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Lesbian teacher breaks barriers, honored for work
By Mel Ferrand
Windy City Times
It started with a letter.
Patricia Tomaso had never been political. After a 30-plus-year career as a closeted teacher, in 1994, she sat down and wrote a letter. She urged the Chicago Teachers Union ( CTU ) and the Chicago Public Schools ( CPS ) to offer support and protection rights to gay and lesbian teachers. While she never heard from CPS, then-CTU President Tom Reece offered her hope. He proclaimed his support but maintained he was stymied by the process; contract negotiations were well under way and there was nothing he could do at that time.
Meanwhile, Tomaso was becoming more and more politicized. With that, coupled with the safety and free time of retirement, she felt this issue was too urgent to wait another four years for the next contract talks. She became involved with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Teachers Network ( now GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network ) and continued her campaign to improve the working conditions of gay and lesbian teachers in Chicago.
In 1996, Tomaso's perseverance finally paid off and when the CTU arrived at the bargaining table, adding sexual orientation to the fair practices clause was on the list of demands. CPS rejected it. Undeterred, and with Reece's support, they brought up the demand again during the subsequent strategic bargaining session. This time, it was accepted.
CTU and CPS had finally adopted protection for LGBT teachers with the inclusion to the contract of a proscription against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation under Article 2, Section 1. From there, new contract negotiations came up in 1998, and Tomaso was able to make a list of items for consideration directly to the negotiating team. Domestic partner health and dental benefits were accepted. During the next two years, LGBT educators were allowed to use bereavement leave, sick leave and leave for the illness of a family member, and were credited for unused sick days.
By this point, Tomaso was doing more than writing letters and she was no longer alone. Here's what happened: Eventually, Reece's assistant, Diana Schaffer-who had become a huge advocate and ally-was talking with Tomaso regularly. During one conversation they decided that CTU should start a gay & lesbian committee. Schaffer was quick to add, "and you [ Tomaso ] should chair it." So, on Jan. 29, 1998, the CTU Human Relations Subcommittee on Gay and Lesbian Issues held its first meeting.
This fledgling committee was not initially welcomed with open arms. There was dissension among the ranks and even attempts to disrupt meetings, but Reece's support was unwavering and Tomaso's perseverance steadfast so the committee continued. These benefits are in addition to the existing health- and dental-insurance benefits for qualified domestic partners of CTU members.
Over the 10 years of her tenure, Tomaso knew lots of gay and lesbian teachers, but only a few would be on the committee. With a small number of active members, many who came and went, Tomaso learned quickly to work with several straight allies. Helen Ramirez-O'Dell, chair of the CTU Women's Rights Committee, is one that really stands out. Tomaso recalls with a chuckle that there were Union meetings where Ramirez-O'Dell would stand up and advocate for LGBT issues before Tomaso had even thought of them.
Ten years after retiring, Tomaso retired again, this time from the CTU's GLBT Rights Committee. Her successors would not let this go unnoticed.
One of the many products of the GLBT Rights Committee's work is the Allan Wardell Inspiration Award. Every year during Pride Month the union awards a member for his/her efforts and work that person does on behalf of promoting gay and lesbian history and/or LGBT rights in the classroom, school or community. Named to memorialize Wardell-who was a Chicago Public School teacher, CTU brother and gay activist-this year was no different, and fifth-grade teacher Joseph Dunlap was celebrated this year.
Yet, in recognition of her pioneering spirit and drive for justice, the GLBT Rights Committee decided there should be separate acknowledgment for Tomaso's decade of advocacy. They proudly presented Tomaso with another in a long line of firsts: the first Allan Wardell Lifetime Outstanding Achievement Award.
In true form, Tomaso thanked everyone and then said, "Now don't forget we have a lot more work to do." A few items that came to mind were equalizing survivor benefits in the pension plan and updating the wording in the CTU bylaws. There is still a disparity between the rights of gay and lesbian members and others.
Tomaso's partner, Linda Palm, said she believes it is in Tomaso's nature to stand tall and be herself, and to encourage others to do the same, to try to always respect and have compassion for others. She added that Tomaso has a way of coming up with great ideas and plans, and she has the energy and leadership to bring those visions into being. Palm concluded by saying that Tomaso's mindset is always on making sure LGBT people are seen and heard no matter what the situation; even when filling out every application she will add the word "partner."
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