When I was in school getting my Master’s degree and teacher certification, things were different from when you and your friend Mike were teaching, but perhaps not by much. It’s true that 2001 was a post-Ellen world and the heyday of Will and Grace, two cultural markers of the shift in attitudes towards the LGBT population.
But when I spoke with teachers who identified as gay, anxious myself to know what it was like to be an out public school teacher, I found that many feared reactions from their administrators and parents. Some worried about losing their jobs, and one spoke about having the word faggot spray painted on the outside of his portable classroom.
Towards the end of my teacher certification program, a lawyer who often represented teachers and teacher unions came to speak to our class. In the discussion of many legal issues faced by teachers, he touched on the issue of homosexuality. He was of the opinion that new teachers should not be out of the closet. According to him, experience had shown that although anti-discrimination laws in Seattle included protections for sexual orientation, you just never knew how your supervisor felt about openly gay teachers. “Don’t give them a reason to nail you for something small and petty that they might otherwise be willing to overlook as a new teacher,” was what he said.
Despite his warning, I was not interested in going back into the closet, even if it meant risking my job. Although I didn’t come out as a student teacher, during my first teaching assignment I did come out, very deliberately to staff, and somewhat obliquely within the first month to students. (I will never forget hearing from the school secretary about an exchange she overheard between two students; one said that she had heard I was gay. The second said “Yeah. So what? If you have a problem with it you can take it up with me.”)
After my first year of teaching, I decided that I was going to come out to students on the first day of class. I wanted to get it out there, not leave students wondering and whispering. Also, I wanted to show my students—whether gay, straight, or questioning—that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of, and that like their straight teachers who could proudly talk about their personal lives as a way of getting to know students, I could do the same.
Flash forward 12 years and I still come out on day one. I doubt there are students who don’t know I’m gay because by junior or senior year, I’m sure they’re well aware. Maybe there are some who are taken by surprise, but if so it doesn’t seem to bother too many. This is a bit surprising given the large number of Mormon and immigrant students and families in the community.
Over the course of my teaching career there seems to have been a seismic shift. Sure some teachers still struggle with whether or not to come out (not every LGBT staff member in my building is out to other staff or their students), and certainly some that are out struggled with how and when to make their sexual orientation known. For students, many are still harassed and bullied because of their sexual orientation or their perceived sexual orientation. Often students I know will wait until college or beyond before coming out. And still, even in 2014, I hear the F word—faggot—tossed around way too easily.
But although the climate is not perfect it has gotten better. At my large, suburban high school, several student athletes are out, a male couple attended last year’s senior prom, and we have a thriving and active GSA. Some of the strongest student leaders in the school are part of the ASPEN (AIDS/HIV Student Peer Educators at Newport) program, which in recent years has expanded beyond AIDS/HIV education to include awareness around diversity and sexual orientation. This past year as a staff we had training related to transgender issues, and began a concerted outreach effort to support transgender students.
I am proud to play a small role in helping schools continue to improve. For the past four years, my friend and colleague Lisa and I have facilitated a training for new teachers at the University of Washington. We talk to these novice middle and high school teachers about safe and inclusive classrooms, schools, and curriculum in regards to sexual orientation and gender. It is a comfort to know that the teachers of tomorrow, those who will be teaching my own kids and grandkids and the children of my community, will be much more in tune with how to make sure the classroom is more inclusive of all students and families, and hopefully a safer place to learn.
Today is Pride in Seattle. I will miss out this year due to our vacation with Patrick’s family, but I know that there’s a yellow school bus filled with students, staff, and families that will be making its way down the parade route. As it has for the past several years, it will sway back and forth, and the crowds will cheer. Just like the dykes on bikes, PFLAG contingents and the drag queens, the employee groups from T-Mobile, Macy’s and Microsoft, these brave individuals will, in the words of one of our favorite poets, “announce their place in the family of things.”
What a glorious moment it will be.