Dawn Murray fights charges of lesbianism at Oceanside High

"The facts are on our side"

— Oceanside is about as far as you can go in North County without enlisting. Fact is, many people in Oceanside have enlisted, if only indirectly, via their parents. Biology teacher Dawn Murray says that few of the kids who start ninth grade at Oceanside High are still in town by the time graduation rolls around, so she figures she has a maximum of one year to transmit something vital to each student. Murray signed on to teach biology -- and she still does, to the accompaniment of national awards -- but lately the circumstances of her life have added something unexpected to the curriculum: Murray has found herself needing to demonstrate a blend of self-respect and fortitude that should come in handy for her mostly minority students.

Up about a mile from the beachfront, from sidewalks crammed with short-haired guys in pastel-striped short-sleeve shirts, barber shops advertising regulation cuts, and clothing stores specializing in surplus, lies Oceanside High--the underdog school, home of the Pirates. Single-story stucco buildings are strewn across the rise of the hill like a necklace tossed carelessly on a dressing table. The apricot-colored school is faded, grown comfortable with age, with no newfangled architecture to make these '50s ranchers look shabbier than they do already.

It seems like a funny place for someone from Upstate New York to end up, but Oceanside High has been Dawn Murray's home for 16 years, since she got her first teaching job at age 22. "Oceanside is not a school that people die to teach at," she quips. She ticks off the reasons why: gang activity, low test scores, the ancient school, students made transient by military parents. Still, says Murray, "They're good kids, and they need good teachers." It's a simple statement that has made Murray's life a hell. If you count emotional exhaustion as a sort of death, Murray has indeed died to teach at Oceanside.

It started in 1993, when Murray was passed over for a promotion. Discreet inquiries finally netted the reason: the hiring committee had heard Murray was a lesbian. Rumors began circulating around the campus, spread by security and custodial staff: Murray was having sex with a female teacher on the floor, Murray was passionately kissing an employee on school grounds, Murray was "fraternizing on campus during school hours" with another employee. None of this was missed by sharp-eared kids, and Murray did her best to fight, filing complaints with the principal and assistant principal, in each case demonstrating that the rumors were false.

But while she successfully fought each accusation, the employees conducting the rumor mill weren't fired or reprimanded, and the closeted Murray became progressively more isolated and dismayed. Conservative faculty members made disparaging remarks at meetings, formerly friendly colleagues shunned Murray in the hall but phoned her up at night pledging support, and the principal outted her at an in-service on racial discrimination. That meeting turned into such a free-for-all that the facilitator stopped the training. "I didn't say a word," Murray says now. "People were pushing me into a corner and hassling me to come out, but you have to understand, when that first accusation came in, it frightened the hell out of me. People were talking about my sexual orientation -- well, I didn't talk about it."

During the same period, Murray was racking up national awards. She won a fellowship from Princeton and in 1995 was named Outstanding Biology Teacher of the Year. "I could have gone anywhere in the country and written my own ticket," Murray says. She stayed.

"Here's what happened," she explains. "On one of the first days of school, I was asking people's names, and one girl said her name was Patty. A kid in the back spoke up. 'Your name's not Patty, your name's lesbian. I said to him, 'Why do you think calling someone a lesbian would hurt her?' and he said, 'Well, it hurt you, didn't it?' I realized that if I left they would learn that you could run someone out by intimidating them, and I was determined these kids would not learn that from me. When I went to the union, I told them to fight my case with that in mind -- I wasn't going to leave no matter what."

"No matter what" has grown pretty grim. Murray had already tried talking to the school board and gotten nowhere. On the advice of a friend, she contacted the California Teachers Association. CTA rep Susan Popovich took the case, and Murray has nothing but praise for her. "We fought this battle for two years before I even came out to her," Murray says. "When I did, she said, 'It doesn't matter to me one way or the other. What matters is discrimination.' "

Which brings up a burning question: How did anyone think treating Dawn Murray like this would fly in a state that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation? "You'd be surprised how many lawyers don't know it's illegal," says Myron Dean Quon, staff attorney for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which has ended up with Murray's case. "They look under the list of what's called a 'suspect class' in the Fair Employment and Housing Act, and sexual orientation isn't listed. That's because Pete Wilson vetoed putting it there and Deukmejian before him. What we finally ended up with is that the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is in the California Labor Code." (Murray's predicament may be a matter of bad timing -- currently crawling through the state legislature is the bill sponsored by Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, AB 1001, which will add sexual orientation to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act discrimination language.)

The graffiti, the rumors, the shunning -- none of it stopped, though Murray filed complaints each time with the administration. Murray says her students were frightened by the graffiti, which often depicted linked women's symbols scarred with a slash. "You understand gang terminology?" Murray asks. "It means you're dead. My students were scared for me. They told me how worried they were."

Murray finally decided to sue the district. "At first I just wanted them to apologize," she says. "I was naïve." Murray's suit charged that she'd been denied a promotion and been treated differently than her colleagues based on her sexual orientation. After a period of months, the suit was dismissed by Judge Dana M. Sabraw, who ruled that the protection against discrimination granted by the California Labor Code is restricted to hiring, firing, and promotion; acts of harassment that do not result in loss of job or demotion are not covered. Sabraw would not hear Murray's loss of promotion claim because he said that Murray had waited too long to file suit on that particular claim.

During the period that Murray waited for a ruling, her colleagues continued to freeze her out, though some of the more blatant harassment quieted. But when her case was dismissed, she again became a target. "I knew that I had to get up the next day and go back to a school where the judge said I can legally be harassed," Murray says. "Right away, I heard people say, 'She lost the case. We can get her now.' But when I walked in that room, the kids looked in my eyes, and they knew I was going to stay. I wasn't going to run away."

The following day, a custodian was caught penning antigay graffiti on the door to Murray's classroom. After he was found guilty, the district obtained a restraining order against the man. Recently, at his request, Judge Sabraw modified the restraining order so the employee can work at a school other than Oceanside High; the district is appealing the modification. Murray was called into court to testify against the man on behalf of the district.

Murray also chose to appeal Sabraw's dismissal of her harassment suit, and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund took her case in December. Oral arguments are expected to take place this fall. "What I want now is for the law to be read properly," she says. "At first I wanted my reputation cleared, but I realize that's impossible, given human nature. But when it came to Judge Sabraw reading the law wrong, then it went way beyond me and my feelings. If you can destroy a teacher who's climbed to the top and who had a spotless record, you can destroy anybody."

Murray's case is unique in two ways: she's stayed at Oceanside High (Lambda's Myron Quon says he doesn't know of another instance in which the litigant has remained on the job), and neither parents nor students have been involved -- Murray's troubles have all been staff-generated. She says that since Lambda took on the appeal, the atmosphere at school has become more professional. "Things are better now than they have been in years," she reports. "It's gotten better with the administration but not with the faculty. My gay colleagues went further into the closet. I do not have one gay teacher friend now. I'm very hurt over that."

What hurts even more -- because she feels it impacts her students -- are the changes Murray has made in her teaching style: "I've stopped all field trips unless there's another adult present. At break, I lock my door, at lunch I lock my door. If a kid wants to talk to me in private, we go to a bench outside under a tree, in full view of everyone. I've talked to kids out there in the pouring rain. When I tutor kids, we do it in the library. I'm just extremely careful." She pauses. "You see, I truly feel they thought I would just go away. But now -- if we lose the appeal, I don't know. I'll have put everybody in a worse place."

Quon believes the chances are high that Murray will win. "The facts are on our side," he says. "Her legs were cut off as a teacher. How can you allow security guards and janitors to bad-mouth a faculty member to other teachers and students and not reprimand them? The administration gave their approval to the harassment. That's what we find unacceptable." If the ruling is reversed, Murray's case will go to trial. "It's so unusual to find someone who will stick around and fight it," Quon adds. "Most people, even those with tenure, walk away. A lot of it really is about sending a message. The kids know who the gay teachers are. They know who the gay kids are. If a teacher is driven out, what it says is that gay people are not welcome in the world."

Murray can identify a bright side and, of course, it's with her students. "I see myself as someone who's been abused. But what makes me lighthearted is that you see the gay kids handling it like little adults. One kid demanded a meeting with the principal and then with the faculty. And he said, 'It's against the law to harass me in school. This has to stop right here.' I think that by sticking with it and going through with my case, I've been a role model for all these kids, straight or gay.

"Whenever my name's in the paper now, it always says 'openly lesbian Dawn Murray.' People look at that and they say, 'She wouldn't have gotten into trouble if she'd kept her mouth shut.' Well, my mouth was shut, and this still happened to me."

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