After a year-end presentation, I remember my AP government teacher chuckling and sighing “you’re either going to be an unctuous politician, or a wonderful, sincere teacher one day — could go either way.”
I remember this back-handed compliment for reasons people may not expect. Walking back to my desk, I recall thinking “I don’t think it’s possible to be either.”
In 2005, the future was bleak for a young, closeted gay kid. The notion that I could be an openly gay professional, anywhere other than Broadway, was unfathomable at the time. One glance at my high school theatre resume — Gambler #3 and The Butler — showed I was destined to stay in the closet.
I walked out of high school with a handful of scholarships, acceptances to several colleges, and accolades. People were shocked to see me drop out of college after one semester. What was worse: I couldn’t articulate the turmoil I was in.
I’m happy to report that in 2020 things are different. Primarily, I realized that the topic of my sexuality rarely, if ever, needs to be part of professional conversations. Second, it is hardly a scandal in urban America that a homosexual man exists.
And this leads me to my present day conundrum. Like I stated, the topic of my love life is not relevant to my day-to-day job. On the other hand, I do teach English involving poetry, novels, and plays. Love and relationships come up a lot.
Sixteen students joined me for an optional digital book club over 5 weeks in quarantine. We read Emma by Jane Austen. The students were talking about how all the characters get engaged seemingly after just a few dates. I made a crack about how disastrous that would have been if I had to get engaged to people in the first couple weeks of dating. The kids giggled. I didn’t need to say anything else; the joke already landed. But immediately, in the back of my head, I wondered if I had said something “inappropriate.” I surely didn’t, but then my anxiety kicked in… I didn’t say anything inappropriate… But if I had mentioned a name, or a pronoun, would it then be inappropriate? And maybe a sense of shame or worry settles in…
I worked really hard to build a life that made me happy – AND a life where I can excel in a professional manner. Am I just one joke away from throwing professionalism away?
I know a lot of well-meaning people may think this fear is unfounded or hyperbolic; however, just last year I had to endure a phone call from a parent complaining about a book recommendation I made in class to the students. Her chief complaint was that there was homosexual couple; she mentioned it three times — I counted; it hurt each time.
And this lingering anxiety I endure now is exactly why this all may matter. What if… I had, or even saw, an out-teacher when I was growing up? A successful person who just happened to be gay?
Maybe my twenties would have been easier, maybe today would be easier, and maybe I wouldn’t get a pang of panic when my students ask me simple questions.
I can’t get into a time machine to fix these things for myself. The next best thing is to help my students in ways I needed help.
I went to my school’s version of Anytown (Vikingtown) this school year. I know many are familiar, but quickly: it is a leadership camp about facing reality and growing empathy through authenticity. They encouraged the teachers to be open, honest, and vulnerable.
The side effect of “coming out” to the students was that I could tell SO MANY MORE stories, and connect with an abundance of more students. Yes, there were students who wanted to talk about the realities of LGBTQ community, but also, it freed me up to discuss my Mexican-American fiance in a space dealing with the concepts of racism, or xenophobia — also hot sauce preferences, the “right way” to make guacamole, and how exactly I knew how to dance the “Mexican Hokey Pokey.”
It was the first time I realized that by operating under my own version of ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ was probably limiting my classroom’s potential.
Now I’m not saying I am going to drape my classroom in rainbow flags or anything extravagant. But maybe, I could, like any straight person in my position, put a picture up of my fiance on my desk. That seems like a good start.
Homophobia isn’t going away tomorrow, and I may still face it in microcosmic ways. But maybe I can help one student — or even another teacher? — gain confidence.
Even in writing this, I wondered, do straight teachers need to read this? Why does it matter to other educators? I’m not sure that it does matter particularly to pedagogy.
If nothing else: I graduated high school 15 years ago. The lack of a role-model then still impacts me today. So, I guess I’m just a cheesy internet meme here to tell you: Be the person you needed when you were younger. The kids need us, and we owe it to them.
What did you need when you taught students your age? How can you be the role model you desired?