Utah’s 2018 Principal of the Year is spearheading a national LGBTQ+ Principal and Assistant Principal Network.
“I’m so very grateful to the National Association of Secondary School Principals for this opportunity,” West Jordan Middle School Principal Dixie Garrison said. “Together with my colleague [former Dublin, Ohio, high-school principal] Dustin Miller, we are creating a national network for LGBTQ+ principals. This network will unite LGBTQ+ principals from all over the country and allow us to support each other as we navigate our role as school leaders.”
Garrison told Education Week that while she was advised against coming out as gay to her supervisor by friends, colleagues, and mentors, they feared it would jeopardize her career in conservative West Jordan. “Folks told me — out of care — that ‘I would not let anyone in the district know that,’” Garrison said.
It was important to her, however, that she lived an open life, especially after losing her gay brother to suicide.
“I didn’t want to live a façade,” Garrison said. “There are certain aspects of [themselves] that heterosexual people share freely. They say ‘my wife’ this or that. They have pictures of their families on their desks. Things like that. They’re able to just freely flow with their identities.”
Garrison hopes that the network can provide LGBTQ+ school leaders with support, insights and resources, and “to talk about issues more relevant to them and the challenges and opportunities they have.”
“I say challenges and opportunities for sure,” she said. “I do think that I have an opportunity to be a mentor to youths in a different way than other colleagues because of my identity. I’m not characterizing being an LGBTQ+ administrator as a burden. It’s kind of a mantle placed on me now.”
That mantle has made a difference to some students in her school.
She told Education Week a story of a 7th grader who feared to go to West Jordan Middle School when school boundaries were changed. That all changed when he found out the principal is gay.
“He jumped for joy because he knew that I would understand him,” she said. “That’s a very emotional story for me.”
“My school has a very inclusive culture,” she said. “So, on one hand, I worry about bias or discrimination towards me. That I would not be seen as a good person because folks disagree with my lifestyle. But, on the other hand, I have those wins where I know that I’m making a little kid out there go, ‘hey, my principal is a gay woman, I’m OK.’ That’s what’s most important to me.”
Co-organizer Miller was supportive of Garrison when she first came out. She looks forward to a larger community of support with the network.
“It can be extremely lonely if you don’t know that other people are walking the same walk that you’re walking,” Miller said.
While there are other LGBTQ+-related organizations within the education system, none focus on school administrators.
“They are all interested in advocacy work and how to help their kids, but Dustin and I are also interested in how to help them as administrators,” Garrison said.
Garrison fears added scrutiny if and when she and other LGBTQ+ administrators address bias and discrimination against LGBTQ+ students.
“Our straight colleagues who are school leaders can do all the work that they want around LGBTQ+ issues without fear. But someone like myself could be seen as pushing a self-serving agenda … navigating your intersectionality between being a school leader and also identifying as LGBTQ+ yourself, and doing advocacy work that really any principal should be doing.”
Part of the reason Garrison and Miller feel emboldened to create the network is the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that firing a worker for being gay or transgender violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
They also received 70 responses from an introductory email to the greater NASSP membership.
“That’s validation that this group is needed,” Garrison said.