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

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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.

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Danielle Myers's picture

Great adaption of your article! The edits didn't change the impact this will have on readers. I think it took a lot of courage for you to come out to my class and I'm really glad you did. Teachers are definitely role models whether people consciously realize it or not, and letting your students know that it's important to be comfortable with who you are as a person is such a valuable thing to teach through example, so thank you!!

Brotherdoctor's picture
Brotherdoctor
Assistant Professor of Education/Director of M.Ed. Programs

I strongly disagree with you about "coming out" to your students. Children are entrusted to us as educators. The classroom is not the place for us as teachers to conduct our own therapy. BTW, one of my teachers at UCF was "gay" but he kept his personal life out of the classroom and stayed professional. Thus, I learned a lot from his class.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Chris's story is profoundly moving to me. It doesn't hurt that he is also a gifted writer.

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Michael Lawrence's picture

Thanks for sharing your story Chris, it is sad to see that children are so judgmental and disrespectful. You enjoy this beautiful life and im sure your story has helped someone going through something similar.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

I just want to re-iterate the point that Christopher made in the comments:

"We spend so much of our time trying to make our teacher personae appear invincible and infallible that we lose sight of our humanity."

I think we all do this, in any profession -- it's this "you must be professional" mentality that personally is the bird in my ear. I've always admired those that embrace their humanity and I constantly try to swat that bird away.. :)

Thank you again for the inspiration Christopher.

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McKenzie Goldsby's picture

I am sorry that you experienced this. If you hadn't though, then there wouldn't be the opportunity for learning. Everything happens for a reason. I am a sophomore here at Oklahoma State University as an Animal Science major. In my major, there's not much diversity, not much acceptance for the kids who weren't involved in the FFA, or don't come from little small towns, or if you happen to be gay.

I met my best friend in our freshman orientation class. We became close friends and he asked me if I would still be someone's friend if I found out that they were gay.

What kind of person or friend would I be if I stopped talking to him because of what gender they liked? I told him of course I would still be friends with them. That's when he finally came out to me. Now other people on campus knows that Carlos is gay and he's thriving. Being gay doesn't define him, or is the reason he has so many friends.

He is the sweetest person. Carlos would do anything for someone he just met if they needed the help. He has almost a 4.0, he's going pre-vet, and he is one of the most devoted people religiously also.

Carlos is Catholic. He doesn't just attend mass or participate in lint, he goes to every service and he prays regularly. He carries around a little prayer card and a rosary as well. He's one of the best men I know, and for people to say that God hates gays, well what do they know? I'm a christian, but I accept him. Who am I to judge? That's not my job. He lives his life better than several christians I know and I know that he will be rewarded in the end no matter his sexual orientation. If anyone is going to be saved, Carlos is one of the one's on the list.

He hasn't come out to his parents yet, being Mexican, men liking men is not widely accepted at all. I told him that his parents love him very much, to take the time he needs to get up the courage to tell them and it would work out. Eventually, they will accept it and come around; his brothers and sisters already know and still love him.

Gays are making progress with their rights and acceptance. I'm glad that you shared your story and I know that it has impacted several people's lives. Don't live in fear Chris. The world's opinion of you isn't what matters, it's God's. (If that's what you believe in, not wanting to offend you) Just live right, teach well, and you will go far, no matter who you go home to at night.

Angel Robinson's picture

As a student, my family taught me that we should always respect those in authority. Everyone has feelings. Teachers as well as students need a support system. We all are people.

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Missy's picture

Thank you for sharing, Christopher. The thing I love most about teaching English is how easily it lends itself to sharing parts of me with my students. Sharing about my issues with social anxiety and body acceptance show them that I am human and vulnerable, and they then feel comfortable to be human and vulnerable in their own writing. It is humbling and amazing.

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charlestayls's picture

I agree 100% with this and strongly disagree with BROTHERDOCTOR'S comments. My views on the matter have been made clear in a reply to brotherdoctor. How can we live in a diverse world of equality when people still feel they have to hide away portions of their life such as sexuality.

I completed a placement in a pupil referral unit (PRU) of secondary children and decided to, in conversation, tell them I was dyslexic. At first the general response was 'How can you be my f**king teacher if you're dyslexic' and comments alike. However it didn't take long for the children to want to listen to my explanation. Another student announced that both his grandma and friend were dyslexic and he understood that this didn't mean they were just 'thick' It turned out to be quite an educational discussion with the children and they don't respect me any less. In fact I find it liberating.

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charlestayls's picture

I strongly disagree with your whole comment BROTHERDOCTOR.
Heteronormativity is negatively impacting children's attitudes in today's society.
Without people/teachers such as Mr Friend gender stereotypes and heterosexuality is often the only experiences in life children may see.
This is an unrealistic view of the world we live in.
Children need to grow up in a diverse world of equal opportunities and maybe then not only tolerance, but acceptance of individual 'differences' will grow.
What this teacher did was not a celebration or promotion of homosexuality, simply the lesson that it exists.
This is exactly the same as when a female heterosexual teacher referrers to her 'husband' or 'boyfriend' and a male heterosexual teacher likewise.
Being yourself without hiding details of your life is not therapy, its life, and its unfortunate and saddening that not all gay people feel they can behave this way because of views such as yours.
I believe you could have learned a valuable lessons from an openly 'out' gay teacher, if not only that being gay is not something that should have to be hidden away.

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