Meet Nikos Giannopoulos, Rhode Island's 2017 Teacher of the Year.
Giannopoulos is a special education teacher at the Beacon Charter High School for The Arts, and also advocates for LGBT youth in the Department of Education.
In April, Giannopoulos and the other Teachers of the Year went to the White House to meet President Trump.
"I didn’t know how welcome I’d be as an openly queer person in the White House," Giannopoulos told BuzzFeed News. "So I knew I had to be myself and represent myself, and I didn’t know what the reaction to that would be."
So, Giannopoulos wore an outfit that he said "represents the people that mean the most to me and who I am very authentically."
The outfit included a rainbow pin to represent the LGBTQ community, and an anchor necklace as a symbol for Rhode Island.
"[Anchors] refer back to our state motto, which is 'Hope,' based on the verse ‘Hope is the anchor of the soul,’" he said. "And I thought that was relevant to any marginalized population."
But what really stood out was his black lace fan, which Giannopoulos said is his signature accessory.
"I like to have it around as a quick accessory for a little bit of pizzazz, a little bit of sass," he said.
When he met the president and first lady briefly in the Oval Office for a photo, Giannopoulos said Trump complimented his style and the fan "which was nice, I guess."
Then, they all posed for this iconic photo, with Giannopoulos flashing his fan.
He finally got a copy of the photo this week, and after he posted the picture on Facebook on Thursday, it quickly went viral.
Giannopoulos said he has received a flood of support for the photo — as well as quite a few negative comments, but he says these didn't faze him.
"I’ve grown up my entire life being called a faggot or this or that because people want to shame me for my identity," he said. "But what they don’t understand is that I’m very proud of my identity and you can’t shame me for it."
Back in April, following his White House meeting, Giannopoulos wrote an impassioned Facebook post about the experience.
In one part of the post, which thousands have read, he wrote:
In previous years, state teachers of the year were given the opportunity to speak to the president for a few minutes each. Had I 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. I would have told him that queer lives matter and anti-LGBTQ policies have a body count. Taking pride in queer identity means rejecting the shame imposed upon us by a harsh society. It means opening yourself up to a lifetime of criticism and misunderstanding, but knowing that it’s worth it to be able to live authentically. Each and every queer person has been confronted with cruelty in ways many cannot imagine - verbal and physical abuse from strangers, friends, & even family; politicians callously attacking on our right to love or merely exist in public spaces; legalized discrimination for daring to be who we are. Brutality is a universal part of the queer experience.
The photo op was a quick one, but Giannopoulos told BuzzFeed News there's a lot more he would say to the president if he had the chance.
"In the event that Trump sees this somehow, I’d like for him to know that I appreciated being able to represent myself authentically in the Oval Office, and that that is a newfound right in my life," he said.
"I grew up in the era of Matthew Shepard and I never dreamed that as an adult I could be not just openly gay, but also be recognized for being a professional in my field and have my sexual orientation not be a factor to that," he said.
Giannopoulos hopes his White House photo helps "LGBTQ people to feel like they are seen, they exist, and their struggles and difficulties as a community continue, but hopefully they will continue to get better."
"I’m concerned about the future of LGBTQ rights, but the truth is we are here, we exist, and you can’t get rid of us," he said. "We’re here and we’re not going anywhere."
Julia Reinstein is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Julia Reinstein at email@example.com.
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