When Lonnie Billard, a former teacher at Charlotte Catholic High School, made a fleeting comment in December about substituting for a fellow teacher’s class after the break, there was an unusual pause.
“She goes, ‘Well, um, erm.’ And I said, ‘What, have I been fired?’ And she said ‘yes.’”
While national public opinion continues to shift in favor of more rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, some say the teaching profession remains less accepting of LGBT teachers. And North Carolina is one of 29 states that does not include sexual orientation and gender identity in its workplace non-discrimination laws.
Billard said he and his partner have been openly gay for years and he never had a negative experience at school prior to his dismissal at the end of 2014. He said parents and others in the community often referred gay students to him to help with their experiences — something he no longer has the opportunity to do.
“We are the only minority in the U.S. that can be fired for being exactly who we are. We can be denied employment. We can be denied access to restaurants,” he said. “The more you have gay people speak out, the quicker these things will change.”
Earlier in December, Billard had announced on Facebook his decision to marry his partner, Rich, following the overturning of North Carolina’s gay marriage ban in October. The couple has been together for 13 years.
Charlotte Catholic is a private school overseen by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte — and Billard said his announcement got back to a particularly conservative priest in the community. Less than a week before he was supposed to go in for work, Billard received a call from an assistant principal.
“So he calls me and says that I’m no longer allowed to teach because of what I shared with my friends on Facebook,” Billard said. “I have never been more hurt ... I lost the kids. I lost a reason to get up and do something every day.
“(They) said I was in violation of Catholic law, and therefore I could not continue to teach — which is, pardon my language, but is total bullshit,” he said.
He said the decision to dismiss him came from the diocese, but diocese spokesman David Hains said the decision came from the school.
“(Upon employment) he promised in writing not to oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church,” Hains said. “In announcing his upcoming same-sex marriage, he was opposing that teaching — essentially he was breaking that promise.”
Hains said that because Billard was not a full-time teacher, he wasn’t fired; the decision was made not to use him as a substitute anymore. He said similar decisions have been made in the past — including with unmarried couples living together.
For Billard, the decision to be vocal about his identity and professional situation was an easy one — but that’s not the case for all of the state’s LGBT educators.
One public high school teacher, who has worked in the Triangle area for more than 30 years, asked to remain anonymous because he feels his position in the community might be compromised if he comes out.
“I’ve lived a lot of my life wondering if people have had suspicions one way or another,” he said. “I went everywhere by myself, and that was a lot of years — it was hard. But I wanted to teach, I wanted to coach ... so I kept my mouth shut.”
He said he felt parents and others in the conservative area would be uncomfortable with a gay man mentoring their children.
“I think you pay more personal costs the more private you are,” he said. “But I was willing to accept some limitations because I really wanted to do this job.”
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools’ policy states that it prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Orange County Schools do not include sexual orientation or gender identity in their employee non-discrimination policies, while Chatham County Schools include both in their harassment policy but not explicitly in their non-discrimination policy.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, Chatham County Schools and Orange County Schools could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The anonymous teacher said that the time he put into work rather than his personal life made him a more dedicated teacher, but he hopes future educators won’t have to make that choice.
A bill filed Thursday in the N.C. General Assembly would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s workplace non-discrimination law — including a requirement for school districts to adopt similar policies, said Chris Sgro, executive director of LGBT advocacy group Equality N.C.
Nearly two dozen Democratic lawmakers are sponsors of the proposal, though similar bills have been voted down in the legislature during the past few years.
“It is breaking barriers. But when you break barriers, sometimes there’s a lot of broken pieces and things that don’t get fixed immediately,” the anonymous teacher said. “And I don’t really consider myself a barrier breaker.”
He said his experience with students in recent years makes him hopeful that the stigmas against gay people, particularly in education, are going to end with his generation.
“I think kids today tend to be a lot more comfortable with themselves. It’s up to us as adults to catch up with them — and I think in some ways we are.”