Ever wonder what that teacher was thinking? How they handled being out at work? Or did you wish they were more out and outspoken? Here are three real-life queer teachers who have agreed to give you a peek inside their teacher-brains!
Meet the Teachers
Chandra: I help adults learn fundamental literacy skills at a community college in B.C., Canada. I also used to teach French Immersion at a high school in Ontario, but that was before I was out to myself, never mind anyone else.
Laura: I teach the wonders of reading, writing, and exploring the world and our own identities to seventh graders at a public charter school in New Orleans, Louisiana.
KJ: I’m in my 7th year teaching at a public, “urban” high school in Pennsylvania. I teach both 9th and 11th grade English; I also teach the poetry course, which is composed of lots of Feelings with a capital F.
How to be Out to Students
Chandra: In general, I don’t broadcast my personal life, and nobody in my classes has asked me about it yet. I’m sure it will happen eventually, and it will probably involve a lot of blushing and awkwardness. So my best advice here is: don’t be like me! That’s helpful, I know.
Laura: My seventh graders are pretty sharp, and a number of them have figured it out. However, the opportunity and the desire to announce my sexuality to all of my students has never arisen. If it did happen, I would never lie to my students, and I’m pretty positive my principal would back me up if necessary. That being said, the language I use about gender and sexuality in my classroom is very different from what my students have heard their entire lives. For example, when a male character in The Giver hits puberty and develops a crush on a girl, we discuss what happens during puberty and that some people are attracted to someone of the same gender as him or her, and that’s okay too. There’s always some pushback from kids who have always heard that homosexuality is a sin for which you’ll definitely be roasting in hell. I tell them they’re entitled to their opinions, but that doesn’t make it okay to do or say hurtful things to someone just because they’re different from you. I also draw the controversial analogy that they don’t like it when someone treats them different because they’re African-American, so why would they treat someone different who is gay.
KJ: Still, seven years in, I struggle with this. I have been “obviously gay” from my first day on the job (I walked in on day one with my piercings, tattoos, and faux-hawk — clearly bucking the Teacher Stereotype). I’ve never intentionally hid my gay, but there were moments of lying in my first year of teaching where I manufactured a studly pseudo-husband; awkward, and I’m sure no one believed me. At this point, however, I would be genuinely surprised if a student presumed me to be heterosexual. I’ve stopping hiding; I don’t exactly enter a classroom with a rainbow stuck to my forehead or anything, but when the inevitable questions come up, I don’t avoid them. Oddly, I have a bizarre habit of being more comfortable being out with my lower-level kids and my elective kids than I do with my Honors level kids — even the juniors. There is a HUGE difference in student personality when examining those three classes, and I’m much more comfortable being myself with the low-level (largely minority) students, and my elective students because they hear my poetry/are observant. Not being vocally out to my Honors kids is probably some deep-rooted fear of narrow-minded, book-smart people. But then I remember I was an Honors student in high school, and I’ve just insulted myself. So…
My general rule of thumb for being out in the classroom is this: do what you’re comfortable with. Don’t announce, but try to not hide, either, because it’s a near guarantee that there’s a gay student in your classroom who is trying to look to you for recognition that it is possible to be gay and be okay. Even successful! And smart! And all the good things.
How to be Out to Colleagues
Chandra: I’m fortunate enough to work at a fairly liberal institution in a country where my job isn’t at risk due to my sexual orientation. My approach, as someone who doesn’t like to draw attention to herself, is to casually mention my girlfriend when the conversation naturally turns in that direction. But even then, it depends on who’s involved and how many of them there are. If it’s likely that I’ll have a roomful of eyes turn and stare at me all at once, I’ll probably keep quiet. In B.C. it’s quite easy to be evasive, because even the straightest straight people refer to their official co-cuddler as their “partner”. Not that I’m advocating being evasive.
Something I’m always conscious of is that, even in a place like Canada where my rights are technically protected, there are ways for people to undermine their co-workers if they decide they don’t want them around. Laws are one thing, but exclusion can be subtle and insidious. Luckily, even though I do live in a part of the country that’s often referred to as “the Bible Belt of Canada”, I don’t hear about this kind of thing happening too often.
Laura: Mrs. Flint, my co-worker, tried to hook me up with her “fine young men” friends until I told her that it was my girlfriend, not my boyfriend, sending me roses. She still refers to any partner as my “friend”, but after hearing about my recent break-up she wrapped her arms around me and asked me what I needed, and she’s hugged me and checked up on me every day since. I’m very open with the staff, and my partner came to work socials. I used to get sideways glances, but after three years it’s pretty much a non-issue. They see my dedication to the students and the school, and I believe that supersedes any biases anyone might have about my sexuality.
On the subject of being out, there are a lot of places in this country that do not protect your job based on your sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
Louisiana is one of those states, and the legislature just voted to REMOVE the clause that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation from the contract that charter schools sign with the state.
It’s important that you’re aware of the protections in your district and state because there are plenty of stories about being fired for being lesbian or trans. For me, I would rather be fired for being gay then work at a school where I felt like I had to hide who I am. If I am ever let go for telling my kids that it’s A-Okay to be gay, which I do tell them whenever it comes up, at least I know my rights, and in a charter school in New Orleans I really don’t have any.
KJ: Even though I spent a year faking hetero with my students, I have never played straight with my colleagues. When I started teaching, I was forthcoming about my relationship with my then-girlfriend. If I knew where that level of security and comfort came from, I could probably be rich enough to not have to teach anymore, but I don’t, so. Again, I haven’t done this announcement-style; it comes up in conversation, and I face it. I spent too many years figuring out who I was to start hiding myself now that I have a steady hold on who I am, you know?
In this Out-To-Colleagues area, I’m lucky in a few ways:
1) There are many gays that teach in my building — and even more scattered throughout my district. Power and safety in numbers!
2) Working in an urban school has its benefits. My colleagues and administrators are forced to gain a level of comfort with people from all walks of life. My gayness is very low on the shock factor.
3) I have been in a longterm relationship with a female administrator in my district, so if I wasn’t out before that, I had zero homosexual invisibility once that news emerged. This could have been a Situation, but it never was, really. Okay, maybe in the beginning, but once people got over it, we lost our star power, and were just two women who happened to love each other.
4) Within the past year, my school district began offering benefits to same-sex married couples. !!!! That’s big, especially considering my state, Pennsylvania, doesn’t acknowledge same-sex marriages. An employee in my district could go same-sex marry his/her partner in a legalized state, come back, and get benefits here. It’s backwards, but it’s something. And it makes me feel supported.
5) Somehow, I’ve managed to change some perspectives on the gays. One of my fellow English teachers has remarked several times that I’ve helped her see that not all lesbians are A) crazy, and B) trying to get in every woman’s pants.
I also have the requisite gay decorations in my classroom to ensure outness at some level — an HRC sticker, a Maddow READ poster, a Girlyman poster, and a random page from a calendar that has six pieces of fruit, rainbow color-order, standing and smiling in a circle.
How to Deal With Homophobia in the Classroom
Chandra: I use a learner-centred approach in my classes, which means my students have a say in how things are done. The first thing we do on the first day is decide as a group what the guidelines for conduct are going to be. One of the points I include — if the students don’t bring it up first, which they usually do — is showing respect for differences. Then we decide together, in detail, what that means. When it’s my turn, I express that it’s important to me not to hear judgmental or offensive communication (ex. “That’s so gay,” “That’s retarded”), and that this also includes things like tone of voice, subtle digs, or mocking laughter. Finally, we discuss and agree upon what the consequences will be if these expectations aren’t met. Including the students in this decision-making gives them ownership of their conduct, and shows them that I respect their ability to be autonomous and responsible. I really believe I have fewer issues in class because of this approach.
So what happens when somebody does make an inappropriate crack, and it happens in the middle of a lesson? Do I derail the lesson and single out the person for censure in front of the class? Do I let it slide and thereby give it tacit approval? The population I work with tends to be older than average for college, and many (most, in fact) of my students have suffered through a lot of shaming, criticism and ridicule in their previous educational experiences, so that makes this an even more delicate question. I certainly can’t respond in the same way I would with a class of unruly high school students. All I can say is that I try to deal with each incident in the way that seems most fitting at the time. If it’s higher on the offensiveness scale, I’d probably stop the lesson briefly and remind the students about the guidelines they agreed on, then take the person aside later to discuss it. If it’s lower on the scale, I might let it go in the moment, but then start the next class with a refresher about how we collectively chose to define respect, and why it’s important not to let that slip, even for something that might seem like a harmless joke.
Laura: I use literature to promote tolerance in my classroom, which is one of the awesomest things about being an English teacher. When we read The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, we talk about the “tradition” that the village follows to select one person via a lottery that is stoned to death each year. We discuss the traditions of reciprocal violence in New Orleans, slavery, racial and gender discrimination, and marriage as being between one man and one woman. It’s an amazing feeling as an educator to be able to introduce a new perspective and to see their brains whirling with these connections that they’ve never been exposed to before. I openly address any homophobic comments, most of which they are parroting from their parents, the media, performers they love, etc., by explaining to them why what they’ve said is inappropriate or flat-out wrong. There are also tons of teaching tolerance web sites and helpful resources: Teaching Tolerance; International Day Against Homophobia; (Canadian-specific) Safe and Caring Schools for Lesbian and Gay Youth; Rainbow Educator’s Network.
KJ: Last year was the first time I faced homophobia in my classroom, and fortunately, it wasn’t directed at me. It wasn’t directed anywhere, really — it just happened. Keep in mind that the bulk of my day is spent with freshmen, and perhaps you remember what it was like to be a freshman. If you don’t, you have an open invitation to visit my classroom! Freshmen are challenging. Many of them are unsure of themselves, and will act and speak intending to boost their self esteem, yet in the process hurt not only other people, but their own little tender selves, too. To get them to see that is hard, but in the English/literature classroom, you get TONS of opportunities to guide kids to open and expand their minds with both reading and writing.
Much like the previous answers, the use of literature in my classroom is a springboard into conversation and self-reflection. I have had very open, real conversations with my students about homosexuality, HIV/AIDS, racism/prejudice, basic perception, and more. Yeah, there are always going to be kids who are resistant and homophobic and closed-minded and, just, difficult. You may not reach them, but you might reach that one kid in the corner who’s trying to figure out if it’s okay to have two dads. And you might reach that other kid across the room who thinks she’s falling for her best female friend and has no idea what that means. If the conversation is happening, and is peppered with positive, supportive comments from the teacher, then someone is reaping a benefit from it.
On a less heartwarming note — last year, the following comments were thrown around my classroom: “Lez be honest,” “You’re so gay,” “Is that a he-she?” and seemingly harmless comments like “You’re a fruitcake.” I know, FRESHMEN. Because 90% of these issues were in one class, I had a circle with that class in which we discussed things like appropriate language, respect, bullying, and perspective. I tried to get every kid in that class to understand how important it is for them to be respectful not only to others, but also to themselves. Did I succeed? I don’t know; often, in this teaching profession, it takes years for you to see whether or not you were successful in guiding your students to be good people. But the gay-related comments after that discussion were, while not entirely absent, few and far between.
Question for all you great commenters: as a gay student, what do you wish your teachers did or did not do when you were in school?