On the first day of school, I always spend some of the class period talking about myself. My juniors read Into the Wild over the summer, and I mention how I, like Christopher McCandless, graduated from college in May of 1990 and how not too long after that we both got in our cars on the east coast and headed west.
I go on to talk about how our paths diverged. McCandless, of course, headed alone into the Alaskan wilderness and died, while I went to teaching school, fell in love, got married and had kids. I always show a photo of Patrick and the kids. I have done this same routine ever since I started teaching at Newport, and I’m proud of how I was able to construct a lesson for Day 1 that accomplishes so many tasks: connecting to the summer reading book, providing an example of what I will ask them to do that night for homework (write about how they are in some way similar to McCandless), and last but not at all least, come out.
Being out as a teacher is tied up with my reason for being a high school teacher in the first place. You remember that when I was in high school, I never had a teacher who was out (although I certainly had my suspicions about at least one or two). If part of my role as a teacher is to be a model of a successful, competent, engaged adult, I want my LGBT and questioning students to know that they can be all those things regardless of their sexual orientation. I want my straight non-questioning kids to know that too.
Most teachers in my building spend at least some time—during the first week if not throughout the year—sharing personal information in order to foster relationships with their students. This often involves discussing significant others, engagements, weddings, divorces, and the birth of kids. Straight teachers do this all unconsciously, because it’s no big deal. It’s what teachers have always done.
Unfortunately, it’s not what teachers have always done if they identify as LGBT. Many gay and lesbian teachers I know stay in the closet. Some follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy, or even a “if they ask I won’t lie, but I hope they don’t ask” philosophy. Some have confided that they would like to come out, but just don’t know when, or how, or if it matters. With the demise of the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy and the rise of marriage equality, aren’t we living in a post-gay world, after all?
Greg, a student who was in my junior class last year, is living proof that although there have been changes, there’s still a long way to go.
Greg came to visit me this year during the second week of classes. We chatted about his summer, his English class this year, and his plans for college. I asked how his applications were progressing, and he mentioned his uncertainty about his application essay. “I know for sure that I want to address my sexual orientation in my essay,” he said. “I’m just not sure the personal essay I wrote for your class last year is good enough.”
Mom, as English teachers and writers I think we can agree: Is there anything more professionally satisfying than having a student discuss with you the finer points of writing an effective essay? Perhaps not. In that moment I encouraged Greg to work on the essay some more, to bring it back in and we would take a look at possible revisions, but to above all else not ditch it and start again.
It wasn’t until after he left that I thought to myself, “Damn, that was a really cool moment.” Would I have ever, ever in a million years, considered coming out in my college application essay? Hell no.
Good for him, I thought. No, fantastic for him, and isn’t it great that we now live in a world where an individual wouldn’t be ashamed of his sexual orientation, and would want to go out of his way to share this piece of himself with a perspective college. I’m not naïve enough to think that every gay teen is as confident, comfortable and out as Greg is, but it does give me hope. And it does signal change.
But that is not all there is to the story of Greg. I learned about Greg during the spring of his sophomore year when his English teacher told me that he specifically requested to be placed in my class the next year. “He has never been taught by an out gay male teacher,” she said. “He wants to have that experience before he graduates. He wants in to your class.”
That was the first time I had ever heard about a student requesting me, let alone a gay student. While I felt proud and thought it was flattering that this young man would be interested in taking my class, the more I thought about it the more upset I became. Here he was, entering his 11th grade year in high school in one of the most progressive regions in the country, and he had never been taught by an out male teacher.
Actually, I wasn’t as much upset as I was sad. I know from my own experience that deciding to come out as a teacher is a difficult decision. I know that teachers in some school districts nationwide are fired if their sexual orientation is discovered. When I was in teaching school in Seattle in the year 2000, we were clearly and firmly told by a union lawyer never to come out prior to securing a continuing contract. “You just don’t want to give a homophobic administrator an excuse to find some other insignificant reason for getting you gone.”
Also, depending on the district and the school community, if you come out, your interactions with teaching colleagues, administrators, parents and students can be uncomfortable, tense, and in some cases terrifying.
For all these reasons and more, I don’t blame any teacher who thinks twice prior to coming out, or any teacher who decides, ultimately, to stay in. I do know that for me, the rewards have been great.
It’s easy to think that the LGBT civil rights movement is over. Sure there are changes, sure it seems quick. I’m glad that there are students like Greg at my school, and look forward to meeting more of them in the years to come.
But support for LGBT rights is thin, and change, real lasting change, will be a long, slow process. We only need to look as far as Kim Davis (and her thousands of supporters), the field of GOP presidential candidates who discuss the judicial overreach of SCOTUS, and the polls that indicate only about 50% of Americans actually support same-sex marriage to understand that.
When teachers can still be fired for coming out (let’s get a federal employment non-discrimination act passed in this country SOON!) and students can go almost an entire educational career in a public school without having an out teacher, it’s clear that we still have a long way to go.
There are still so many lessons to teach.