By Chris Attaway
Prior to his recent retirement, Tim Martindell, EdD, had worked in education for over 30 years, both in teaching and administration. He has been president of the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts and the West Houston Area Council of Teachers of English, in addition to his involvement with several other organizations. He received his Doctorate of Education from the University of Houston College of Education in 2015 as a distinguished alumnus. He has gone a long way in the world of education, and he did so while keeping the fact that he is gay tightly controlled, year after year.
The occasion of Dr. Martindell’s retirement led me to interview him as a tribute to the long and interesting career of this wonderful gay educator. I sat down with Martindell and his partner, Mike, at a coffee shop near his house in the Heights. Martindell is a big guy with an infectious smile and a soothing, almost Bob Ross-like demeanor. He currently uses his free time to teach alongside my wife at The Village School, a private international school on the west side of town. They both enjoy the challenge of teaching literature to kids who would rather daydream about Minecraft for eight hours a day.
As we began discussing the early years of his career, I expected to hear a narrative about how terrible it was in the ’80s (especially in Texas) before attitudes about gay teachers began shifting. After all, psychiatrists had decided that homosexuality was not a mental disorder just 10 years prior to the start of Martindell’s career. Instead, his comments made it clear that although LGBT educators can never be completely open, it has become a very manageable issue for today’s teachers.
Martindell landed his first teaching position in 1984 through a friend who referred him to the language-arts department at Wheatley High School, one of the poorest schools in Houston. As it turned out, Wheatley had a core group of gay educators in the ’80s that included the language-arts department chair, and this built-in support group had each other’s backs. (If a school administration was particularly homophobic in that era, they could use a “moral turpitude” contract clause to fire outed teachers.)
Though Martindell had to be cautious, he could be himself around most of his Wheatley colleagues. Students would sometimes find out about gay teachers, but it rarely became an issue. Only one student repeatedly tried to out Martindell during class by interrupting lectures to ask him about gay bars. Martindell skillfully turned the student’s machismo back on him by asking whether the student was pondering his own orientation and if he might like to see a counselor. Incidents like these were relatively easy to manage, but usually the students either didn’t know, didn’t care, or were too busy just trying to finish school to do anything rash.
This changed somewhat in 1991, when Martindell moved to Nimitz High School in Aldine—a suburban school with a bit more money floating about. Sadly, affluence and prejudice went hand-in-hand, especially with the school’s administrators. It didn’t help that a female superior had recently gone through a divorce in which her husband left her for a man. This fostered a certain prejudice, and she tended to give Martindell a hard time. Other right-wing influences in that suburban culture meant that Martindell had to keep his orientation quieter than at Wheatley.
Even at Nimitz, though, the students hardly cared one way or another about their teachers’ sexual orientation. In fact, student attitudes shifted dramatically over the course of Martindell’s career: a gay student in the ’80s would keep things hush-hush, whereas by the time he left Nimitz in 2002, many LGBT student couples would openly show affection in the hallways. Educators themselves were still discrete in order to avoid parental or administrative conflict, but acceptance was the norm for the student population.
Still, I was struck by how mundanely Martindell discussed ongoing LGBT discrimination in his profession. Although things have improved since 1980, there are still lots of things wrong. Since my wife works with Martindell, I can easily observe the contrast in their experiences. On my birthday, for example, my wife called me from the speakerphone in her classroom so that her whole class could wish me a happy birthday. While Tim is much safer than he would have been in ages past, the thought of sharing these things with students still makes him nervous.
Of course, no LGBT person is fully protected under current Texas law. While some school districts (including HISD) now protect sexual orientation and gender identity by including nondiscrimination clauses in their hiring policies, equal rights in the workplace should not be left up to the goodwill of individual employers. Clearly, there are still significant civil-rights hurdles to overcome.
In spite of the ongoing hardships, Martindell maintains a damn-the-torpedoes outlook on teaching. He just wants to help kids grow, and the challenges of being a gay man in education pale in comparison to the joy Martindell receives from enriching the next generation of heroes. In addition to seeing the everyday successes in the classroom, once in a while a student will come back to tell Martindell what a great inspiration he was—both as a model of LGBT courage and as a human being. These experiences make all the tiptoeing worthwhile.
To LGBT educators just starting out, Martindell has one main piece of advice: find a community that will support you as a whole person. The group of LGBT educators Martindell found at Wheatley allowed him to avoid compartmentalizing his life whenever he went to work. Being a teacher is stressful no matter who you are, so it is vital to have people who know you and can offer support.
The sad fact of the matter is that no matter how much public opinion may have shifted, avoiding conflict as an LGBT teacher still means keeping quiet while advocating for more equality and job protections. But if Martindell is at all representative of the LGBT educators’ experience, such annoyances should not stop anyone from having a successful and rewarding career in teaching.
Chris Attaway is a hobbyist writer in west Houston focusing on social issues. He received his BA in philosophy from Houston Baptist University in 2015.