09/19/2012 02:33 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

Queering Inequalities: The Lasting Legacy of the Chicago Teachers Union Strike

The Chicago Teachers' Union is on the side of history. For decades, Chicago's teachers have been burdened with a system crumbling around them. They've weathered dilapidated buildings, books coming apart at the seams, classrooms bursting with too many students and too few seats and rooms that sweat with a lack of A/C and a lack of available resources. These conditions are a reflection of a system that underfunds its students and undervalues its staff, simply letting parents who can afford to leave the district take their children and their business elsewhere, favoring the new laissez-faire mentality of the market-modeled school and the charter school success story. For far too long, we have let the poor, disadvantaged and "weak" suffer, while flight favored the "strong" and the relatively rich, and the results by district reflect these realities. New Trier High School, in Winnetka, and Manley Career Academy, on Chicago's West Side, don't just exist in different income brackets. They exist in different universes.

As someone who came from a modest background, I was at least lucky enough to have my own book for every class I took, to go to a school where we didn't have to choose between metal detectors and buses and to have teachers with the educational support system to teach me well. The system was on my side. Like the young male protagonist in Dr. Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go!, I was white, and all the students around me were white, products of the gentrification of the Cincinnati suburbs. In a town where the hills were lined with Starbucks, it felt like the possibilities were endless, and I could ride in a Seussian hot air balloon to Princeton, Yale, Ithaca or Stanford, which was the university I wanted to go to. When I took placement tests in third grade that showed me to be a "gifted" student, there were special classes and teachers waiting for me, ready to put me on a fast track to wherever I wanted to be.

What this protest has been about is extending the same experiences that I had to all of Chicago's students, who face the same conditions, hardships and structural barriers to success that Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities discussed back in 1991. In 20 years, little has changed for Chicago's urban youth and conditions will only worsen if teachers are expected to work longer hours with smaller pay, as Rahm Emanuel works to rescind raises that were already negotiated. Rahm has stated that this is a "strike of choice," and it is, but not in a way that he means. This strike is a choice between a system for profit, dictated by the bottom line, and a system for people. Many have lambasted teachers for asking for a fair wage and the right to do their job without unfair discrimination, but this isn't a fight for money. This a fight for justice and equality, for teachers and for students, and the most savage thing about these inequalities is that they've persisted this long.

Just a month after stories about Chick-fil-A dominated the media, this story deeply resonates with me as a queer person. LGBT nonprofits around the country have battled Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy in recent weeks to make their corporation more inclusive for queer folks, despite its president's homophobic views. Although many viewed the battle as about public opinion and personal politics, the fight was about the right to employment non-discrimination, a battle that a majority of Americans stood by LGBT folks to wage. Americans understood that Chick-fil-A represented a system of discrimination also exemplified by other corporations whose policies toward the LGBT community have not been historically superb and fought with LGBT folks to hold Dan Cathy accountable for his share in that system.

However, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) stood with LGBT folks on the issue of employment discrimination, before the media made it fashionable to do so, and even before Chicago had a law that in place that protected LGBT workers. As part of their ethos of "protecting members' rights," the CTU boasts a GLBT Rights Committee to protect queer teachers from harassment and discrimination, which are still shockingly common. In May of this year, a teacher at a Catholic school in St. Louis was fired after "church officials learned that he planned to marry his male partner of 20 years" and in March, a music teacher at a Christian school in Cincinnati was "hired then fired when the school found out he is gay." In June, Minnesota Catholic schoolteacher Trish Cameron was let go after informing school administrators that she disagreed with the church's view on marriage equality, and elsewhere, a Tennessee yearbook teacher was forced out after running a yearbook page titled "It's Okay to Be Gay." Even in 2012, we can see that it's hard out there for queer and allied students and faculty, and it won't get better until we stand with organizations like the CTU, who are working to make our school safe spaces for all, regardless of gender identification or sexual orientation.

And as the CTU seeks to make our schools safer for students of all orientations, we must not wait for it to get better but fight with them to make it better. For far too long, we have asked teachers to tighten their belts and make sacrifices, while still turning around and blaming them for a system they have no control over. We expect our faculty to be like Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds -- to walk in and fix a damaged infrastructure with their skills and wits, because pretty white ladies are magic -- and we are increasingly asking this of young, white Teach for America recruits with little training or experience. Although there are many who want to fix this system, we can't fault those who are actually working to fix the problem by trying to do their job and punish them for the fact that the problem exists in the first place. We need to stop pointing fingers at teachers and work with them.

In a time of pervasive school bullying, LGBT Americans know that it only gets better when we all realize that we have a role in providing the best environment for our youth to succeed, that allow them to go the places we dream they can. If politicians like Rahm Emanuel, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want to truly do that, they can stop demonizing the teachers' unions and listen to what they have to say, help them forge a plan for a brighter future. Because even though the strike has ended, America's inequalities won't end with a single compromise. They will end when we stop fighting each other and fight for the one thing we can agree on: the future of our children.