Early on in her career as an educator, Dianne Carter vowed to be honest about her sexual orientation. When she made this promise, her coming out process with her family was still evolving, but Carter was confident enough to know that she wanted to both share her own truth and be a resource for others. The first time a student confronted her about her sexuality, it was during first-period biology class at Akins High School. A female student asked Carter in front of the entire class whether she was gay. Terrifed and red-faced, she replied, “Why don’t you stick around after class, and we can talk about that? Right now we’re talking about DNA.” Even so, the experience itself was life-affirming in several ways. “It was liberating, truly, to just be honest,” Carter said. Even more poignant, the inquisitive student was herself in the process of coming out. “She wanted to know if it was okay for her to come and talk to me. I said, absolutely! I think she was empowered.”
As she wraps up her fourth year as assistant principal of Westlake High School, the 13-year career of this education professional embodies the extraordinary hidden in plain sight. Honest and plainspoken, with the hint of an accent that speaks to her roots in Tyler, Carter is reflective and self-deprecating as she discusses her professional background, overcoming adversity within her own coming out process, the whirlwind of change currently shaking up her status quo and her own courage in speaking so honestly at this particular moment in time.
The youngest of four children, Carter hails from a long line of Texans: Her great aunt Hazel Owens started teaching in the 1880s and has an elementary school named after her in Tyler; her grandmother worked in education at the high school level; her mother was on the school board during Carter’s childhood; and one of her older sisters works in education. In high school, Carter switched back and forth between wanting to be a veterinarian, a physical therapist and a teacher. During a senior-year economics class, she tutored a struggling student, helping him improve his grade dramatically. This simple exercise helped serve as a catalyst for Carter to choose to be a teacher. She studied kinesiology and biology as an undergraduate at Texas A&M University, and later received her master’s degree in motor learning from Texas A&M as well. She completed her principal certification at Texas State University.
As a self-confessed “total nerd,” Carter—avid tennis player, student body president, National Honor Society member and valedictorian at John Tyler High School—can empathize with all the students at Westlake, many of whom revel in academic and extra-curricular achievements with a high level of engagement. There are no typical days in Carter’s work life, but one thing is constant, she works hard to ensure that every student feels respected and is treated equally.
On the mid-May day that we spoke, Carter arrived at 7:30 in the morning, spent about half an hour reading and responding to emails, touched base with teachers, attended graduation-requirement meetings with seniors, considered resumes for an open theater director position, and established the next year’s art department schedule. On any given day, you don’t know what’s going to happen, according to Carter. She deals with everything from scorpion stings to rumors that students are bringing drugs to school.
Carter, in addition to her time at Kealing Middle School, was a teacher and academy coordinator at Akins High School prior to her current position. Does she miss teaching? You bet. “I think honestly that’s what makes me a good administrator,” she said. “You should always be a teacher at heart, period. Even if you’re the superintendent, you’re still an educator.”
A little over three years ago, Carter met Cody Whitney, then a teacher at Westlake. Carter was initially a mentor for Whitney, and the two developed a lasting friendship. Now Whitney serves as a special education teacher and coach at Topeka High School in Topeka, Kansas. “Dianne knows kids and she knows education,” said Whitney. “She’s a model for how educators should approach their profession and spends countless hours coaching teachers and students alike on how to learn from one another.”
Living Without Fear
Her own coming out process has been educational, emotional and eye-opening in terms of her family relationships. It’s evolving even now, many years after the topic was first broached. Carter was raised in the Southern Baptist church; her family now worships at a church more conservative than the one she grew up with. The first time she brought it up with her mother, it was like the conversation never happened; that was at the age of 22. A few years later, Carter’s high-school doubles tennis partner told her own mother that she was dating a woman, which led to an awkward phone call from Carter’s mother the day before she was to take the exit test at A&M for her teaching certification. When Carter was in her late twenties, she brought it up again and her parents didn’t take the news well. With each of these milestones, it seemed as though the news had sunk in, but things eventually reached a point of stasis—meaning that no one really rocked the boat and everyone pretended that things were fine. With her partner of almost five years, Rachel, she decided that was it.
“They still have not met her, to this day. I basically felt, if you can’t accept and support all of me, sorry,” said Carter.
She didn’t speak with her parents for three years; two months ago, they spoke by phone. The memory of it prompted a strong response from Carter. Her parents have been married for 50 years and she credited their marriage with inspiring her own beliefs about love and commitment. “Rachel and I have done absolutely nothing but honor marriage. We are insanely committed and we’ve been through so much,” Carter said with obvious emotion. “I called my mom and said, ‘This is killing me. I got this from you guys.’ My mom blew me away. I said that Rachel and I have done more to honor marriage in the time we’ve been together than most straight couples.’ And she said, ‘I think I might have to agree.’”
It’s a bit of a fluke that Carter even met Rachel in the first place: A colleague at Akins had invited her to bicycle around town. Later, she met her colleague’s partner, who invited her to a party at Rachel’s place. This wasn’t just some ordinary party: It was multipurpose, celebrating several birthdays, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s Eve, on December 21, 2007. On January 5 they had their first date: Carter made lasagna, they did a little two-stepping at Rainbow Cattle Company, and they shared their first kiss. “I loved our first date. That night I felt like home—I don’t know how else to describe it,” said Rachel. “I’d had other long-term relationships, but I never felt like I could be myself.”
“I love to two-step, but I can’t stand when I am dancing and the person I’m dancing with can’t lead me!” said Rachel, adding that their first kiss was to “Neon Moon” by Brooks and Dunn. “That just sealed the deal. I mean, how funny to have a romantic moment to Brooks and Dunn!”
The couple moved into a house in Steiner Ranch in August of last year along with their two furry “kids,” Sophie and Molly. Although they initially wanted to live closer to downtown, they’ve settled into the beautiful neighborhood and love that it’s safe, near the lake and very kid-friendly. With everything going on professionally—Rachel has launched Sugarpaper Press, which offers custom-designed printing and sweet dessert bites— chill nights spent at home, just hanging out and watching TV or catching up, are the best. They both love good food; near their home they enjoy Cho Sushi, and they spent a lot of time early on bonding over margaritas and queso at Guero’s.
A few months after they met, they both decided to seal the deal and codify their relationship in the eyes of the law. (They embarked on a journey to San Francisco, where Rachel used to live, to tie the knot just before the now-infamous Proposition 8 became the law of the land in California.) Before a supportive group of about 50 friends and relatives here at The Belmont, exactly one year after meeting each other, with Rachel’s mom and niece walking Carter down the aisle and her dad escorting Rachel, they pledged their love to each other.
Rachel wore a vintage beaded beltline Marilyn Monroe-esque white dress that she’d picked out with her mom and deep purple kitten heels while Carter sported a classic black tuxedo and ivory tie paired with black chucks. “I hadn’t seen her or her dress,” said Carter. “She was gorgeous, absolutely beautiful.”
Outside of City Hall in San Francisco, facing people who were protesting the right of same-sex couples to wed, they gravitated to a boisterous group of supporters and threw the bridal bouquet. “Getting married in California, with all of the Prop. 8 people outside City Hall, was one of the most politically charged and amazing days ever,” added Carter. That evening, like many gay and lesbian folks in California, they watched the election returns and felt elated at President Obama’s victory and saddened by the passage of Prop. 8, which effectively nullified their marriage in the eyes of the law.
Embracing the Whirlwind
“We know at the end of the day, no matter what stresses, arguments or tribulations we face, that we are there for each other,” said Rachel. “I know that there isn’t anything I could say or do that would make Dianne turn her back on me, and the same is true of me for her.”
Rachel’s previous day job as an education consultant required long hours and a lot of traveling. However, she is happy to have joined L Style G Style as its Sales Director–making a leap to a role where she can fully be herself. Rachel’s parents are two of the people whom Carter most admires: They own a small printing company in Marble Falls, and her mother has been spending a lot of time outside of her work helping Rachel launch Sugarpaper Press. “Rachel’s parents have got to be two of the most hardworking and genuine people I know. They have embraced me and made me a part of their family,” said Carter. “[They] have faith and trust in Rachel and in her ability to make this something insanely successful and invest their time and energy.”
Carter works within a public education system that’s not only hyperscrutinized and underfunded, but constantly evolving thanks to laws like the No Child Left Behind Act and the relentless pursuit of student testing above all else. So, time and energy is just a fraction of what she has invested as an educator. Patience and compassion are two characteristics she clearly has in abundance, which is why students feel comfortable coming to her no matter what their situation. Simply being passionate about empowering those around her, which she certainly is, by itself is not enough. “The most important thing I do each day is juggle people, personalities, facilities, policies and emotions to create a situation where students can be successful,” she said.
Describing herself as being in a contemplative mood as she applied for principal positions in the area, Carter came across a note she wrote early in her tenure at Westlake High School. A student of hers, whom she knew was gay, had come into her office to ask if he could be removed from a class because another student was messing with him; he pleaded with her not to say anything to the other student. “It was one of those moments where I knew I had to stand up for this kid. Even though this kid isn’t at a place right now where he wants to stand up for himself, I need to,” said Carter. “That’s my job, regardless of whether I’m gay or not.”
“Dianne is so well respected and carries herself with such pride that people cannot help but see her as an amazing teacher, coach and administrator,” added Whitney. “I hope that my children can someday learn what it’s like to be a good person from someone like her.”
Carter added that she found the courage of gay and lesbian teenagers to be inspiring, remarkable when compared with how much the school environment has changed in the last decade or so. That student came back to her and was “insanely appreciative,” she added, while the student who had bullied him got the message and apologized.
On a professional level, the most logical next step for Carter would be to serve as a principal at a middle school; she’s open to whatever possibilities exist, including a leadership position at an education nonprofit. She would like to get her doctorate as well, though the stars would have to align perfectly in a logistical and financial way in order for that to happen. For Rachel, she wants to grow Sugarpaper Press into a successful small business and thrive in a professional environment at L Style G Style where she can be comfortable as an openly gay woman.
Attaining a position as a principal, more so than most administrative roles in education, is fraught with politics, and this would be her first principal role. “If I were planning on being an assistant principal forever, I’d have no fear whatsoever,” said Carter. “I’ve been very embraced by our community. Plenty of people know I’m gay and I’ve had zero negative experiences with that. Is there a part of me that’s a little worried about applying for a job and they check out my article in L Style G Style and go, ‘Oh, we don’t need that.’ I’m a little concerned that this might make it harder.”
“I wish I didn’t even have to worry about our jobs being in jeopardy,” said Rachel. “I think our story can inspire other couples to stick it out and celebrate each other. We’ve been through a lot emotionally, physically and otherwise, and we have always come out stronger.”
Despite any lingering misgivings about potential reactions, Carter has no regrets about her decision: “I believe it’s the right thing to do. The way I’m looking at it, I just have to be so awesome that they want me regardless—that’s what I’ll do!”