43:30] Not only to be actively helpful to me but to be really passionately involved in the wider world, in making a more just and safe space for me. That's a really emotional thing for me. I could go and be with those people every Sunday and at other times also. There were in my congregation multiple sets of parents of students in my school.
Betsy Parsons: [01:44:00] Some of them were my students and some weren't but there were numerous influential parents. I knew that if things got bad enough, I could ask some of those parents to go in and deal with both building level administrators and the central office administrators. That they wouldn't hesitate a minute to do that when I needed them. Of course, I was also fortunate in having some friends who helped. I was extremely blessed to have although they were far away,
Betsy Parsons: [01:44:30] I had a family, a large family that was always right on my page. Both my parents, all my siblings, it was really important to me to know that I have their back up always. Additionally, I had the best colleagues imaginable in my English Department. They were just stars. They looked out for me in lots of ways and manage to be cheerful and chipper
Betsy Parsons: [01:45:00] and uplifting without necessarily having to talk about this issue all the time. In the case of the woman with whom I shared a classroom, Mary Ann, it's just a gift when you're a public school teacher to share space with somebody who's absolutely outstanding every single day. She was one of the best teachers I've known. I got to be in that space with her everyday.
Betsy Parsons: [01:45:30] By the sheer excellence of her performance, she really constantly reminded me of why we were there and why it mattered to be there and why it was a blessing to be able to be there. I'm going to tell you, that just kept my sanity. She was also just a good friend but it was really her teaching, I think, her loving and challenging approach with young people and her total commitment to their
Betsy Parsons: [01:46:00] well-being. It's just a great thing to see that up close. I got to live with it every day and be inspired by it.
Mason Funk: One thing that strikes me about, are you good, Kate? Do you have any more questions? Should I go up in the ... Okay. We have four questions we always wrap up with.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.
Mason Funk: One of them is about coming out. It's about advice. It's essentially the question that Kate just asked, which is what advice would you give to a young person or a middle-aged person or an old person that's about to come out.
Mason Funk: [01:46:30] Which in some ways I think you just answered but your story is particular because for you to come out, it wasn't just for your own sake in a way. You realized that your coming out was very, very important symbolically for basically the people you were there to serve.
Betsy Parsons: That's right. It was inextricable from that.
Mason Funk: Maybe you could just talk about that. You've already talked about it but just give us one more pass at this idea
Mason Funk: [01:47:00] that how you realized that you could not come out at a certain point and continue to be of service to the people that you were serving.
Betsy Parsons: I was exceptionally fortunate in college to have great teachers, really great teachers at Oberlin. One of them talked to me about two-handed teaching.
Betsy Parsons: [01:47:30] That is you hold a learner just barely enough. You keep pushing. You push, push, push and you don't let them fall all the way. You've got a support hand underneath there. It's push and support, push and support, push and support. You can't do it with one hand.
Betsy Parsons: [01:48:00] That being nothing but challenging and shoving learners around is going to be really counterproductive for them and being nothing but supportive isn't going to help them grow. I carried that image obviously with me into my teaching. I just felt very committed to all out teaching. Every iota of me that I can bring into service to the growth and health
Betsy Parsons: [01:48:30] and learning of these young people is theirs. That's the commitment I made when I went into it. I frankly always believe that if I couldn't keep making that commitment that I should stop immediately and find something else to do with my life. I actually feel this way about public school teachers as a group. I see that kind of teaching happening in most of the spaces around me. I think the people who don't feel that way anymore should find something else to do.
Betsy Parsons: [01:49:00] I'm grateful that we have as many as we do who feel that way. When I came to this crossroads of realizing that I had had to segment myself with this firewall between my personal and professional selves and that that was affecting my wholeness as a teacher, that was affecting my authenticity, that was affecting the very core, the moral core of me
Betsy Parsons: [01:49:30] as a teacher that I realized I could not keep doing that. That I was going to have to break down the wall or do something different. I didn't want to do something different. I felt this was what I was born to do. In the long run, in a certain sense, I felt as if I'd been asked to teach for a decade or more with one hand tied behind my back.
Betsy Parsons: [01:50:00] With this idea of some of my energy being used to self-protect. That in my universe, even though I felt it was necessary at the time, in my universe that was a moral failing. It may not be for other people but for me, it was. I just had to find the way to bring all of myself back into what I consider to be the moral relationship with my learners.
Betsy Parsons: [01:50:30] That meant being fully at their service and doing two-handed teaching and not using energy to protect myself. What came to me as a result of that decision was that I really didn't have to spend a lot of energy protecting myself. That they did a lot of protecting and uplifting of me. I could also do that for them.
Betsy Parsons: [01:51:00] We helped each other through. I think the most important thing for me is that I was able to finish my career in professional self-respect. There's nothing more important.
Mason Funk: Great. Great. Great. Another one of our final questions is, what is your hope for the future?
Betsy Parsons: I have so many hopes for the future. One is that no public school teacher would ever have to agonize over a decision like that again.
Betsy Parsons: [01:51:30] That all public school teachers feel free to be who they are and to teach with whatever God gave them to the Nth degree, in full freedom and in dignity. That's one really big hope. Another big hope is that our young people will not be so at risk, that will continue to improve conditions in our wider society to the point where their passage from childhood into adulthood is much,
Betsy Parsons: [01:52:00] much safer and where they can make it more intact and be able to give the gifts that they have to give to the world without having suffered so. It's awful that they suffer so. It's not right. It's needless. Whatever happens that makes the world more affirming for them and safer for them is a great hope of mine.
Betsy Parsons: [01:52:30] Other hopes? I hope for really concrete things like the Equality Act. I may have learned to pin a lot of hopes on legislation and on court decisions. Those things have played an outsized role in my life in a way that I never would have anticipated as a young person.
Betsy Parsons: [01:53:00] I know that my generation has done so much to try to make these things less of a struggle for the next generations. I'm heartened when I see so many of them running the next lap and not complaining about it. They know there's a lot more to do. I don't know. I don't know if I'll live long enough to see all the things that I hope for. I think probably not because I hope for too much.
Betsy Parsons: [01:53:30] I do believe that this will be looked at, that the '80s and '90s will someday be seen as this appalling dark age when people just lost their minds for a while because they hadn't had a chance to learn. That eventually as a body of humans together that we started getting our act together and doing better.
Mason Funk: [01:54:00] Great. Great. Why is it important to you personally to tell your story?
Betsy Parsons: Initially, I would have said because of young people. These days, I'm saying because of teachers. I started marching in Pride in the late '90s here in Portland. I was terrified. It was just so frightening. At a certain point
Betsy Parsons: [01:54:30] when we were being threatened as a community right when we were winning non-discrimination law that we had fought for for 28 years, I became so angry with our community being threatened that I made a sign that says, "Proud lesbian teacher, Portland Public Schools," the first time was 29 years and then I changed it later to 30.
Betsy Parsons: [01:55:00] I carried that sign in every Pride from 2006 on. Part of why I carried it, initially I carried it for young people but in recent years, I'm carrying that sign because I want more teachers to come out. I want them to be able to be liberated from the stress of the closet and to be able to use that energy for their own happiness and for their families and for the good of their students and their schools. I don't know. I guess I should stop there.
Mason Funk: [01:55:30] Yeah. That's a great answer. That's a great answer. I'll tell you a little more about it.
Betsy Parsons: Can I say one more thing about that actually? It's always a little delicate to talk about this because-
Mason Funk: Talk about what?
Betsy Parsons: To talk about-
Mason Funk: Sorry, start fresh.
Betsy Parsons: It's always a little delicate to encourage public school teachers to be fully out in their LGBT identities
Betsy Parsons: [01:56:00] because it's still dangerous, because it still means accepting that vulnerability and having to take on that vigilance. None of which is fun. I guess I want to acknowledge that everybody's individual situation, every person's life and family are its own Algebra. We don't in some sense have a right to tell people how to do their own Algebra.
Betsy Parsons: [01:56:30] They need to figure out how to do it themselves. I want to be respectful of that and of the potential difficulties that people carry that others had no idea about because I certainly know I had hidden parts of my life that folks have no idea how complicated it was for me. At the same time, bottom line in a public school, we're serving the children of the public. We're serving all children of the public.
Betsy Parsons: [01:57:00] That means that there are LGBT children everywhere we work and that there are straight identified children who also need to know that LGBT people exists. They need to know who we are and they need to be able to look up to us. It's important for all of them to see us. I really do believe that. I guess in putting out this plea
Betsy Parsons: [01:57:30] and many of my recent trainings over the last few years have been on the topic of help creating conditions where teachers can be free to be out in your district and putting some of the responsibility where it needs to be so that teachers don't have to carry it all. It wasn't just my responsibility to come out. I had very little good help apart from the law. There are lots of people who need to be giving more of that help professionally
Betsy Parsons: [01:58:00] but they don't know how to do it so people have to tell them. That's part of what I've been trying to do. By the same token, I want to encourage my younger colleagues. I'm retired now. I want to encourage my younger colleagues, please to take that step even in millimeters, in any way that you can see your way to it because it is so powerful and so important for the whole school community.
Mason Funk: [01:58:30] Great. Great. [inaudible]
Betsy Parsons: Okay. Yeah.
Mason Funk: Last but not the least, what is the importance of your project OUTWORDS? You could use the word OUTWORDS in here.
Betsy Parsons: Sure, glad to. I'm just delighted that OUTWORDS is happening. Actually, it's for many reasons but I would say first,
Betsy Parsons: [01:59:00] you're getting authentic stories from people who've lived through some experiences that pretty soon are going to seem like they couldn't have happened but they did happen. It's important for history that people understand them. Also, you're hopefully seeing people's authentic selves and giving us a way to voice things that are important to us that we want to share with coming generations.
Betsy Parsons: [01:59:30] I'm at that place where I'm thinking a lot about what I have done so far and what I haven't done yet and what's important with the time that I have left. To me, to be able to tell my story in this setting and share whatever I can with people and also listen. I'm very eager to listen to other people's excerpts in the archives because I learn so much from them. I'm just delighted. I'm grateful that you're doing this project.
Mason Funk: [02:00:00] Great.
Betsy Parsons: Okay.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Kate Kunath
Date: August 13, 2016
Location: University of Southern Maine Library, Portland, ME