Picture the scene: you’re a proud gay teacher who has dedicated much of your career to supporting students in their own journeys to self-acceptance. To your delight, your efforts contribute to you being voted Teacher of the Year in your home district. The only problem is, you now have to go and rub shoulders with a politician who has a questionable attitude towards the LGBTQ community. What do you do?
Well, if you’re Rhode Island Teacher of the Year Nikos Giannopoulos, you pack your bags for Washington D.C. – making sure to bring your lace fan, nose ring and rainbow pride badge.
A photo of Giannopoulos standing in the Oval Office with Donald and Melania Trump, fluttering a black lace fan in a pointedly fabulous manner, has gone viral on Twitter as a symbol of LGBTQ defiance.
Giannopoulos, a 29-year-old teacher from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, was at the White House with other educators for the National Teacher of the Year awards. The annual event is thrown by the sitting president of the US, and is designed to honour the best teachers in the country.
“I wore a rainbow pin to represent my gratitude for the LGBTQ community that has taught me to be proud, bold and empowered – even when circumstances have been difficult,” said Giannopoulos, who has been in a relationship with his partner for ten years.
He continued: “I wore a blue jacket with a bold print and carried a black lace fan to celebrate the joy and freedom of gender noncomformity.”
Speaking to NPR this week, Giannopoulos said that his fan – actually his husband’s fan, brought home from a trip to Venice – found a fan in President Trump. “He loved it!” he said. “I popped it open when I walked into the office because I’m a very sassy person. And Trump complimented it right away. He said, ‘I love the fan!’”
However, in a Facebook post shared shortly after his trip to the White House in April, Giannopoulos expressed his disappointment at the tone of this year’s National Teacher of the Year awards.
The president did not stand to greet the teachers when they were shown into the Oval Office, but rather sat at his desk and asked them to gather around him. He then read some prepared remarks from a sheet of paper, said Giannopoulos, before “[making] some comments about CEOs and which states he ‘loved’ based on electoral votes that he had secured”.
Neither did Trump “rise from his seat to present the National Teacher of the Year with her much deserved award, nor did he allow her to speak,” Giannopoulos continued.
The teachers were asked to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Melania Trump, who turned 47 that day, before being allowed to have their photo taken with the president and the first lady. They were then “ushered out of the West Wing and back onto the streets of DC”, said Giannopoulos.
The event contrasted starkly with previous Teacher of the Year ceremonies, where teachers have been able to bring family members and speak conversationally with the president. Last year’s awards saw President Obama make an impassioned speech from a podium in the White House’s East Room, before mingling with the teachers during a live performance by the band FUN.
Giannopoulos said that he knew exactly what he would have said to Trump had he been given the opportunity.
“I would have told him that the pride I feel as an American comes from my freedom to be open and honest about who I am and who I love,” he said.
“I would have told him that queer lives matter and anti-LGBTQ policies have a body count.”
Before the presidential election, Trump promised that he would be a “real friend” to the LGBTQ community in the US. However, he has been widely perceived as having failed to live up to this pledge. Supported by a cabinet filled with known homophobes (including Vice-President Mike Pence and education secretary Betsy DeVos), Trump has rescinded guidance to schools on transgender rights and signed a ‘religious liberty’ executive order that would implicitly allow discrimination against LGBTQ people.
He also failed to acknowledge the gay community when referencing the one-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida – and his White House has refused to recognise June 2017 as LGBTQ Pride Month. On 11 June, tens of thousands of people marched in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and other US cities to demand greater political protection for LGBTQ rights.
But in his post about his trip to the White House, Giannopoulos said that he would “not remember” Trump, instead choosing to focus on the other teachers he met there and the “queer youth who have shared their struggles and triumphs with me”.
“Everything I do in this role as Rhode Island Teacher of the Year is for them.”
Images: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead, twitter.com/BeaconMrG