Queer Teacher

I never felt comfortable being queer and a teacher. From student teaching in Illinois to my first years in Florida to working at SLA – while vastly different in their levels of acceptance, none of them felt completely safe. None of them got to see all of who I was.

As much as I’m sure this was informed by growing up in a largely intolerant small, rural school, it wasn’t all that. It wasn’t all baggage. It was also knowing I needed to check when moving from one place to another to find out if I was part of a protected class in my new location. When I first got hired to work in Sarasota, my mom wrote an email with many exclamation marks saying she’d checked and that the county had banned discriminatory employment practices based on sexual orientation.

While I’d had no intention of walking into my principal’s office to say, “Here are the scope and sequence guidelines you asked for, and I’m gay,” it was good to know I couldn’t be summarily dismissed if she found out I’d been dating a guy.

Pause and think about that. By writing this post and outing myself here, I am eliminating the possibility of teaching in 28 states should some industrious principal start to google. Can you say the same about talking publicly about whom you date or marry? If so and you live on the LGBTQ spectrum, it’s not likely we will ever talk about it online. My sexual orientation isn’t listed in my Twitter profile or a part of my about.me listing. It’s not there because I don’t want possible intolerance to get in the way of a free exchange of ideas in the spaces I love. The thing is, though, if you’re straight, it’s only a free exchange of ideas for you, because I give up a part of who I am to connect with you.

I resent that in the same way I resent having to out myself to people when they assume I’m straight and ask if I have a girlfriend. Sometimes, the answer is simply “no” and I let the pitch fly by because I don’t want to have the conversation that starts with, “Oh, you don’t seem gay.” I reply “no” in those moments when my response would be, “You don’t seem like a heteronormative cliché, so we’ve both learned something today.”

In the vein of learning, I would love to have learned who among my teachers growing up identified as LGBTQ. More than that, it would have meant the world to me to hear a teacher say aloud that he or she was an ally, was accepting, wanted to be there for me if I needed to talk. Your safe space stickers on your doors or ally triangles were nice, and I needed to hear you say it out loud. I needed to hear you say something positive about people who were gay so that I, at the very least, knew you knew we existed.

I tried to do this in my classrooms. From talking about Ryan White so that kids knew HIV/AIDS weren’t synonymous with being queer, to choosing books that had gay characters who weren’t merely tokens or getting their heads bashed in for coming out – I tried to build an inclusive space.

I didn’t come out, though. I’m sorry for that. To any former students who could have benefited from me saying it explicitly, I am sorry I wasn’t ready. I’m sorry I let my resentment toward other people’s assumptions and my fear of repercussions keep me from being the role model I wanted to be. Hopefully, this post can still be some small help.

That’s why I’m writing this now, because straight people need help. So, let’s review some things straight people can do to be better people (cause most of you sure have the straight thing down).

Assume someone in the room is LGBTQ. This is different than assuming not everyone is straight.

Use inclusive language. Instead of asking a student if they are going to a social function with what someone of what you perceive to be of the opposite gender, ask if they’re planning on going with anyone or going at all.

Mention LGBTQ people in positive ways. Part of what took me so long to get right with being queer was having Matthew Shepherd as my main touchstone of what it meant to be gay. Think about the lesson implicit in a story about a person whose life came to mean something to people only after he’d been tied to a fence post, beaten, and left to freeze to death.

Call on your unions to champion equity. As I said, 28 states still allow for the dismissal of teachers based on sexuality. If their membership called for it, the teachers unions could at least make this part of the conversation in election cycles.

Out yourself. Give yourself a week of outing yourself as straight when you meet new people or in conversations with people you’ve known for a while but haven’t told you’re straight. If we have to do it, you should at least learn how awkward and annoying it feels.

Know that knowing one LGBTQ person isn’t knowing all or even many. I write this as one queer man, not on behalf of all. In the same way I don’t make assumptions about all members of group X when I meet them, don’t take meeting me or anyone else as having learned what there is to know about someone different from you.

Some people who have known me for a while might have read this post and be surprised or even hurt that we haven’t had this conversation before or that I didn’t explicitly come out to you. I suppose you’re going to have to work through that.

22 thoughts on “Queer Teacher

  1. Thanks for this.

    When you get a chance, can you expand on “Assume someone in the room is LGBTQ. This is different than assuming not everyone is straight.” I’m struggling to parse out the difference between those two statements, yet know it must be important if you included it. Thanks.

    • For me, it is the difference in intentionality. Assuming someone isn’t straight still puts “straight” in the place of the normative value. If you assume someone is LGBTQ, then LGBTQ is normative.

      Someone isn’t queer because s/he isn’t straight. S/he is queer because s/he is queer.

      Or at least, that’s what it meant to me.

      • What if we just stopped thinking about someone’s sexuality when we meet? I have worked with many LGBTQ colleagues who never came out, never added to the conversation when we were all talking about our annoying partners, never shared pics of family. How sad to have to hide yourself. And how sad that we are still even discussing this today. I can tell you that, here on Long Island, at least in my community, it doesn’t matter. My daughter, who is on the spectrum of LGBTQ, has many friends who came out in middle school to vast acceptance! It surprised me that it was all so acceptable. It also made me very proud of the children of today. There is hope.

        • So, Lisa’s response was my first thought. I don’t (at least *consciously*) see someone’s sexuality when I meet/interact with them. But I suspect that, much like race, folks who are not in the “assumed majority” feel like it is ever present and affects every interaction.

          For me, it’s similar to the dilemma I feel with race. I was raised in the time of “be color blind”, and yet now many folks think that not seeing color is tantamount to denying someone’s identity. Much the same, my inclination is to be “sexuality blind”, yet I’m hearing that perhaps that’s not the best option either.

          I’ve also always disliked the term “straight”, and frankly, am surprised that we’re still using it. By definition, if you’re not “straight” than you must be “crooked”, or at least “deviant” from the line. Surely that’s not a term we can support?

          And, while I think we’ve made great progress since I was young in terms of folks even knowing and acknowledging the “LGBTQ spectrum”, that term bothers me as well. If it’s a “spectrum”, why are we not including ‘S’ on there (if we’re going to use the S-word)? By separating LGBTQ from S, aren’t we somehow viewing it as “lesser” or “different”?

          Much like Lisa, I’ve been impressed and encouraged by the increasing acceptance of sexuality/gender identity among young people. Yet I know I had that same feeling when I was young about race, yet clearly that hasn’t translated into as much progress as we had hoped.

          Which brings me back to my question about those two sentences. That distinction seems not only unclear to me, but also binary, and I reacted to it with confusion. Yet I’m fully aware that I’m reacting to it from the position of someone in the “assumed majority” (another awkward term), so I’m questioning my reaction. Am I MLK’s “white liberal”, only this time a “heterosexual liberal”; more part of the problem than part of the solution?

          I don’t know, and that trouble me.

          • I’m 100% with Karl on this one. It took me being a little less naive and finally seeing the racism, sexism, biases, etc that consume people to start seeing that these things sadly exist. I don’t see race. I don’t see sexuality, orientation or gender. I don’t see religion. I see people. You can be an asexual pink with purple dots gender undecided human and I “like” you or not based on the exact same reasons I would a tall, hazel-eyed heterosexual man (hey! call me :D). I base it on your integrity, your voice, the way you treat others, your ability to carry an intelligent conversation, your choice to put up with my sarcasm, etc. I have friends of every sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnic background, hair color, and life choice I can dream up. There exists a sizable number of people whom I prefer to not associate with because of their racism, lack of integrity, judgemental attitude, and overall knack for being a “bad human”. Why? Why are these “classifications” still a thing in 2016?

          • Thanks for your thinking here, Kristy. I don’t know that I see your thinking as 100% aligning with Karl’s, but I will leave that to Karl to parse out.

            I’d like to respond to the idea of “not seeing” an aspect of a person first. I don’t want you to avoid seeing aspect X of who I am. In doing so, you are claiming to only see those aspects of my personhood that you deem as relevant to your needs frame of what should inform our interactions. The thing is, all of the pieces of who I am and all of my experiences influence how I think about the other aspects of my life life and my interests. The inclusivity and equity I champion in education are direct and indirect results of my growing up queer and understanding the hypocrisy of a system set up to instill democratic ideals while limiting in explicit and implicit ways who was allowed to participate in that democracy and how. Choosing or claiming to see me only as a teacher while being blind to my maleness, queerness, whiteness, etc. is choosing to flatten my experiences and perspective.

            There’s a difference between saying you don’t see sexual orientation and saying you can’t see how that orientation has affected a person.

            I want you to see my queerness, my maleness, my whiteness and anything else that informs how I move through the world and how the world responds to me. And then, I want you to acknowledge all of these things mean you cannot know me by seeing these things, but you can know that they influence how I see whatever issue we’re discussing, debating, etc.

            One last thing, here’s what I think your comment was getting at (or at least what I hope it was getting at) – I think you were meaning that you do not assign value to these attributes. You were saying sexual orientation, gender identity, race, etc. do not determine a person’s value in your estimation. If I’m right then, here’s what I would hope for – See the differences, know they mean social rules have been applied differently, and continue to decide that those differences are not reflections of worth or value. Then, decide where you want to push against the inequitable application of social rules.

          • Karl, thank you for your questions here. I’m going to try to tackle them as best I can.

            I tried to hash out the “seeing sexuality” piece in my reply to Kristy, so I’ll let that conversation go there.

            As for the term straight, I think we’re dealing with cultural momentum there. In my own little act of defiance, I reserve the word for sexual orientation and have tried to eliminate it from other realms of conversation. When I’m giving directions, you’re much more likely me to hear me tell you to “go forward” than “straight”. The also brings up some of the work around language reclamation that’s been done around the word.

            Why not LGBTQS? Maybe we’ll get there. For now, though, that collection of letters is more of a Whitman’s sampler than it is descriptive of a community. For me, LGBTQ speaks to a shared otherness that’s been defined as separate from the expected straightness. Perhaps it would be better to shift my language in the post from, “Assume someone in the room is LGBTQ,” to “Assume the room is full of people with a mix of sexual orientations.” Still, I would stay away from “not straight” and the trappings that come with it. To continue to equate majority with expected norm is to continue to tell people a core piece of who they are is not who you expected when you set your definition of “room full of students” or “faculty” or “congregation”.

            It’s complicated, and it should be. And the fact that you came at it from a place of questioning reminds me how caring you are.

        • Thanks for the thinking here, Lisa. I’d probably change your question to, “What if we stopped assuming someone’s sexual orientation when we meet?” One, I’d say it’s important to think about a difference between sexuality and sexual orientation. More importantly, though, I don’t think many people actually do consciously consider another person’s sexual orientation when they meet. I think back to the many teachers in my first year who were constantly asking me when I was going to find a “nice girl” and pointing out the female teachers on campus who were single, and wonder what it would have meant for them to check their assumptions before speaking or even to shift their language slightly to “find someone nice”. In addition to how sad it is for someone to have to hide themselves, I’d add how sad it was for people not to get to know me fully and be able to share in the joys and sorrows that came along with that.

          I’m with you and Karl in the hopefulness I feel when I think about what I’m seeing in some classrooms and schools today. In my first days at SLA, a student decided sharing his 9th-grade Me Magazine in front of his classmates was the right and safe place to come out as transgender. It was an act I couldn’t imagine anyone doing in my own high school growing up. I’m not so sure I can imagine it happening now, and that’s important to remember. We have pockets of acceptance, safety, and progress. How much does that mean if intolerance and hate still lead a student who is gay in a small rural town to contemplate suicide? We’ve come far, and we’ve got a long long way to go to make sure that all students have the same safety and support your daughter has in their homes and schools. Thank you for modeling that as a parent. I can almost guarantee your acceptance is seen by some closeted student and offers a beacon of hope.

          Thank you for the response, Lisa, and for pushing the conversation forward.

      • That was exactly my reaction, and in addition to what you said, “not straight” is exclusive, “IS LGBTQ” is much more inclusive and validating. Instead of talking about all of the things we aren’t, let’s talk about what – and who – we are.

  2. Thank you for this post, Zac. We started offering a seminar on LGBTQ leaders in history (both in LGBTQ rights movement and in US history generally) a couple years ago for 8th graders. I’ll be honest that was initially a bit of a fraught endeavor from my perspective because I didn’t want to screw it up, but kids (gay and straight) were really hungry to talk about those issues and voices. Been trying to purposefully include more of those figures in our standard course, not simply because they’re gay, but because so many of those voices have been silenced throughout history. Think that it’s important for all students.

    • Thanks for taking those fraught steps, friend. Whatever it meant for the students, it means a great deal to me as an educator to know allied colleagues are out there being, well, allies.

      As to the inclusion of more examples and figures from history, thank you for that two. After writing this post, I commented that the only LGBTQ public figures I had to look toward were Elton John and Liberace. It was a definition of what it meant to be me with which I couldn’t identify and set up an expectation that there was a way to be queer. We’ve made moves in the right direction, and there’s a long way to go. Thanks for helping to make more momentum happen.

  3. Thank-you for this. Thank-you for the brief and honest glimpse of awkwardness, fear of repercussions, and resentment, but also for the important and concrete steps you suggest. How many of our students must daily give up pieces of who they are to connect in our classrooms because of unconscious phrasing and heteronormative assumptions?
    I can only imagine how awkward the outing conversation must be. I’d love to say that I’ll take on that challenge this week, but I’m not sure I’m ready. While just acknowledging that it is a level of awkwardness that I am not comfortable with has raised my awareness, that doesn’t meet the challenge. I’ll commit to a week of being deliberate and conscious of your other suggestions and work up to the outing bit 🙂
    Thank-you for sharing this piece of yourself.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Jody. Thank you for the thoughtful work you do. I hope, when you get the strength to try the awkward experiment, you’ll let me know how it goes.

  4. Zac, I can only imagine how the decision to post this must feel for you. Probably both challenging and liberating. I’m sorry that this is still an issue in many places. We still have a long way to go in many / most of our communities. May we get there sooner rather than later…

    I love this post (And I confess that I laughed out loud at your last sentence. Indeed!). Hoping that you have a wonderful set of colleagues, friends, and family members who are supportive of you. FYI, there are some amazing educational leadership faculty who study school climates for LGBTQI educators and students, folks like Catherine Lugg (Rutgers U.), Jim Koschoreck (U. Northern Kentucky), and Colleen Capper (U. Wisconsin).

  5. Thank you! From the bottom of my heart! I’ve been teaching for 16 years. I’m still getting used to being out with coworkers and still skirting the edges of how to be an open ally for the students.

    • I agree with you completely. It’s one thing to be out with coworkers, but something totally different to be out to students. Even in a accepting state. Then trying to be an ally for students, which would be great, it is challenging. I can see it might be easier in a high school setting.

      • A thing that came to mind while reading your comment, Malinda, was a feeling I didn’t get to write about in the initial post. Oftentimes, when I would make positive mentions of LGBTQ people in my classes or use inclusive language, I often wondered if my own perceived straightness (or at least ambiguity) made it more accessible to students who identified as straight. While I wasn’t modeling for LGBTQ students, did the ambiguity mean I was serving as a role model for straight students? If any part of the answer was yes, then the paradox of what was “right” became difficult for me. In the end, it has become about not sacrificing a piece of who I am so that others might be comfortable.

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