WASHINGTON — Presidential photo ops are normally a staid affair, but Rhode Island teacher Nikos Giannopoulos brought some unique flair to the Oval Office when he met with President Donald Trump.
Giannopoulos carried a black lace fan that he unfurled alongside Trump at the Resolute desk in order to, as he put it in a Facebook post, “celebrate the joy and freedom of gender nonconformity.” Giannopoulos met Trump with a group of other teachers on April 26, but he only received a copy of his picture with the president this week. Since he posted the photo on Facebook on Thursday, it has gained widespread attention and, as of this writing, was shared over 2,600 times.
“I walked into the Oval Office, I was probably like the fourth person to walk in,” Giannopoulos told Yahoo News in a Friday phone interview. “I kind of popped open my fan just to be kind of a little bit sassy, as I am prone to being.”
According to Giannpoulos, Trump immediately took notice of the fashion accessory.
“I started fanning myself and he complimented the fan actually, so that was his first sentence to me. It was basically, ‘Oh, I like the fan.’ And then he also told me that I was very stylish,” Giannopoulos said.
Giannopoulos teaches 11th and 12th graders in the special education program at Beacon Charter High School for the Arts in Woonsocket, R.I. He was invited to meet with Trump after winning the 2017 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year award. Giannopoulos went into the Oval Office with the winners from other states.
A gay man who identifies as “queer” because he finds the term to be more inclusive, Giannopoulos said the clothing and accessories he wore to the Oval Office were a nod to gender and sexuality issues. He explained the symbolism in a Facebook post that he shared shortly after meeting Trump in April.
“I wore a rainbow pin to represent my gratitude for the LGBTQ community that has taught me to be proud, bold and empowered by my identity — even when circumstances make that difficult. I wore a blue jacket with a bold print and carried a black lace fan to celebrate the joy and freedom of gender nonconformity,” Giannopoulos wrote. “I wore an anchor necklace in honor of the state of Rhode Island, whose motto ‘Hope’ was inspired by Hebrews 6:19 — ‘We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.’”
While Trump has expressed support for the gay community, since he took office in January, he has faced substantial criticism from LGBTQ rights advocates. Several officials appointed to his administration have been staunch opponents of LGBTQ rights and federal agencies have rolled back protections and programs designed to help the community. While President Barack Obama issued proclamations honoring Gay Pride month each June, Trump has not done so this month.
Nevertheless, Giannopoulos said Trump encouraged his fan display in the oval office. After Giannopoulos and the other teachers entered the Oval Office, they approached Trump for individual photos. Giannopoulos said he had his fan out and one of Trump’s “handlers” told him to “put that away.” He ignored the instruction and went up to the president.
“I was like, ‘Oh, do you mind if I use the fan?’ And he said, ‘Not at all.’ So, I went ahead and did my pose and we shook hands and I went on my way,” Giannopoulos said.
Official White House photographer Shealah Craighead took the shot in which Trump and Giannopoulos were accompanied by first lady Melania Trump. Giannopoulos said the president and his wife were “both polite and kind.” Their interaction was brief and Giannopoulos said he did not have time to discuss the symbolism of his attire with Trump. Still, he thinks the president was aware that he was “visibly queer.” Even though his experience with Trump was positive, Giannopoulos said he remains “very concerned” about the White House’s positions on LGBTQ issues.
“Ultimately, what I found is that, you know, on a person-to-person level Trump was very polite to me. He complimented my style,” Giannopoulos said. “I was visibly queer and I think he knew that. I don’t think that there are necessarily personal biases at play here, but the political situation is very volatile and I’m very concerned about the … policies that are being pushed by the current administration.”
If Giannopoulos had more time to talk to the president, he said, he actually would have discussed another issue entirely.
“I was invited to the White House because I’ve dedicated myself to my students and to a life of public service as a public educator. And I’m very concerned that the future of public education is not a bright one,” Giannopoulos explained. “It has nothing to do with the students or the teachers and everything to do with the policies that are being put in place. So, if I could say anything at all to the president, it would be to invest in public schools, invest in public school students and invest in public educators.”
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