Exclusive Interview with Randy Fair, author of Southern. Gay. Teacher: a Memoir

Where do you live throughout most of the year?

Wilton Manors, Florida. It is sometimes called “the gay village,” and The New York Times dubbed it, “Gayberry”.

Without getting too personal (of course, we’ll never stop you!), will you share some of your life’s history?

I grew up in Weaver, Alabama, a town of around 2000 people. As a gay boy, I did get some unexpected help from my teachers. I tell the story of my tenth-grade teacher. One day during a discussion of Julius Caesar, a student asked, “Were these people homosexual?” My teacher told us that in Rome bisexuality was commonplace. Someone said, “That’s disgusting.”

Instead of just continuing on with the lesson, she told us about her roommate in college who was a lesbian. I will never forget that someone asked, “Weren’t you worried that she would look at you while you were undressing?” Her simple answer was ground shaking for me. She said, “If she looked at me and thought I was attractive, I would be just as happy as if a man looked at me and thought I was attractive. I know who I am, and I am comfortable with my sexuality.” It was somewhat of a lonely place for a gay man when I graduated from Jacksonville State, I moved the very next day to Atlanta. I have never lived out of the South.

Randy Fair circa 1984

Writers rarely like to toot their own horn. Indulging our readers, how would a gay man of a certain age describe your proudest accomplishments to date?

I do have some things that other people would consider traditional accomplishments like my Ph.D. and the founding of the Atlanta Chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Teachers Network, but what I would consider being my greatest accomplishment is the storage box I have of notes and letters from former students telling me that I contributed to their lives.

What on earth possessed you to write your memoirs in your mid-to-late fifties?

When I was a teacher, I tried to be as vocal as I could on this subject. But while I did try to speak out, more often than not, I felt silenced. I think that there are many LGBTQ students, parents, and teachers who still feel like they can’t speak up. Many people aren’t aware that throughout the South there are states that have so-called, “No Promo Homo” laws that forbid discussions of LGBTQ Issues in the classroom. Even in the states that don’t
have these laws, the fact that the neighboring states do have them has a silencing effect. And it’s not just in the South. There are many schools throughout this country that still discourage students from starting Gay/Straight Alliance groups or threaten LGBTQ teachers in order to keep them from coming out. Because ENDA has never passed Congress, teachers can be fired simply for being LGBTQ. Now that I can’t be fired, I wanted to give a voice to the people who can’t speak up.

Retied Teacher Randy Fair

Had you always planned to write about your life as a southern educator in Southern. Gay. Teacher.?

I actually had it in the back of my mind for a lot of my career. At one of the first schools where I taught, I had an incident that put the idea in my head. We had an African- American teacher in the English department who always read her religious poems at the end of each department meeting. One day, I went to my mailbox, and someone had put a religious tract in there telling me that I needed to become saved. I thought it was this teacher, and I went to her room to confront her. She immediately told me to sit down. I had always thought of her as meek, but she was so forceful, I immediately sat down. She told me that she didn’t put the tract in my box, and then, she said, “Look, I know you think I don’t want you here, but that’s not true. I know what you go through every day. I was the first black teacher in an all-white school during desegregation. I would come to my room each morning, and I would see where the kids had written, ’N————— go home.’”. I remember thinking, “Why doesn’t she write about those stories instead of those horrible poems? That’s a story I would like to read.” I guess that’s the first time I realized that someone might want to hear what it was like to be a gay teacher.

Did you plan and strategize your writing process, or fly by the seat of your Florida shorts?

I worked on the book for about seven summer breaks. Each summer, I would reread what I had written and then continue adding to it. It became a pretty sprawling project, and when Nick Courtright at Atmosphere Press decided to publish it, he told me that I would have to cut it down significantly. That process took another six months because there were some changes that the editor I was assigned wanted that I didn’t feel comfortable with. We had to continually work out those issues.

Randy Fair

How did you deal with distractions (i.e., blogs, Facebook, promoting, and real-life, like that daytime job demanding your attention?

Luckily, I had the summer breaks to work on the book, and I didn’t have Facebook. As a gay teacher, I didn’t feel comfortable being on social media until I retired. The students get curious about their teachers, and they will go to great lengths to find out what is going on in a teacher’s personal life. I always felt like I could be fired at any moment, and so I didn’t want to add any other reasons.

Following the release of your memoirs as an out and proud gay southern educator, have you had to deal with any outright homophobia from fellow educators, past or present?

To be honest with you, I don’t think I recognized a lot of the homophobia I was experiencing even while it was clearly going on. I could be pretty radical and obnoxious for a teacher, so I never knew if they didn’t like me because I was gay or if they just didn’t like my personality. Since the book has been out, so far I have had nothing but positive responses.

I’m a good seventy percent complete with reading Southern. Gay. Teacher. I can share I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about your personal experiences, especially of those one-on-one relationships with the gay youth of the day. Much has changed in the LGBTQ+ society of acceptance during our lifetimes, and theirs, too. Having (recently reconnected with you) after nearly a forty-year friendship, is there anything you still hope to accomplish before taking that long journey across the Rainbow Bridge?

I feel like this book is one of my last contributions to the LGBTQ cause. I am open to other things coming up as time goes on, so I can’t really say. If I find new ways to help promote the cause, I will definitely pursue them.

Any guilty pleasures you care to share?

Not really. I am pretty boring. Wilton Manors is kind of wide open because it’s a tourist town, and I think most of my friends are surprised by how low key I have been here. I think I did surprise them all on Halloween. It’s a huge holiday for the town. They close the main street down and about 10,000 people show up. I dressed in my leather outfit, and now everyone here tells me that I have a dark side.

On behalf of the Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense FB Group, thank you for giving us a little of your time today by answering our (annoying?) questions…

Last request—What do you hope Southern. Gay. Teacher., can offer to the current generation of gay educators and/or LGBTQ+ kids navigating their way through the educational system of today?

I am especially hopeful of getting teachers and prospective teachers access to this book. I never had any training or discussion in my education programs on LGBTQ Issues, and I had to make it up as I went. I think it would be great for teachers to have a chance to think about these issues before they come up. I also think that the book is good for a general audience. I have been surprised by the number of people who have read it and said that they could relate to these experiences. Many of these people weren’t teachers, and some of them were not LGBTQ. Before the book was published, I guess I never thought that straight people would say, “I have had these same experiences.”