Saturday, January 20, 2018
Politics

Teacher explains decision to be 'visibly queer' in his photo with President Trump

When Rhode Island's teacher of the year took his turn in front of the camera with President Donald Trump in April, he struck a pose some took as an act of defiance:

Nikos Giannopoulos cocked his head ever so slightly away from the president, toward a black lace fan he'd brought with him. He wore a rainbow pin on his lapel, a ring through his nose and a gold anchor around his neck.

"Bold, Gay Teacher Of The Year Photo Bombs Donald Trump With Fan," was HuffPost's first headline (later toned down) after Giannopoulos posted the photo on Facebook on Thursday and quickly amassed thousands of shares.

"A fierce pose," wrote the Daily Mail.

Giannopoulos, who only received the photo recently, did not sound fierce on the phone with The Washington Post. His attire in the Oval Office, he explained, was more or less the same style he wore in the classroom at Beacon Charter High School for the Arts, where his work as a special-education teacher won him Rhode Island's teacher of the year award and a trip to the White House in April.

"The issue with being openly queer is our existence is constantly politicized," he said. "They never stop to think: Oh, maybe that's just who I am."

And yet, the teacher acknowledged, there was a certain social significance in his decision to dress as himself to a White House that has revoked federal protections for transgender students, erased an LGBT rights page from its website and hired at least one adviser who appears to believe in gay conversion.

Beacon - a small school in Woonsocket - has nearly a dozen transgender students, Giannopoulos said. "They're nervous. They're not feeling they're going to be supported."

He said he's been working with them to write the school's bathroom policies, after the Trump administration revoked federal guarantees that they could use the ones matching their gender identity.

The 29-year-old teacher's work with the school's gay-straight alliance helped win him the award. When he interviewed with state officials about it, he said, he made sure to dress no differently than he did with his students - "with a bit of flair."

And so by extension, Giannopoulos felt, he had to dress the same way in Washington. Perhaps with just a touch more flair.

"The entire day I was thinking about what it means to be in the White House and in the Oval Office," he said. "What it represents to be an openly gay person and a queer LGBT person in the White House."

The lace fan was his partner's, he said, though it has become a regular traveling aid when he visits somewhere warm - as Washington was in April.

The gold anchor around his neck was not his standard attire. But he was representing Rhode Island, and it's the state symbol, after all.

"I was definitely nervous," Giannopoulos said. "I didn't know what the reaction would be."

No one seemed to notice as he passed through security, he recalled. But Trump spotted the fan shortly after the teachers were led into the Oval Office.

"He said I had good style."

Giannopoulos grew more confident then - enough that when an aide asked him to put the fan away for his private photo, he raised a small protest.

"I said, 'I was hoping to pose with this,' " he said. "They said, 'No - just put it away.' "

He did, for a minute. But before the shutter snapped, Giannopoulos asked the president if he minded.

"He said, sure." So the fan came out, the ensemble was complete, "and the rest is history," Giannopoulos said.

"To be clear, the whole thing was surreal and very brief."

The teacher still has many concerns about the fate of LGBT rights under the Trump administration. In his Facebook post of his White House visit, he referred to the president only as "the man seated at the desk," which he said was meant to point out that more people than the president are behind White House policies.

He wishes the event had been more than a photo op. Had he been allowed to converse with the president, he would have tried to explain his gay and trans students' fears.

But as far as the photo went, Giannopoulos said, he at least got to take it as he pleased.

"Ultimately, we were allowed to do what we wanted," he said. "I was visibly queer in the Oval Office, and no one can take that away from me."

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