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Dear Diary: A Narrative Journal of my First Years as a ‘Fag Teacher’

By Stacy Fox

“Ms. Fox, can I ask you a personal question?”

It was the night before grades were due for the first marking period in my first year of teaching, at an inner-city public high school on Chicago’s South side. I stayed entering grades until the building locked for the night, and I was a little anxious about leaving after dark in that neighborhood. There were about twenty students milling around outside after the “After School Matters” program when I left, and I had stopped to chat with a few of my students when another interrupted. I had never seen this girl before, but it had become normal to hear my name from the lips of students I had never met. The conversation stopped when I told her she could ask me anything she wanted.

“Is you gay?”

I should have been expecting it. My fourth day of teaching I was called “dyke” in two separate classes and the subject had come up at least twice a week in one way or another since. I allowed my honors class to choose their own topic for the persuasive essay our scripted curriculum said it was time to write, and two of my students chose LGBT topics, completely without my encouragement: “Why gay marriage is wrong,” and “Why being gay is a choice.” I told them they could write about any topic as long as they were able to support their position with three strong main points. I conducted class discussions on all of their topics (the rest of which were mostly anti-abortion and pro death penalty) in the most equal, unbiased way I knew how. I disagreed personally with nearly everything they said, but I tried to remain a neutral party. Though only two of the topics centered on gay issues, the conversation gravitated toward these subjects much more often than the others. In other classes, I began to hear students debating my sexual orientation in the back of the room and in the hallway. I was asked frequently if I have a husband or a boyfriend, how many kids I have, and how many I plan to have some day. I assumed most of these questions were attempts to derail whatever class discussion I was trying to facilitate, and my usual responses were honest and brief. I followed them with a standard invitation to continue personal discussions after school, and moved on with my lesson.

This cool night outside of the classroom, I had no lesson to hide behind. I was faced with a direct question I was not prepared for, and I had already promised her an answer. Though the topic seemed ever-present in my classes, no student had asked me about this directly. My stomach was in my throat. I had decided that I would not lie about the issue, but I had only a vague idea of what kind of an environment this school was for LGBT students and teachers. I loosened the scarf around my neck and tried to speak clearly. “It’s not always that simple. Some people date men and women…” I left, running the exchange over in my head the entire one and half hours of the commute home to the North side.

I have since learned of four gay teachers at my school, none of whom are out to their students, and only a couple of whom are out to select staff members. I spoke with one, a young female teacher in her fourth year there, about the environment there. For all the violence in the halls and classrooms; for all the riots after fire alarms, neighborhood shootings, and general threats against staff and teachers, I have never felt unsafe at my school. I trust the metal detectors at the door, the police and security officers. I feel safe walking to and from my car. But “Ms. W” told me stories that day that made me wish I had answered that student differently.

When she first began at the school, Ms. W felt overwhelmed and intimidated by similar comments and conversations in her classroom. Being called a “dyke” and dodging marriage and family questions distracted from her classroom so much that she began wearing a fake diamond ring. She and her partner have a son, and she started talking about him more often to avoid suspicion. She told me there are virtually no openly gay students in the school, and about the treatment the few who were out had to endure, not only at the hands of students, but of the administration and security staff as well. A gay male teacher has been pushed up against the wall in the hallway, threatened, and pushed over a table by students. I have heard security guards joking with students about kids being “faggots” or “fruits.” There was an openly gay boy a few years ago whom they let join the dance team, but prohibited from performing in front of other schools. Upon stepping on the floor at an in-school pep rally, the student body began chanting “Just kill yourself!” The administration did nothing. Once, when Ms. W was overheard talking about the incident, she was physically backed into a chair by a department head, warning her that if that boy “chooses to live like that,” he needed to “accept what is coming to him,” and that she needed to mind her own business.

Though she is not out to her students, Ms. W has since stopped wearing the phony ring, and several students who are very likely gay have started hanging out in her room quite a bit over the last couple years. “They know, like I know,” she says. “We don’t have to talk about it until they’re ready. They see my room as a safe place.” She and I began talking privately about starting a GSA at our school. Weighing what that could mean for our jobs and our safety, we decided to proceed carefully, looking for a sizeable group of students, several more teachers, and documented parental support before we consider bringing the idea to our principal. Shortly after our conversation, a counselor approached us about the very same thing. A group of girls came to him for resources to start a “gay girls’ group” at the school, and he asked if we would be interested in helping. Of course, we were. The girls named the group “Pride,” and we have since held four meetings and one small field trip. It has been a hard thing to organize, and many members of staff have made it known that they don’t approve, but so far nothing terrible has happened, and our principal even went so far as to commend us at an all-staff meeting for our efforts, which neither of us expected.

Statistically, about one hundred and fifty students at this particular school are dealing with the fear and silence of hiding or denying who they are. Currently (almost two years after beginning this narrative) we have ended our second school year with six regularly- attending members of “Pride.” While I understand the many factors contributing to our low membership, I can’t help being a little disappointed that we couldn’t reach out to more of the student population. I am thinking of Elijah, the timid over-achieving freshmen who spent every lunch period in my room practicing his routine for the community dance group he was thrilled to have joined. It took seven and a half months, but he finally admitted to me one day the real reason he was crying in the stairway 4th period. We talked about the dynamic between him and his much-older boyfriend, the possible repercussions of his coming out to his father, and how lucky he is to have a couple people in his life he can talk to openly about this. Being the top student in his class and highly involved in student activities, he reacted just how I thought he would when I invited him to our Pride meeting that week. He saw association with the group as potential social suicide. “Maybe in a couple years, Ms. Fox, but right now I just need to survive being a freshman.”

The group has grown, (albeit modestly) and so have I. I decided before this school year began that I would answer all (appropriate) questions about myself just as honestly as any straight teacher would. When my partner asked me to marry her last Fall, I was comfortable telling my students about it when they noticed the ring on my finger, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. I have learned to take the bad with the good. With the homemade “Congrats, MRS. Fox!” cards came harassing phone calls and the occasional threat. With the rainbow tassels hanging from four square hats at graduation came Devon failing freshmen English because he refused to be taught by a “fag teacher.”

There are days the world gets to us – that we let ourselves become convinced that the challenges of opening ourselves to the hundreds of young people we face each day is akin to walking through their broken neighborhoods at night, not questioning if you will be struck down, but when. Fortunately, even when all of those young people seem to turn on you, we are strong enough to remember that we have been a positive role model for at least ten percent of them, whether they realize it at age 14 or 37. They will remember the person who showed them that gay does not mean stupid, inferior, or morally reprehensible. They will carry that with them, whether they like it or not.

 

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One Response to “Dear Diary: A Narrative Journal of my First Years as a ‘Fag Teacher’”

  1. This is such a wonderful story to share. Thank you. Your struggle is so honest and I hope your students see that and know they are supported. High school is a tough world. Wish I would’ve know someone like you when I was young. Keep up the powerful work you do educating and supporting. Again, thank you.

    Posted by cristin | November 12, 2012, 4:20 pm

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