I received the following in my e-mail today:
Hello PPT!My name is Matt and I’m currently a pre-service teacher in the Los Angeles area, hoping to go into high school science. I’m currently on a great track at a great university and receiving a lot of praise for my tutoring and teaching as an instructor for SI courses. However, there’s one issue that I’m trying to figure out and I’m not comfortable talking with my education professors about it: my homosexuality.While I’d love to be a good role model for the queer students and be able to talk about such issues openly (even if I am in science, where there’s less room for discussions of those topics), I also have to consider how parents would respond to such openness. I’ve only heard horror stories about how gay teachers are fired, harassed, etc. While I would definitely prefer to be more open about it as to be a good role model, the other side of the coin scares me. While I’m currently very passionate about getting my job and teaching, I’m worried the other side might be too much to handle.My question is what sort of experiences and/or do you have regarding these issues in the field? Is there any advice you could impart on how to deal with these circumstances?Thank you for any response! Feel free to post this publicly on your PPT blog to start discussion if you wish!-MattBefore I begin I need to give two things to the people reading this.One, I still have a horrible migraine, but felt this topic was very important and deserved a timely response.Two, I’m straight, and don’t pretend to represent the GLBT community in any way. I wouldn’t attempt to tell any racial minority how to handle injustices they face, so I am treading carefully on this topic out of respect. If I state anything incorrectly, or insensitively, please let me know.
PPT gives some very good advice here as a prelim of what to consider while you’re considering this issue. I’m just tossing my two cents in as an educator from the LGBTQ group. There’s a lot here because I’m just writing anything I can think of that might be helpful to know beforehand, and please, this goes for everyone, don’t hesitate to ask me more about it or about something I didn’t include.
First off, props to you. It’s hard. It’s frustrating to have to consider so many things that other people may not have to.
Now to the business end of it. When you consider applying to a school, check the school and district discrimination policy. Many of them say right there that they do not discriminate on the basis of, among all the usuals, sexual orientation or gender identity. If that’s included, it’s one potential concern — that is, the possibility of losing your job — off your chest. They cared enough to list that explicitly. That’s not to say that the worst can’t happen, but it’s enough to have it there to start.
Context can be important. If you include your sexuality in your welcome-to-my-class opening statement, you’ll get some raised eyebrows. But I can tell you this: you will not be wanting for opportunity if you want to seize that opportunity.
I’ve worked with ages and settings that have ranged from six to eighteen and from formal classroom to the most thrown-together after school program I’ve ever seen. The oldest students are the ones that offer some of the most awkward situations regarding sexuality. They might use certain slurs and, when you call them on it, demand to know why it’s a big deal. You can explain it from a removed perspective that involves respect for all people, but you might still have some tell that shows you care on a more personal level, and they might pick up on it, and they might test you.
They might have dating drama and ask you if you’ve ever had that problem, and then pronouns might get complicated. Oh so very complicated. You can only use “they” so many times before someone asks you questions, and outright lying and using the wrong pronoun to cover your butt may not only make you feel squeemish or uncomfortable or flat-out wrong, but it will just open the floodgates to questions about names and appearance and do-you-have-pictures.
Someone might come to you with an LGBTQ-specific bullying issue, and outing yourself may be the best way to approach it in order to let the student know you understand, that you’re safe to be open with.
Or they may just ask you, flat out, about your dating life. “Are you married,” you’ll hear that a dozen times.
You’re luckier and unlucky, in a way, being at the high school level. You may not exactly be explaining a new mind-blowing concept by being open about being gay — it’s a little more difficult at lower levels, especially at the elementary levels. Parents are less likely to be claiming that they should be the only people talking to their kids about sex even though no one ever mentioned sex, just that a family had two mommies or daddies. But students may have prejudices that could be as much their own as regurgitation at that age, and they may be harder to work them out of.
If your sexuality comes up and you’re open about it, you might get questions. You might get totally inappropriate questions. You won’t just be a role model — students may see you as a teaching tool, a living breathing specimen that they can verbally poke and prod and ask things that make you go colors people don’t generally go. You are free not to answer anything. You are NOT free to answer about half of what they’ll want to know. Refer them to the health teacher, their parents, respectable websites, the school librarian. Do not answer all their questions. Set a mental line past where something is considered sex ed. Be ready to be second-guessed and argued with. You might tell them no, that all gay men do not have AIDS and no they are not all pedophiles — and they will have some anecdote as to who told them what and why it’s more true than what you’re telling them now.
Some of them may push boundaries on purpose to make you uncomfortable, because you may make some of them uncomfortable. This isn’t your fault. You exist, and by existing you may be testing their boundaries, their concepts of what is good and bad and acceptable, their stereotypes and mental images. They may rail against it. If they act out because of it, it doesn’t necessarily mean you lost their respect over that. For a very select few, it might, at least at first. Give them time to realize that, with all the other things that make you who you are, they may actually forget about the sexuality thing entirely once in awhile.
Like adults, some of them just won’t like you. But there are a hundred reasons for them not to like you. Maybe they won’t like your tone, or that you’re too friendly or not friendly enough, or that you give too much homework or not enough, or that you don’t like the music they do or don’t ‘get’ them or wear clothes they don’t like. There will always be something. Don’t think that your sexuality will define you for them any more than it will if they were adults. In fact, it’s a little bit better than all that — they’re still young, they learn a little more quickly, their preconceived notions can still be undone.
Be prepared for it to be used as a weapon for when a student doesn’t like something you do or say. It isn’t personal more than any slur from any high school student, in that it is in fact innately personal and harmful and that is the point. When she suspended a student, someone wrote anti-trans* and anti-gay slurs in the dirt of a car they thought was hers because it was parked in front of the program space. If she were a larger woman they might have called her a cow. They’ve already used the n-word with vitriol against a PoC program member and their mother outside of the program. They know where to hit hardest when they want to hit you. It’s a gift.
I have never heard anything bad from a parent, because in the younger grades my mentor teacher would not allow me to include any same-sex-headed family representation in the family unit and it never came up. With the older students, it seems that the parents of my students generally keep it to themselves — they have their opinions, they probably council their kids with these opinions, but they don’t come to me about it. One of the fourth-graders in our current program told my supervisor and I very cheerfully that we were going to hell. When my supervisor just as cheerfully, three months later, asked if she still felt that way about us, the fourth-grader’s older cousin overheard, shocked that she had said anything like that, and rushed off to tell her mother. We never heard anything about it. I have no idea if that implied positive or negative reaction.
Older students also know about their families’ prejudices, in general, by the time they reach you. And if they know that their family won’t approve, they might not tell them about it. They might consider it your open secret. This is the case for one of our soon-to-be-high-school-freshmen.
Faculty will be difficult in regards to hiding, so I would gauge your group and then, if they start asking about your love life, rip off the bandaid. Otherwise, faculty often feel they have every right to speak personal lives and will accidentally leave you feeling awkward in every other conversation you ever have. Engagements, dates, parties, drunk nights out (I’ve been in some interesting teacher lounges). Pronouns will be involved, questions will be asked, you’re all adults. Bring it up, and then it’s easier to deal with the adults like adults — even if everyone doesn’t act like an adult. So far, in the one teachers’ lounge where I felt comfortable enough to hang around at all, it came up and my mentor teacher corrected someone who asked me if I had a boyfriend. Within a week I was getting semi-regular questions as to where I looked for women and did I try this or that yet and did I want to fate their half-cousin’s bisexual on-again-off-again.
Above all, feel it out. Judge where your comfort zone lies. You might not know when you start teaching. You might go through three or four classes of students before you feel comfortable enough. That’s okay.
You don’t have an obligation to be out just to be a good role model. You have an obligation to be a good role model, period, and sometimes that involves protecting yourself so that you can do that. Whatever happens is okay — don’t let anyone judge you for being out or not, and don’t judge yourself, though that last bit is pretty much impossible, isn’t it?
I’d also recommend taking a look at One Teacher in Ten, which put out a second edition a couple of years ago. It’s specifically about the experiences of LGBTQ teachers, and includes a whole spectrum of situations — grades, subjects, out, not out, positive uplifting stories, melancholy shorts that end in uncertainty. It’s realistic, and if nothing else, will help you feel less alone and give you more perspectives on which to build yours.