Scars from Teacher of the Year fight healing after Supreme Court decision
It was supposed to have been the happiest year of Brett Bigham's life.
In 2014, he was named Oregon's Teacher of the Year — a rare achievement for a special education teacher and rarer still for the unsung heroes outside of the K-12 system — those who teach students ages 18 to 21.
But there was something else that set Bigham apart: his sexual orientation.
Having lost a gay friend to suicide in his teen years, Bigham wanted to talk openly about being a gay Teacher of the Year in order to be of some comfort and inspiration to LGBTQ youths.
Bigham alleges — and now his former employer, Multnomah Education Service District agrees — that that led to a spiral of discrimination and retaliation that ultimately ended in his being fired.
On June 15, the Supreme Court of the United States voted 6-3 that workplace discrimination based on sexuality was banned throughout the country. Bigham's case was cited in an amicus brief; a legal document filed in an appeals case by a third party.
Bigham said he rejoiced in the Supreme Court decision to include sexuality in the labor protections.
"We don't have the asterisk — 'except gay people' — anymore," he said.
Reflecting on his case that day and rueful that he had yet to get an apology from his former employer, Bigham wrote what became a viral thread on Twitter, and other platforms, with views reaching into the millions.
In it, Bigham tied the actions of his former Portland-based employer to the 6-3 Supreme Court decision in the Bostock case.
High court, court of public opinion
"The highest court in the land looked at the behavior of my school district and decided that that was not right," Bigham told the Tribune.
His social media reflections, he said, helped people understand "what happens to gay people in this country, even in a place like Portland. And I think it opened a lot of eyes."
In Oregon, education service districts support and provide services for individual school districts. The Multnomah Education Service District, or MESD, serves eight school districts from Portland Public Schools in the west to the Corbett School District in the east.
Stephen Beaudoin, a former board chair at MESD now living in Washington, D.C., downplays Bigham's role in the case.
While Beaudoin said he was overjoyed at the Supreme Court decision, he also feels like Bigham is using the moment for self-aggrandizement. He said he worries Bigham's viral story will overshadow the good work that the district is doing and the changes they have made in the last six years.
"This has nothing to do with MESD," Beaudoin said of the Bostock decision. "My hope is Brett could use this opportunity to reflect on the other injustices that need to be righted and corrected in this moment."
Beaudoin said that during his time on the board, from 2015 to 2017, he heard of no other cases of discrimination against LGBTQ staff or students, and noted that the district's leadership marched in the Portland Pride parade for several years.
The district's apology, issued June 16 by current board chair Helen Ying, casts a wide net by including "those who were impacted by discriminatory action" in the past.
Bigham said he knows of other cases in which LGBTQ staff members have agreed to sign nondisclosure agreements in exchange for settlements. However, both Ying and a district spokesperson said they haven't heard of that.
"I don't know of other specific cases of discrimination, however, I wanted to be inclusive in acknowledging others who may have been hurt or harmed by similar actions," Ying wrote in an email.
Bigham was born the same year as the landmark 1964 civil rights law cited in the Bostock decision. He says, for the first time in his life, he feels that people like him are included in workplace civil rights protections.
"To be a piece of that. That's a hard.… I don't have the words for that," Bigham said, his voice breaking. "This has been a really long fight."
Emotions have been close to the surface for Bigham since the decision. He says he has been getting very little sleep. He skims through the thousands of messages flooding his inbox, looking for cries for help and sending them the Trevor Project suicide prevention help line (thetrevorproject.org).
The day after he wrote the viral posts, in those hundreds of notifications per minute, was a message from a friend pointing him to an apology that MESD had just issued.
He read it in shock and said he pulled his shirt over his face like a young child and sobbed.
"I have not cried that hard since my dad died," Bigham said.
The 280-word apology only briefly mentions Bigham.
"We apologize to Mr. Brett Bigham. No one should have to endure the discriminatory actions that Mr. Bigham describes experiencing at MESD. They were wrong when they occurred, just as they would be wrong today."
Bigham said he chooses to focus on the third sentence, which acknowledges the discrimination occurred rather than was just "described."
Laura Conroy, a spokeswoman for MESD, said the district does not have any dispute with the way Bigham characterized the agency's actions on Twitter.
Despite being a Teacher of the Year, Bigham has yet to find steady employment since speaking out. He believes he has been blacklisted in the Portland area for being willing to take on his superintendent.
In 2018, he used the lack of permanent ties to organize a trip to Bangladesh, to help bolster a special education program there. He also has continued his work with the National Teacher of the Year network to create resources for teachers. (Anticipating a different result at the Supreme Court, Bigham already had prepared resources for a wave of depressed and angry LGBTQ students, in case the ruling went the other way.)
Bigham has intermittently found work as a substitute teacher, including as a long-term sub at Pioneer Special School, a K-8 special education program in Southeast Portland.
While the price of speaking out has been high, Bigham said he would pay it again and is looking at the bright side of being untethered.
"I never would have gone (to Bangladesh) if I had been in my classroom," he said. "I would not have been part of the Supreme Court decision. The path has been rough and amazing."
Bigham said without a clear career path and a seniority ladder to climb, he is focused on just making a positive impact.
"I never know where I'm going from here. I'm a free spirit and I'm untethered."
As a contract worker, he was let go from Portland Public Schools in June, thanks to budget cuts caused by the pandemic, but he said he hopes to be hired back to Pioneer in the fall.
"When you work with people like that, it makes you feel like you can change the world," he said, "because you see the best of people and where we can go."
Shasta Kearns Moore is a freelance reporter. Find her on Twitter @ShastaKM.
Where are they now?
Brett Bigham has not been able to find permanent employment, despite being a Teacher of the Year. His discrimination complaint has now been acknowledged by his former employer and supported by a Bureau of Labor and Industries investigation. What happened to the Multnomah Education Service District administrators on the other side of the conflict?
• Barbara Jorgensen, Bigham's superintendent, was given a $166,612 settlement to resign in 2015.
• Heyke Nickerson, the former Human Resources chief, was let go in 2015 with a $75,450 contract. She is now known as Heyke Kirkendall-Baker and is now associate vice president of human resources at Lewis & Clark College.
• Jeanne Zuniga, Bigham's former supervisor who allegedly warned he would be "shot in the head" by someone if he continued to talk about his homosexuality, had her last day at the service district in August 2015. She is now known as Jeanne Swift and works as the director of student services at Corbett School District.
• Kelly Raf, a former district supervisor who told the public that Bigham was fired for being late on paperwork, had her last day at the district in 2015 as well. She is currently assistant director of special education at Beaverton School District.
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