Joe Acanfora, winter of 1972. Courtesy of the Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved
By Craig Simpson
On August 29, 1972, Joseph “Joe” Acanfora III began his teaching career at Parkland Junior High School in Rockville, Maryland, instructing students in earth science.
The Montgomery County school system was not his first choice as he prepared to graduate from Penn State University the previous June. He had hoped to teach in Philadelphia, but the Montgomery County, Maryland schools were considered strong and Acanfora was excited to begin his career.
All seemed to be going well in the classroom. Acanfora developed a rapport with his students and they seemed to be interested in what for many students was a tedious subject.
However, less than a month after starting, Acanfora was handed a letter informing him that he had been transferred to “a temporary alternate work assignment” at the school system headquarters.
Acanfora was gay.
Gay activism was still in its infant stage in 1972, but it was spreading rapidly across the country, fueled in part by the energy of a generation that questioned every existing institution.
The Stonewall rebellion in New York, often cited as the birthplace of the new activism, had occurred only three years before. An explosion of varied gay and lesbian groups, from the Gay Liberation Front to the Furies, challenged the foundations of society.
The first known campus group chartered was the Student Homophile League at Columbia University in 1967. By 1971, there were at least 150 student groups across the country with names like FREE (Fight Repression of Erotic Expression) at the University of Minnesota and RAGE (Rutgers Activists for Gay Education). Many just went by Gay Activist Alliance or Gay Women’s Alliance. Some provided a comfortable social setting for gay people while others were activist organizations. Most performed some degree of both functions.
Capping off 1971 at the National Student Association convention, Warren Blumenfeld led the successful effort to establish a National Gay Student Center to be “staffed by gay people who were chosen by gay people and responsible to gay people on campuses throughout the nation.”
Penn State Joins Upsurge
Penn State was part of this upsurge and in 1971 students formed a campus group called Homophiles of Penn State (HOPS). Acanfora soon became its treasurer. The group was granted a charter by the student government in April, 1971, which meant the group could utilize campus facilities for meetings and post materials. Acanfora told his parents of his homosexuality shortly afterwards.
Homophiles of Penn State banner. Courtesy of Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved
The university moved quickly against the group. In May, administrators tore down the group’s bulletin boards, suspended its charter, and opened an investigation into the legality of a gay organization.
Students rallied to defend HOPS and staged a picket line in front of the administration building, supported by the student government and nearly two dozen other organizations. “We are protesting the very fact that an investigation is being made,” Acanfora was quoted in the campus paper The Daily Collegian. With that quote he became a public spokesperson for gay rights.
Acanfora hadn’t started at the University as an activist. He had graduated from Brick Township High School in New Jersey as class valedictorian in 1968 and entered Penn State in the fall on a Navy ROTC scholarship.
By 1970, he was wrestling with his choices in life and with his own sexuality. He quit his NROTC scholarship and changed his major to education. He had his first date with another gay man.
As he agonized over his sexual attractions in a rigidly straight society, he sought advice from Penn State’s student counselors on what it meant to be gay and how to meet other gays. In an amiable conversation he was urged to read as much as he could on the subject, but counselors could suggest little on meeting other gays except, in so many words, to cruise downtown and make eye contact.
Acanfora knew something was radically wrong. He attended a “Free University” class on homosexuality in the fall of 1970 that first brought him into contact with others who thought like him.
Public Fight Over Homosexuality Ensues
The university completed its investigation of the student group by the fall semester and on September 1, 1971, denied a charter to HOPS.
They wrote in part, “We are advised that, based upon sound psychological and psychiatric opinion, the chartering of your organization would create a substantial conflict with the counseling and psychiatric services that the University provides to its students and that such conflict would be harmful to the best interests of the students of the University.” At that time, mainstream psychiatry regarded homosexuality as a mental disease.
Acanfora at NYC Gay Pride, 1972. Courtesy of Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved.
As HOPS kept up its fight for campus recognition, Acanfora began his student teaching assignment at Park Forest Junior High School in State College, Pennsylvania, in January, 1972.
On February 11th, HOPS filed suit against Penn State, attempting to reverse the school’s denial of recognition as a campus group. Acanfora was one of the plaintiffs and was quoted in the Pennsylvania Mirror as saying that HOPS was “primarily educational in nature.”
Penn State reacted quickly and terminated Acanfora’s student teaching contract on February 14th. Local school officials acknowledged that there was, “no question as to [Acanfora’s] performance as a student teacher,” according to the Pennsylvania Mirror. However, they requested his removal alleging HOPS objectives “are not compatible with the educational policies of the public school.”
Acanfora responded in the Mirror that, “I am completely in the right—morally, socially, legally and constitutionally.” He filed for a court injunction against the removal and won.
When he returned to the classroom after a little more than a week, he was greeted with “abundant ‘we’re glad to see you back,’ and ‘glad things turned out the way they did,’” according to the Daily Collegian. Acanfora was quoted as saying, “…if someone has courage to stand up for his rights even in the face of a powerful oppressor they can win.”
Acanfora’s words were compelling, but the fight had just begun.
The publicity throughout the state helped set off a debate in Pennsylvania over whether homosexuals should be allowed in the classroom, and it put Joe Acanfora at the center of the issue.
Acanfora received letters both pro and con. One person wrote, “I bet your parents wish many times they should have aborted you.” Another, who asked for forgiveness for not voicing public support, expressed admiration for “…the courage you have shown in standing up for your rights as a human being in the face of some formidable efforts to intimidate and silence you.”
He was already contemplating the difficulties he might face obtaining employment and told the Asbury Park Press, “I won’t tell anyone about it [homosexuality] unless I’m asked because I don’t think it has any bearing. If I’m asked, I won’t hide it.”
Penn State Stalls on Certification
Acanfora completed his student teaching assignment and received a B+ for his grade. He submitted a standard application to obtain a Pennsylvania teaching certificate, a normally routine process.
Once again, Penn State threw up obstacles.
Abram VanderMeer, dean of the College of Education, questioned whether Acanfora had the requisite “good moral character” as a self-described homosexual. He convened a university teacher certification council composed of the deans of six colleges at the university.
The panel met several times and at one point two dozen HOPS supporters crashed an education meeting and peppered several deans with pointed questions about the delay in Acanfora’s certification. The Daily Collegian reported that Robert Lanthrop, associate dean for resident instruction, told them, “It is pointless to pursue this at the university, people are not ready to accept this [homosexuality].”
The certification council called Acanfora before it for questioning. He resisted before agreeing to appear with his lawyer.
At the meeting on July 10, VanderMeer quickly got to the point:
VanderMeer: Then, I would like to ask further: What homosexual acts do you prefer to engage in or are you willing to engage in?
Acanfora: Which homosexual acts?
VanderMeer: Yes, which acts of expression of love, as you put it, for male friends?
Acanfora: Well, there’s a certain tradition of respect for privacy in our country, and especially in an academic community, and I would think that I would ask you to withdraw that question with respect to that.
VanderMeer: I don’t withdraw the question, but you obviously don’t have to answer any questions you don’t want to answer.
The questioning went on in this vein and resembled an inquisition more than an attempt by academics to gather information. Afterwards, the council members deadlocked 3-3 on whether Acanfora met the test of “good moral character” and decided to forward his application to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education without a recommendation.
Montgomery County Schools
Acanfora applied to numerous school systems in April when he realized that his Pennsylvania teaching certification was going to be delayed. Among the systems he applied to were the Montgomery County and neighboring Prince George’s County schools in Maryland.
The Montgomery County school system asked for his “professional, service and fraternal organizations,” and for a list of “extracurricular activities” he had engaged in while in college. Other school systems asked similar questions. Acanfora did not list his membership in HOPS on any of them.
Acanfora interviewed with both systems seeking an earth sciences (geology) assignment with secondary students. The Prince George’s system contacted him and offered a job, but Acanfora waited a few days before accepting to see if any other offers came in.
Frank Massey, an assistant principal of Parkland Junior High School in Montgomery County, telephoned Acanfora and asked him to come in for a second interview. Acanfora declined because he didn’t want to jeopardize the Prince George’s job where he had only a few days before the deadline to accept.
At that point, Massey offered him the job and Acanfora accepted. A written contract was concluded on August 7th. Acanfora began teaching earth science at Parkland on August 29, 1972. He was assigned five classes of eighth graders in addition to a home room and occasional bus monitoring.
Acanfora Wins in Pennsylvania
Pittenger telegram awarding Pennsylvania teacher certification. Courtesy of Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved.
On Friday, September 22, a telegram arrived from Pennsylvania Secretary of Education John Pittenger informing Acanfora that his “performance academically and in the classroom as a student teacher fully meets the requirements of the laws of the Commonwealth” and that a Pennsylvania teaching certificate would be issued.
Acanfora had won. Pittenger called a press conference the same day to announce the decision.
After receiving phone calls from his attorney and from reporters, Acanfora notified the Parkland assistant principal that the issues surrounding his Pennsylvania teaching certificate might become public knowledge in Montgomery County. He was interviewed by Parkland principal Guy Smith later in the day and was informed that the information would be passed on to his superiors.
Over the weekend, articles appeared in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Asbury Park Press, Washington Evening Star – Daily News and other newspapers with headlines like “Homosexual Gains Authority to Teach.”
Acanfora told the Asbury Park Press, “I’m happy not because it allows me to teach but because it permits all individuals to choose their own life styles.” Pittenger indicated in his press conference that homosexuals who were not criminals would be issued certificates. Acanfora responded in the Asbury paper, “I’m sure the ‘criminal’ pertains to heterosexuals also.”
County Removes Him From Teaching
By Monday, school officials in Montgomery County reacted to the press reports by recommending that Acanfora be removed from the classroom. While in the middle of teaching his last class of the day on Tuesday, September 26, 1972 Joe Acanfora was called to the office and handed a letter by Stephen Rohr, who had initially interviewed him for the job.
The letter, signed by Deputy Superintendent of Schools Donald Miedema, gave him “a temporary alternate work assignment” in the main county school administration offices until “we gather information and assess the circumstances relating to this matter.”
The letter concluded by saying that “This is in no way to be construed as a punitive action. You will receive full salary while you are in this temporary work assignment.”
Acanfora first sought to persuade local administrators and the elected school board to return him to the classroom. The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) and its parent body the National Education Association (NEA) both sent letters requesting his reinstatement.
A petition asking for Acanfora’s return to the classroom was circulated among teachers at Parkland and 61 of 83 teachers signed; 140 students at the school signed a student petition. Both were given to the assistant superintendent of schools in charge of personnel.
On October 25, the Gay Activist Alliance passed out flyers demanding reinstatement of Acanfora at a Montgomery County school board candidate forum held at Walt Whitman High School.
The irony of the venue was lost on the candidates. One ultimately unsuccessful candidate, Robert Brodie, responded, “I feel these people are sick and need help. I do not believe they have any place in the classroom,” according to the Star-News. Other candidates were more reserved, but none openly supported Acanfora’s return.
DC Gay Blade covers Acanfora, Nov. 1972.
The alternative press also weighed in. “Joe Acanfora…no longer teaches; now he’s pushing a pencil at school headquarters in Rockville. Why? Because Joe is gay and admits it openly,” wrote The Gay Blade.
The Montgomery County Spark wrote, “Joe teaches a class in Earth Sciences, which has nothing to do with sex. His sexual preference has nothing to do with his job. He is not preaching homosexuality, but even if he were, he would be only one voice against all those who not only preach heterosexuality, but expect it of everyone, even homosexuals.”
Acanfora Files Suit in Federal Court.
However, these efforts did not persuade the administration or the school board to act, despite the statement of a board spokesman who said “there was never any question about his teaching ability,” according to the Washington Post.
On November 7th, Acanfora filed suit in federal court, with the help of NEA, seeking reinstatement to the classroom.
Once again, media coverage followed with articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post and local papers in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Acanfora’s parents went on a public television segment to support him. Joe Acanfora Sr. recounted that when his son told him he was gay he’d said: “I loved you then, I love you now, and I’ll love you afterwards…we’re with you,” according to The Advocate.
At a Parkland Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meeting, some parents stood up and opposed gays teaching in the schools. “I don’t want a homosexual teaching my boy sexual behavior”. Another added, “I don’t want any of those 61 teachers who signed the petition supporting Acanfora teaching my child…” Principal Smith added his two cents, “I personally feel what I do outside the school has to do with what I do within it,” according to the Montgomery County Sentinel.
On January 24, 1973, Penn State University entered into a settlement with HOPS to recognize the group as a bona fide campus organization. The original battle that led to Acanfora’s teaching woes had been won.
The CBS television show 60 Minutes produced a segment on the Acanfora case that aired February 25. The show featured Parkland teachers, students and parents speaking in a positive way about Acanfora.
“I’m interested in a good teacher for the kids and I saw every indication that he was exactly that. She [my daughter] really enjoyed him as a teacher in his class. His private life – I didn’t know anything about it, and I didn’t care,” said one parent on the show.
County: Wouldn’t Have Hired a Gay
Acanfora received both support and hate mail. Courtesy of the Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved.
The proceedings got underway with a hearing in February on the school board’s motion to dismiss the case and Acanfora’s motion for an injunction that would return him to the classroom.
Robert S. Bourbon, attorney for the Montgomery County school district, argued in the pretrial hearing that Acanfora was “militantly activistic” as a result of appearances on television shows. He went on to say that the board believed there were not only grounds for transfer but also sufficient grounds for dismissal because “if Acanfora had admitted he was a homosexual…they would not have hired him in the first place.”
Miedema, the deputy superintendent, filed an affidavit with the court stating that, “It is likely that he (Acanfora) will not be recommended for continuation of hire for 1973/74 nor will he be recommended for tenure.” According to the Sentinel, Miedema further indicated, “if Acanfora’s homosexuality had been known in the first place, the teacher wouldn’t have been hired and the defendants wouldn’t be involved in this litigation.”
Judge Joseph H. Young did not grant either motion and set the case for trial.
Acanfora did not back off making public statements after the hearing. According to the Daily Collegian when “asked what he thought of homosexual marriage Acanfora said he thinks it is fine, citing tax breaks married individuals receive as one reason why.”
County Testimony Calls Acanfora a “Hazard”
The hearings on Acanfora’s suit began in Federal District Court for Maryland on the cold, icy morning of April 12, 1973. Acanfora was joined in the Baltimore courtroom by family, friends, gay activists, several teachers, and a group of seminarians.
The county laid out three basic arguments for transferring Acanfora: Acanfora’s homosexuality would influence children in an undesirable way, Acanfora’s public statements forfeited any protection, and Acanfora had withheld relevant information on his employment application.
Montgomery County, MD School Superintendent Homer Elseroad in an undated photo (center) testified that gays should not be teachers
Superintendent of schools Homer Elseroad confirmed that he would not hire a gay teacher or put Acanfora back in a classroom without a court order “because teachers have a tremendous impact on students and it is not possible to separate where a teacher stops being a teacher and acts as a counselor, chaperone at social functions or as a coach.”
Dr. Reginald S. Lourie, professor of child health at the George Washington University School of Medicine, testified that Acanfora’s return to the classroom would be a “hazard” to their development and would deny them “free choice” of their sexuality. He argued that Acanfora would serve as a “model” that “vulnerable” boys would seek to emulate.
Acanfora Wanted “Equal Par”
Acanfora sought to counter this testimony by taking the stand himself and bringing in his own expert witnesses to testify about the positive effects having a homosexual teacher in the classroom would bring. His attorneys offered court cases in support of his rights.
“I never did discuss my own private sexual beliefs or feelings or I never discussed the sexuality at any level with any student in or out of the classroom,” Acanfora said under oath.
Acanfora explained that he did not list HOPS on his teaching application because “It was based primarily on the experience I had just had with the State College School Districts. I realized I had just completed four years of training to become a teacher and was judged perfectly qualified; and I realized had I put down the Homophiles of Penn State as an organization or as an extracurricular activity that I would not be given a chance to even go through the normal application process for a teaching job; that I would not be considered on an equal par with all other applicants and, in fact, would guarantee that I would not receive any sort of teaching job.”
One of Acanfora’s attorneys introduced the transcript of the 60 Minutes program, stating “…we have never subscribed to the relevancy of the post-September activities of Mr. Acanfora. It is being offered in response to the School Board’s position that he is an active, militant homosexual, as reflected on his television and radio appearances. We want the Court to have the record before it, as to what was said on those occasions.”
Dr. William R. Stayton, a psychologist and sex counselor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, testified that Acanfora’s presence in the classroom would help in “breaking down homosexual stereotypes” and “affirm the self-image” of those students who were gay.
The trial concluded after four days of testimony.
Judge: Acanfora Beyond “Bounds of Propriety”
Washington Post headline June 1, 1973 after court ruled against Acanfora.
In his May 31st decision, Young blasted Acanfora’s appearance on 60 Minutes and ruled that his public statements and appearances after the transfer were beyond “the bounds of propriety which of necessity must govern the behavior of any teacher, regardless of sexual tendencies.”
In language that provided some consolation, Young also wrote that the “mere knowledge that a teacher is homosexual is not sufficient to justify transfer or dismissal. In addition, the homosexual teacher need not become a recluse, nor need he lie about himself. Like any other teacher, he may attend public gatherings and associate with whomever he chooses.”
Asked for comment by the Sentinel after the decision, Acanfora responded, “The judge said my appearances incited controversy. I say my appearances, in fact, allayed controversy. I talked about a homosexual teacher fighting for civil liberties.”
Acanfora quickly filed an appeal with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals with the help of the NEA and the American Civil Liberties Union.
But on August 15th Acanfora got more bad news when the Montgomery County board of education voted 4-0 against renewing his contract because his job was “no longer existant.”
Board member James Daugherty questioned the move saying, “when a position is eliminated and the person has performed well in that position we usually make extreme efforts to find other jobs” for him. Daugherty was not present for the final vote. Of the 20 non-tenured teachers that were not brought back, only Acanfora was dismissed because the job no longer existed.
Appeals Court: Must Disclose Homosexuality
Acanfora with Gay Teachers Caucus NEA t-shirt. Courtesy of Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved.
In a February 7, 1974 ruling, the 4th Circuit Court upheld the county school board on the transfer, but switched its reasoning. The judges held that Acanfora should have disclosed his membership in HOPS on his employment application.
“Acanfora purposely misled the school officials so he could circumvent, not challenge, what he considers to be their unconstitutional employment practices. He cannot now invoke the process of the court to obtain a ruling on an issue that he practiced deception to avoid,” the decision concluded.
The ruling was puzzling for several reasons. The county had confirmed in open court Acanfora’s beliefs that they would not hire him if they had known he was gay. Further, HOPS was not a recognized campus group at the time Acanfora applied and the county did not raise the issue of the employment application during the transfer process nor did Judge Young when he made the initial ruling on the case.
However there was important language in the decision. It read, “There is no evidence that the [news media] interviews disrupted the school, substantially impaired his capacity as a teacher, or gave the school officials reasonable grounds to forecast that these results would flow from what he said. We hold, therefore, that Acanfora’s public statements were protected by the first amendment and that they do not justify either the action taken by the school system or the dismissal of his suit…”
Acanfora commented after trial to the Pennsylvania Mirror, “They try something new every time.” He went on to note in regard to the application, “I didn’t put that I was a member of the Peace Coalition either.”
The End of the Road
The NEA’s DuShane Foundation agreed to fund an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and it was filed in June, 1974. Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., to help bolster the case, filed an amicus curiae brief.
But in the fall the Court denied certiorari, which effectively upheld the lower court decision and ended the case. Three and a half years after becoming involved in trying to gain recognition for a campus gay rights group, Joseph Acanfora was barred from teaching in Montgomery County without further appeal.
Acanfora never taught again. “I was not motivated to fight another uphill battle trying to secure another teaching position — remember, this was 1973-75,”Acanfora said in a recent interview.
He found work in the Washington, DC, area after losing his teaching job, then relocated to California in 1978. He began a 25-year career with the University of California — first in contract and grant administration, and later in technology transfer (patents & intellectual property management).
Acanfora had a 22-year relationship with a man in Berkeley and “dabbled in gay politics over the years – taking the lead in getting Oakland, California’s gay non-discrimination ordinance on the books; helping set up administrative systems at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in its beginning days…”Acanfora said in the interview.
Joe Acanfora with husband in 2011. Courtesy of Joe Acanfora collection, all rights reserved.
Joe Acanfora retired from the university in 2003 and now lives in Saigon in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with his Vietnamese partner, whom he married in South Africa in 2011. Acanfora writes mainly about his passion for food in his blog and also occasionally reports on the gay life in the country.
When asked recently how he views the tumultuous period of his life in the early 1970s, he responded,
“It changed my life. Established a very supportive relationship with my parents and sisters. I learned so much — but feel I helped “teach” so many people beyond the classroom about gays and justice and personal conviction. Overall, one of the most meaningful and important events of my life — one I’d repeat again in a minute.”
Forty years have passed since Joe Acanfora was transferred out of the classroom and ultimately lost his job. Despite the changing attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the country as a whole and in Montgomery County, Maryland, in particular, Acanfora has never received any acknowledgement from any official in the county that actions taken against him were wrong nor have they offered to let him teach again.
Acanfora’s battle was one of many waged across the country that brought the issue of LGBT rights to forefront and forced many people—gay and straight—to confront their own feelings and prejudices. That process has resulted in tangible progress in civil rights, but that fight also continues today.
While Acanfora’s teaching career ended 40 years ago, it’s not too late for Montgomery County to admit the position they took was fundamentally wrong and acknowledge the role he played in breaking down barriers.
Most of the information for this article can be found on Joe Acanfora’s website. A recent interview with Acanfora also contributed to the material.
Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.