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The Ins and Outs of Being Out in Education

Gay Teachers Rock“So, when did you come out?” If you’re like me, this is a very confusing question.

Deep breath. I love this game.

“I officially came out to myself in college when I acknowledged the serious case of butterflies I got every time I thought about this woman I had just met; from the moment I met her. I came out to my close friends by talking about her constantly. I came out to my parents shortly afterward when I entered into a relationship with said woman. I came out to all of my Facebook friends when I decided to post pictures of the two of us together. I came out years later to my extended family when they received the invitation to my big gay wedding reception.

I came out to my boss when I asked about starting a Gay-Straight-Alliance at my school. I came out to my students when they repeatedly asked if I had a husband. I came out to some more students when they asked me what I did over summer break. I came out to another class when they called a girl a dyke for hugging her friend. The next year, I came out to my students when…”

When their eyes start to glaze over, I know I’ve made my point. No one comes out just once. It is a process. A personal, challenging, never-ending process.

For teachers especially, deciding to come out is no small decision. When you are charged with molding the minds of young people, you become acutely aware of absolutely everything you present to them. Is this story too violent? If they can’t chew gum in class, is it fair for me to do it? Is red pen too harsh? Is it ok to admit that I watch Family Guy? Can I tell them I’m an atheist? If I have a picture of my partner and me on my desk, will their parents think that I’m part of a secret conspiracy to corrupt their sweet, innocent children, turning them to a life of sin, homosexuality, and sexual deviance?

Being an openly gay teacher means taking on the responsibility of potentially being the “token gay” in any student’s life – possibly the only out homosexual adult s/he knows. The mind is rigged to categorize things, especially in the context of learning new information, so you have to be constantly mindful that in the eyes of your students, your actions and beliefs could potentially represent the actions and beliefs of all people under the LGBTQ umbrella. No pressure. When I allowed this realization to sink in, I chose to put a positive spin on it (or had to, in order to make it less overwhelming and intimidating): I have the opportunity to be a positive gay role model, potentially the only positive gay role model, for every student I encounter this year. I’m like an icon! I’m their Ellen! I’M THEIR ELLEN! (I do not actually liken myself to Ellen DeGeneres in my mind, FYI. I just really needed to psych myself up for this. And Ellen always gets me excited.)

So I did it. I decided then that I would be an openly gay teacher. And I can say that it has been one of the most rewarding decisions I have made for myself. I have always believed that teachers can and do teach our students about a whole lot more than the individual subject(s) we are assigned to instruct them on. Whether or not our students really want to be exactly like us, they are definitely paying attention to the things we do and say, especially with regards to subjects that might be seen as taboo or controversial, or simply that aren’t talked about often or openly. They will always ask about your weekend. They will always notice the ring on your finger, or the lack of one. They will ask you why you came in late, where you got your shoes, whether or not you partied in college, what color your kitchen is… everything. And if I am expecting them to share their lives with me through their writing and class discussions, I don’t see anything wrong with answering their questions honestly. In fact, I feel an obligation to do so.

Many teachers take a very different approach to their role in the classroom, which I also respect (and sometimes envy). Putting all your business out there tends to make more students seek you out as a safe place to bring all their business. And teenagers these days have A LOT OF BUSINESS. Carrying all of their emotional burdens on top of your own can get damn heavy. Sticking more strictly to a sort of “teacher persona” in front of your students definitely helps shield one from many of the aforementioned prying personal questions. For many teachers, they are teachers. Period. Their personal life is left outside of the building, including their sexual orientation, college party attendance, and shopping habits.

Jennie, a high school teacher on the South side, has been considering these issues for four years. “I don’t feel that [my sexual orientation] is something that I need to talk about unless it comes up naturally in conversation. That is my opinion in my work life, social life, and in my classroom. Because of my femme appearance, most people just assume I’m straight and are generally surprised when I tell them that I’m not. … But I would never lie about my sexual orientation.”

For Jennie, it is often all about timing, and intentions: “Last year a girl called me over to her desk in the middle of class and quietly and respectfully asked me if I dated women… I said yes and she immediately asked me if I was bi or just gay. I told her I was just gay, but that this wasn’t the time to really talk about this. She was sitting in a group with a student who was partially out and I know she immediately shared this information with them. Those three students frequently wanted to talk about it in class, but I tried not to because it wasn’t relevant to learning science. I had a few students who wanted to talk about it after school and the conversations we had were always positive…”

For a friend of mine who recently relocated to teach in her home state of Missouri, her decision is all about protection: “I live and work in a state in which sexual orientation is not protected under the law. There are city laws in place in Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis that protect sexual orientation. I live in St. Louis City, but teach in St. Louis County. Thus, I am not protected when I go to work.” A new Chairman of the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education in the Missouri House of Representatives was just selected, and it is none other than Steve Cookson – the same guy who sponsored the “Don’t Say Gay” bill which was shut down last spring. It would have banned GSAs and any discussion of sexual orientation in the classroom.

It is sometimes easy for those of us whose rights are protected as LGBTQ professionals to forget that the fear of discrimination without legal protection is real, and all too common. “Of a staff of about eighty in my building, I was one of three gay educators. None of us were out to students there. As a professional, I have taken many cues from my predecessors and fellow educators. When I was a student I did not know any teachers, principals, or coaches who were out to students… None of my current colleagues are out to students. None of the other gay Missouri educators that I am friends with are out to students.”

In a state that does not offer protection to its teachers, that fear naturally extends to interactions with students and parents as well. “I have coached six out of my eight years of teaching. As a coach I have worked very closely with many female teenage athletes. Unfortunately, with that closeness there are risks of seeming too close to athletes, playing favorites, and upsetting players and parents. I strive very hard to keep very professional relationships with my athletes. It is sad and frustrating, but I have feared an angry player or parent might use the fact that I am gay to make accusations about me and compromise my team’s success, players’ success, and my future success as a coach. The same is also a concern of mine for an angry student or angry parent of a student.”

The coming out question may never be easy to answer. The workplace may never feel as safe as, say, an L Stop event (Am I right?! Am I right?!) You may decide that coming out at work is not the right choice for you. We are fortunate, my beautiful and brave Chicago lezzies, that we have the option to choose. And that will never change.

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About Stacy

Born and raised in rural Nebraska, Stacy migrated to Chicago in 2008 to begin her career in education. After four years of teaching high school English in the Englewood and Aburn Gresham neighborhoods of Chicago's Southside, she has since shifted her focus to more creative pursuits, returning to her first loves: interior design and poetry. Though she spends more time at poetry readings now than in classrooms, she can't seem to tear herself away completely, facilitating training and professional development for schools on LGBTQ issues in the classroom and providing interior design services for improving educational environments. She loves traveling, everything nature, crafting, casseroles, reading, and you. She definitely loves you.

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