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Haverford Conversation: Rich Espey ’87, GLSEN Educator of Year

A middle school science teacher at the Park School of Baltimore, Espey was named 2011 Educator of the Year by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).  The national award recognized Espey, who has been teaching for 23 years, as a “remarkable educator who has demonstrated a commitment to GLSEN's mission of ensuring safe schools for all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.” Espey is the sponsor of his school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, helped students make a video addressing homophobic language and coordinated a professional development program for teachers at the Park School  that explored best practices for gender and sexuality diversity education.

Espey also has a second career as a playwright. He’s written six full-length plays, among them Hope’s Arbor, which had an Equity Showcase production in New York in 2008.

Haverford Communications Editor Eils Lotozo talked to Espey, who will come to campus on November 19 to give a talk sponsored by the Sexuality and Gender Alliance, about what schools can do to create a welcoming environment for gay kids, how long it took him to come out as a gay teacher and his writing life.

Eils Lotozo: Tell us about some of the things you’ve done at your school to improve the environment for gay kids.

Rich Espey: Our school has a summer curriculum development program, and in the summer of 2010, twelve of us got together and created a program called “Putting Gay in a Positive Context.” The main idea was to build a pool of resources for teachers who wanted to have gay visibility in curriculum. So we built a website with links to lots of pre-existing curricular resources and we created a document for teachers called “Twelve things you can do right now to increase safety and affirm all students.” And we all agreed to implement at least some of these things in the coming year and encourage our colleagues to do the same.

EL: What are some of the things teachers have done?

RE: The first was to confront anti-gay language by calling kids on the use of expressions like “That’s so gay.” Another was changing worksheets and word problems to include same-sex couples or to make same-sex couples visible when doing “family” vocabulary in language units.  Also, middle school book groups now routinely feature young adult novels with gay characters where being gay is a character trait and not a “problem.”

EL: What was the impetus for the project? Were gay kids in the school being harassed?

RE: It wasn't harassment in the sense of kids being slammed into lockers. It was more that there was no affirmation of kids who varied in terms of gender and sexuality diversity. We had had kids come out in senior essays and they told us they knew they were gay in middle school and couldn’t tell anyone except their closest friends.

We also interviewed recent alums of the school and they told us how hard it was to never hear anything positive about gay people from an adult at school, how hard it was to never see gay people depicted in the curriculum or spoken about in any meaningful way. There was total invisibility. So one of the things I do now is make sure that, for example, when we do our brain unit in middle school that I include references to current studies about how sexual orientation may be brain based. That’s just one small example, and colleagues are now doing similar things in other disciplines.

EL: Have other schools picked up on the resources your group created?

RE: I have not heard from other schools and I wish I would! I'm on the Association of Independent Maryland Schools “Making Schools Safe” committee, so I hope to be able to spread the word at least with them.

EL: You are out as a gay man at the Park School. Has that always been the case throughout your teaching career?

RE: No! I was scared to death as late as 1997 when I taught at an independent school in Atlanta. I knew I would lose my job if the administration knew. When I moved home to Baltimore and began teaching at Bryn Mawr School in 1997 I was able to be out.

EL: How about when you were a Haverford student? What was life like for a gay man on campus in the 1980s?

RE: I was not out at all. I was not even out to myself, entirely, until my junior year. I only knew one person who was out. I was very afraid of what others would think. This was the age of the AIDS epidemic and there was absolutely no positive representation of gay people, so I worked hard to deny my true self.

EL: Do you have any sense of the climate in schools? Is it changing, getting safer for gay kids?

RE: I think that school is both safer and more dangerous. When I was a kid everyone “passed” for straight, so there was little direct bullying. But now that kids in middle school and high school feel safer being out about their gender and sexuality diversity, the chance for reprisal is greater. What needs to change is that elementary teachers need to be talking more about differences in families and different kids of family structures.

EL: In your acceptance speech at the GLSEN awards ceremony you spoke about the “It Gets Better Project,” which recruits adults to create reassuring YouTube videos addressed to youths who are being bullied at school because of their sexual orientation. You expressed some misgivings about the project. Tell us about that.

RE: Ah, yes: “It Gets Better.” It’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing for the obvious reasons. But how can we tell twelve year olds to just hang on for six more years? That’s crazy! And it suggests that schools have no responsibility to intervene and to be proactive in helping all kids understand gender and sexuality diversity as a fact of life.

EL: But how do schools—especially public schools—deal with those parents with conservative views who don't want this subject talked about at all.

RE: It's a good question, but it's ultimately a moral question. In my opinion, no religious or moral conviction that allows harm to another has validity. At [Park], we go back to our to the fundamental philosophy of our school, which includes diversity and open-mindedness as two basic pillars of our institution.

EL: What do you hear from the kids at the school about what you and your colleagues are doing? Is there increased acceptance by straight students, or a greater comfort level for gay kids who come out?

RE: We have a middle school Gay-Straight Alliance, as well as an upper school GSA, and kids are really comfortable talking about gender and sexuality diversity. Some kids say, “We talk about this too much,” which is a good thing, because it means that we are making this visible and we are making sure that there are no kids at our school who feel alone, unusual or isolated. And kids are really conscious of their language, although even at Park kids are not perfect!

EL: How can all of us help in this campaign to shift attitudes? What should we say to the kids and teens in our lives if we hear them using homophobic expressions such as “That's so gay.”

RE: I always ask questions like “What did you mean when you said that?” Usually kids are quick to say, “That’s not what I meant.” They get it. They understand that it's not OK to use the name of a group of people as a synonym for “weird” or “uncool,” but they need to arrive at that understanding through an adult’s questioning of their intent, not from an adult’s lecture. And I also like to talk about impact. When you’ve said something hurtful, whether or not you meant it, it has an impact. Whether you threw the lacrosse ball through the window on purpose or bounced it through by accident, the window is still broken and needs repair. Also, adults can talk about gay people, gay friends, gay politics freely and openly and let kids know that they stand on the side of fairness and justice.

EL: You have a whole other life as a playwright. How did that come about and how do you find time to write while teaching fulltime?

RE: I was first a teacher and developed my serious interest in playwriting about a dozen years ago. I’ve been teaching basically since graduating from Haverford. It’s hard to fit writing in, for sure, but I do what I can. Summers are usually productive periods. Honestly, I probably cheat sleep much more than I should!

EL: What kinds of experiences and ideas do you explore in your plays?

RE:  I tend to write about people at serious moments of crisis with self-identity and self-actualization. “Who am I REALLY?” is a big question that my characters are wrestling with. For example, Hope's Arbor explores a young woman who has to figure out how to summon the courage to post an online profile of herself that is a fully truthful picture of who she is. She can only do that after some challenging experiences force her to be honest about herself and get to know, understand and respect herself.

EL: Any recent or upcoming productions you can tell us about?

RE: I’ve got a reading of a short play called The Last Blackberries of Summer this weekend in New York, but I can't get away to see it. My last  “big” play was Three Andys, produced by Single Carrot Theatre at the Baltimore Museum of Art in October 2010; it was about Andy Warhol’s re-entry into the world of painting at the end of his life and it accompanied the BMA's “Warhol: The Last Decade” exhibit.

EL: Do you enjoy the process of mounting a new play and working with directors and actors?

RE: I love working with directors and actors because they help me find things in the work I never knew were there. I love when directors and actors suggest a new line or a new direction. Some writers don't like that, but theatre is a collaborative art. If you want complete control, go write a novel.

EL: Anything you’d like to add?

RE: I guess I would just add that the GLSEN Award would literally not have been possible without the work of so many other teachers at Park School. We moved forward as an institution not because of my work but because so many of us decided to make this change happen. The award really belongs to the entire school.

Students cross in front of Founders Hall.

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