Spurred by hate crimes, Portland School Board chair comes out as lesbian

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Emily Figdor is now the first openly gay or lesbian chair of the Portland School Board, and only the second to ever serve on the panel.

Figdor revealed her sexual orientation during the board’s Feb. 2 meeting, just before it unanimously passed a resolution condemning a recent string of hate crimes targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

Figdor, 46, who was chosen to lead the board in December, was previously married to Steven Biel, the co-founder of Progressive Portland. They have two daughters who attend city public schools.

After the meeting, Figdor said she felt a “really big responsibility” to students and staff to share her orientation after several Portland and South Portland homes last month received identical letters threatening to the LGBTQ+ community.

Emily Figdor (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

“I was just really focused on the fact that there wasn’t an out member on the School Board and I think representation really matters,” she said of her decision. “I felt a real responsibility to our students and staff, and wanted to. It was the right time for me to come out publicly.”

The letters contained what was initially described as the logo of the Satanic Temple superimposed over a pride flag, followed by a homophobic slur. However, police later said there is no indication the Satanic Temple or its members were responsible for the letters, and the organization confirmed the image used is a flag it sells on its website to indicate “its own unwavering and consistent support for LGBTQIA+ communities.”

Two of the Portland homes that received letters in January displayed a pride flag; a resident of a third home is gay but did not have a flag on display.

The incidents also brought to light six previously unreported suspicious mailings that occurred in the community prior to January.

The only other openly gay member of the School Board that she is aware of, Figdor said, was Stephen Spring, who served approximately 15 years ago. She said Spring no longer lives in Portland, but she contacted him ahead of her announcement to learn about his experience on the Board.

Her colleagues and Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana, she said, have been very supportive and have made her feel “deeply appreciative.” She said she has also heard from several students and school staff members, who told her they also appreciated her announcement.

The resolution passed by the board said the schools recognize the recent hate crimes have caused LGBTQ+ staff, students, and families to “experience fear and trauma in addition to the daily and ongoing bigotry and threats” they may already experience. It also noted that for Black, indigenous and “other students, staff and families of color” the impact is “compounded by the racism inherent (in schools).”

It said the School Board is committed to rooting out homophobia in city schools, “incorporating LGBTQ+ history, culture, and identity” into the curriculum, and “creating a culture of allyship.”

The resolution encourages Portland school staff to engage in “age-appropriate conversations” with students about the recent events to help “bring injustice to light,” and to display “LGBTQ+ positive images,” such as stickers, posters, and flags, in their classrooms and elsewhere in schools in solidarity with LGBTQ+ people in the school community.

Additionally, Botana announced on Feb. 2 that all Portland schools will fly a pride flag throughout the month of February and in June to show solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. 

Figdor said there is a lot the schools can do to promote more equity for LGBTQ+ students, including implementing training for staff and incorporating “LGBTQ identity and culture” into learning materials to ensure “students really see themselves in (the) curriculum.”

She also said the sexual harassment and discrimination policy the School Department adopted last October is a crucial step towards equity, saying it outlines a clear reporting system and “centers student experiences” for when incidents happen.

Being the board’s only openly gay or lesbian member, Figdor added, will give her opportunities to engage with students on the topic. She said she will soon be speaking to a middle school LGBTQ+ group.

Figdor said she will not tolerate “hate and intimidation” in the broader community or its schools and is committed to protecting and celebrating LGBTQ+ people in the school community.

In addition to Spring, Figdor also acknowledged state Rep. Barbara Wood, who is a former city councilor; current City Councilor Andrew Zarro, and the late Betsy Parsons, a Portland teacher and LGBTQ+ advocate, as having paved the way for her.

“I run for reelection this year and will do so proudly standing on the shoulders of so many in the fight for LGBTQ rights and our humanity,” she said.