Q&A with Ed Laningham
by Cody Davis
TFW Contributing Writer
Q: So, what is it you do?
Ed: My degree was in early childhood education. I’ve been a teacher for 20 years. I haven’t worked in public schools because of the way things are with job discrimination. I worked at Montessori School for about six years and then I worked at Charter Vista (now Charter behavioral health) for as a counselor and teacher for about six years. Currently I tutor math and music privately and also work at White Lotus Salon as a vibroacoustic therapist, which uses music as a form of therapy. Music and education is my primary background.
Q: Have you ever had any problems with you being openly gay at work?
Ed: I moved to Wichita for about a year for a job as a tutor at Sylvan Learning Center. I was fully trained, but I honestly just hated Wichita and wanted to be back in Fayetteville. When I moved back home, they had just opened a Sylvan Learning Center in Springdale. I applied for a job there. I was already trained and had an incredible reference from Wichita, so I of course got called back in for a second interview. They told me that they really, really wanted me and they’d even like to possibly make me the head teacher, but I was told that I’d have to take out my earrings for the interview. The woman who was doing the hiring made it very clear that it was the owner who asked this of me, not her. I said, “Well…would you ask any of your female employees to take out any of their jewelry?” and she said “no.” Then I said, “Well, that kind of sounds like a sexual discrimination lawsuit to me. That’s probably not the best way to start an interview, is it?” I would understand if it were a nose ring or something, but it’s very common for men to have earrings now and I don’t think that’s going to impact my ability to teach my students at all. The reason I’m sharing this story is because a year later this woman called me and said “I just want you to know that I have quit working for this man. I have thought about this for an entire year. What we did to you was wrong.” She actually left her job that she could have been very secure with because I stood my ground and spoke the truth. So, I guess what I want people to know: don’t ever sell yourself out just to get a job. Always stand your ground.
Q: How has being gay affected you as a person?
Ed: That’s a big question for me. My biological mother was a lesbian who came out in the early 1970s here in NWA after she had me and had been married to my father. This was back before 1973 (I think it was ’71) when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. In the process of her coming out, she lost custody of me and was forced (by court order) to see a psychiatrist (who subsequently put her on unnecessary drugs). Because of her losing her son and the resulting depression she encountered, she eventually committed suicide. My biological father and stepmother tried to keep me from discovering this in fear of me becoming gay. Since learning about my mother’s history I have been an extreme political/social advocate, particularly for youth. I don’t want to see one more young person die; it shouldn’t happen and there should be other options. There should be resources for youth to have help. I think being gay has also made me a more open person. If I could offer one piece of advice for gay and straight people, it would be to get out of the box. Don’t be confined by tradition and the roles that are put on you by society. Those decisions should be made for yourself. Another thing that has shaken up my life is that it’s made me a lot more compassionate. I don’t believe in prejudice. The illusions we have and the stereotypes we have about other people are probably false. I try to be open to each individual person.
Q: How do you think we are supposed to solve this ongoing equality issue?
Ed: Stand up and speak the truth. I know it seems overly simplified, but that’s where it starts. You have to call it when you see it. If you see that you are being discriminated against, make that known. It’s going to be one person at a time. You’ve got to be honest; to yourselves, to your friends. I think we’re to a point where if we want to move forward, we just have to stand up and fight. You’ve got to knock down that wall that is holding you back if you really want to move forward. We’ve just got to make people aware when they step across the line.
Q: Have you ever encountered violence as a result of your sexuality?
Ed: When I was younger, my boyfriend at the time and I were in Huntsville and several men—four or five of them— came up and confronted me. One of them had a knife and he threatened to castrate me. The thing that got me out of this situation is that I knew enough about the area to start talking about people I knew. For some reason I brought up the name of this older lady who was friends with my grandmother and it turned out to be his 6th grade teacher. Since I knew somebody he also knew that completely changed the dynamics; I think that’s always important to remember. Anything you can do to make yourself ‘human,’ to make them know that we know the same people. I am part of your community. We are in this together. I am not this demonic, bizarre entity that you think I am. As long as they can keep us on the outside, they can be like this to us. We need to try to make connections and make some common ground because then it will make it harder for them to discriminate about us or threaten us.
Q: Could you give some advice to those who are experiencing difficulties being gay at a young age?
Ed: Build your support system: your friends, family, maybe religious figures, anyone you can call for guidance. There are people you can seek out for guidance and counseling. Get involved; do things you are passionate about. For me it’s music, drama, and the outdoors among loads of other things. Also remember that being gay is just a small part of who you are and the only reason it seems so important is that there is so much focus on it in society now. You’re going to have a career, a relationship, and a whole entire life in front of you. In high school it seems like the be-all, end-all. Break out of the gay box. Be bigger than the stereotypes that people want to put on you.