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Silence is Not Golden: Speaking Up and Coming Out as a Teacher

Editor's note: This blog describes a hostile act and contains language that some might find disturbing and offensive. We generally avoid such representations on Edutopia. However, it would be difficult for the blogger to make his point without this level of impact, and we believe it is a point worth making.

Years ago, I taught high school in a small suburban community in Florida. After my then-boyfriend substituted in my classes one day, my classroom was vandalized with threatening, offensive messages on the whiteboard, my desk, and the overhead projector and its screen. The contents of my desk were strewn across the room, and some personal property I had brought to my workspace was defaced. Overall, very little physical damage was done, but the event seriously shook my nerves.

Maintaining Silence

I somehow managed to teach that day. I don't remember what we were working on, but I went through the motions. That still amazes me. What now infuriates me is this: I didn't tell my students what had happened, what it did to me, why I was so shaken by it or why it happened in that community. The only residual sign of trouble was the pile of disheveled papers collected on one side of the room -- that, and my persistent nothing-to-see-here demeanor.

My demeanor almost broke when I decided to use the overhead projector. I had already removed the threatening graffiti from the projector's surface so that I could use the machine for class. I never thought to check the screen, which had stayed retracted. I pulled it down to use it, with a full class of students watching. Rather than a blank, white screen, I found this scrawled in permanent marker: "Kill the gays!! Dicks are For Chicks!"


Credit: Chris Friend

I immediately rolled the screen back up and used the whiteboard instead, apologizing for "the glare." The glare. I acted as though the threats -- the actual problem that was hurting me and disrupting my ability to function and feel safe – weren't there. Of all the "teachable moments" I've encountered, this one most needed to be taught. Yet it was the one I tried hardest to cover up because I was uncomfortable with being gay at my own school.

Why Do We Hide?

Looking back after ten years' experience as a teacher and as a human, I see that my reaction to the event did nothing to help me, my students or the school community learn from the situation. Rather than discuss issues of acceptance and equality, I ignored them. Ultimately, I was afraid to discuss or reveal my sexuality because Florida law provides no protection against termination due to sexual orientation and because the town where I taught was inhospitable to LGBT people. My own response to the vandalism -- silence -- reinforced the unspoken rule in the community that gay people were not to be discussed.

I know now that the only one I was hiding anything from was myself. Students had already figured out I was gay. They saw through my denial and avoidance, turning my efforts at concealing my identity into a highlighter, pointing out exactly what I didn't want them to see.

As a result, I was blindly broadcasting an aura of fear, of shame, through the very efforts that were intended to accept and nurture students like me, who needed support and acknowledgement in a potentially hostile environment. Because I never brought up my sexuality on campus, I continued the discrimination. By hiding, I silently expressed my fear and added to the problem I feebly wanted to protect students from. I was trying to make sure that students felt safe in my classroom. Instead, I showed them that even I was not.

Making the Minority More Visible

I've spent time -- on a journal about teaching, on my personal blog and in conference presentations -- talking about bringing the outside world inside the classroom walls. But I've not publicly considered the classroom as a workplace in which I should be comfortable being myself. Looking back on the vandalism, I see now that the "outside world" also includes the personal. Pretending that my personal life and my educational practice can be separated denies the validity and relevance of each.

For those of us in the invisible minority of sexual orientation, we have an obligation to speak out. I don't mean for any "agenda" or political assertion. I mean for visibility. We must make our existence less invisible, less silent. Greater identification will help those in unforgiving environments feel a connection with others like them and show the majority that we exist and want to be heard.

My sexuality is not a liability, and it should not be a reason to fire me. Instead, my sexuality offers perspective and experience, which my students deserve to know about. To teach as myself, I must let my students see who I am. I must use my voice to end the silence.

So let me relive the day my classroom was vandalized. Let me show that I can shake with combined anger and embarrassment. That I can shed tears from being overwhelmed and caught off guard. Let me point to the vandalism and say I live in a society that allowed this to happen. Let me end my silence and commit to using my voice. Let me come out to my classes. Because no matter how loud the silence may have felt, using my voice makes me louder.


Credit: Chris Friend

Speaking Out as Teachers

Each of us needs to speak out. If we are trying to prepare our students for life in a world full of diversity and variety, our classrooms cannot present a false image of homogeneity. We need to openly and compassionately discuss our differences, and we start by acknowledging these differences exist.

I challenge you to come out to your students about something that sets you apart but that isn't obvious. Choose something you never imagined you could be open about with your students. Maybe you're colorblind. Maybe you secretly love the Twilight series but don't usually admit it. Maybe you have a chronic medical condition that you have to carefully manage. Maybe you're an atheist. Whatever it is, come out to your students. See how it feels, especially in the moments right before and right after the disclosure. See how students react. See how it can create an opportunity to respectfully discuss, to share and to learn.

In the comments below, please share how you've used your voice in the classroom. Tell us how your coming-out process worked, how you felt, and how students responded. Share your voice and help create understanding.

An extended version of this article originally appeared on Hybrid Pedagogy as part of a collection about race, gender, disability and sexuality in education.

Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

Chris, I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story with our community. It's a testament to your strength and courage that you were able to turn that awful experience into a teachable moment after all.

Andrew Pass's picture
Andrew Pass
Developing Customized Educational Content

Chris, Perhaps there is a big difference between what you wrote and what it made me think about, but what you prompted me to think about was very personal. I'm somebody who has terrible gross motor skills. As a child I never hit a ball out of the in-field and consequently almost never made it to first base. I never scored a basket in a game. (In fact, I was the kid who during an activity of simply having the ball bounce against the backboard ended up having the ball go into the basket.) When my gym class did high jumps I rarely made it past the first round, you know the round where the strip you are supposed to jump over was so low to the ground that an ant could probably not have crawled under it.

My lack of skills was absolutely humiliating to me. I thought that I was a loser and cannot describe how low I felt. These feelings do not easily go away.

Fast forward many years.

I was teaching at a middle school and one day decided that I would play basketball with a group of students who were on the basketball team. I wanted to form a relationship with them. Of course, I didn't score any baskets and it was pretty obvious that I was not good at the game.

At the end of the game, one of the kids, Daniel, came over to me and said, "You are not good at basketball, are you?" I looked at him and I said, "No. Can you imagine going through school and never scoring a basket?" He said, "That must have been difficult." I told Daniel just how difficult it was and told him that he could really make other kids feel better if he helped them realize that you don't have to be good at sports to be somebody's friend. For me, telling Daniel this story was liberating.

Since that time, I have told the story numerous times. One of my adult friends once said, "So, you were the person who was picked last in line." I said, "No. I was the person who was not picked."

Chris, I fully agree how important it is to let these kinds of stories be told. Thank you for starting the discussion so eloquently.


Christopher R. Friend's picture
Christopher R. Friend
Assistant Professor of English at Saint Leo University near Tampa, Florida

Andrew -

Thanks for sharing such a personal story. You know, it's not as different as you suggested. We spend so much of our time trying to make our teacher personae appear invincible and infallible that we lose sight of our humanity.

Speaking up, no matter what marginalizes us, breathes humanity into the situation, awareness into the students, and self-respect into our hearts. It's hugely important.

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