Natomas charter school helps gay teacher find her voice

Andrea Fazel has found her voice.

She uses it these days to teach government and law at Natomas Pacific Pathways Preparatory Charter High School.

The onetime English teacher lost her voice, figuratively and sometimes literally, for several years and eventually walked away from teaching because she felt she could not be who she is – a gay woman who also is an educator.

“There are parents that worry that teachers are trying to convert their children, for lack of a better word,” Fazel said Tuesday during a break from her government class.

The inability to be herself impacted Fazel so much that at times she would literally find herself hoarse and unable to speak, she said.

She wrote about her experiences in “One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium,” a compilation of stories from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender educators. The authors share personal stories about the struggles that come with being gay in the teaching profession.

Fear of being revealed meant eating lunches alone in her classroom, deflecting prying questions from other teachers and students and a desk devoid of family pictures.

“All year I had to struggle to figure out how to present myself,” she writes of her first year as a teacher. “Were my body language, wardrobe and voice not feminine enough? Was I too obvious?”

The secret also impacted her home life. She and her wife, Lynnette, chose a house far from the school so they wouldn’t have to worry about bumping into parents or students when they went to the store.

Fazel said she was conflicted. Was she being a good advocate for LGBT youths by denying her sexuality?

In 2000, while working in San Jose, Fazel decided to come out to her students despite the objections of her principal. Although the revelation went smoothly, a move to another school with a conservative principal sent her back into the closet for two years.

It was too much for her to bear. Fazel quit teaching and went to law school. She worked in the LGBT community for a while, but she missed teaching. This time, Fazel said, if she returned, she would not silence her voice.

“It’s really, really exhausting to try to be invisible,” Fazel said. “On a personal level that is important, and I know I’m a better teacher when I’m out. I’m more relaxed. I’m more me.”

She heard about a small charter school near her home that could be a good fit. The combined middle and high school campus of 1,100 students has a waiting list for most grades.

“I was skeptical, to say the least,” Fazel wrote.

“I live in Sacramento, in a neighborhood where ‘Yes on Prop. 8’ signs and stickers had littered lawns and cars in every direction,” she added, referring to the 2008 initiative against gay marriage. “I found it hard to imagine that this would be a place where my voice would be welcome, let alone safe.”

Principal Tom Rutten remembers the day seven years ago that Fazel walked into the school commonly known as NP3. He was excited about hiring a teacher with a law degree for the law-themed school. “We finished the conversation, and I offered her the job.”

It’s a hire he’s never regretted. “She is focused, skilled and knows her craft,” he said. “She builds positive relationships with kids.”

Fazel considered carefully how she would come out to her students. She decided to put a collage of pictures up in her room that included her nephew, her dogs and her wife. When students inquired about the photos and the people in them, she identified them.

Fazel and her wife have been together 25 years. They married in 2008 in the months between the state Supreme Court ruling that made gay marriage legal and the passage of Proposition 8, which halted gay marriage in California for several years.

“Coming out to my students happens organically,” she said.

Fazel also is the adviser to the school’s Ally Club, which fights bullying. She said that about two students a year come to her for guidance about coming out. “I have had conversations with individual students who have had questions or who have figured out this is exactly who I am and just need to talk to somebody that understands.”

Naomi Williams, 17, said Fazel offered her support after starting her senior year in August with a new name and a new gender.

“She congratulated me for accepting myself,” Williams said. “She was the first person to talk to me and to make sure I was using the bathroom I felt comfortable with. She checks in to make sure everything is good. She has been there for me.”

Like Fazel, Williams said her choice is a non-issue on the charter school campus. Williams calls her classmates “opening and accepting” and said no one has been negative about her decision.

Williams said gay teachers should come out to their students because there are more gay students than in past years. “It’s important because it shows a person that you can be gay and you can still be successful,” she said.

The students in Fazel’s government class call her a friendly, smart teacher with a style that promotes discussion about all opinions.

“Today my students and their parents know that I am a lawyer that never practiced law a day in her life, that I have two incredibly cute dogs, and that my sarcastic sense of humor only thinly hides a sentimental heart,” she said. “They know my wife, and they talk about how sweet she is. They know that I am passionate about teaching, passionate about the government and law classes. The fact that I am openly gay is just another piece of data for most of them.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert