As a gay man in a new world of gender identity awareness, I think I have something of value to offer my students. I am committed to being an excellent role model for the kids… but there’s a wrinkle. In order for me to be a positive gay male example, the kids need to know I’m gay. Also, in order for my room to be a safe space for us all, the kids need to know why they can’t use “gay” as an insult around me… or anywhere else, for that matter. How and when do I answer the question, “What’s your wife’s name?” when his name is Charlie?
I am lucky. I work in a district with a specific non-discrimination policy that includes “sexual orientation.” ‘Twas not always thus. I had a spot of bother with the Archdiocese of St. Louis when teaching at a Catholic school a few years back. I announced at a staff meeting that my partner and I were to officially marry in New York City. The staff cheered, but there was a representative of the Archdiocese present who did not share their joy. She later informed my principal that they would have to fire me. The school’s parents were up in arms when they heard about this decision. My being gay was no surprise to them. The word had organically spread through the school community; lots of kids found out from their parents and even more found out from their peers. I did my best to defuse the situation with parents by encouraging them not to blame the school administration, telling them to whom to write if they needed to vent, asking them to say goodbye to their kids for me and talk with them about the injustice of the situation. The happy ending to this chapter included our wedding in Central Park, being followed around by a New York Times photographer, and even a Broadway standing ovation.
I stated above that the kids found out about my being gay organically. I don’t recall ever talking about it in the Catholic school classroom. My next teaching job was different. I was hired at a private elementary school days after being fired. My new principal and I had frank conversations about what happened. We had a specific understanding that it was OK to answer students’ questions honestly, and she invited me to talk about it in class. The thing was, I found myself reluctant to talk about it because I wanted to spend my music class time teaching music. A session could be easily derailed with this off-topic topic. Also, I didn’t like how the kids saw me as “weird” while they processed the information. I did talk about it now and then if the kids asked me if I was married, and the word spread by itself. It helped that the word was also spread from student to student as they Googled me, saw the national news coverage about what happened, and told their friends. This died down quickly as the kids accepted the idea: gay people are not really all that exotic or different.
Moving to Washington three years ago, I wasn’t sure how I would answer student questions, working at a public school for the first time. After open communication with my administration, it became clear that it would not be all that different. The invitation to answer questions honestly was still presented to me. I remained reluctant to wander off topic in music class, yet I started to be open to teachable moments outside of our learning time. The kids learned that my husband runs the theatre where we perform our Winter Concert and are excited to see him. I have his picture on a shelf by my desk, and I tell them who he is if they ask. If a kid seems put off by the idea of my having a husband, I tell them to talk to their parents about it. Often, a nearby student will “stick up for me” and inform their classmate that it’s not weird. We have some kids with two mommies.
I wish I could say that it is always easy or that I think I found all the answers. It’s frustrating that I have to keep coming out again and again, as new students come to the school and have their reactions. Though the ground has shifted for many in recent years, being gay is not universally accepted.
I still have questions that I kick around in my mind:
- As a gay man, am I exempt from #metoo concerns, or do I need to take a look at my own attitudes about girls and women?
- Is it OK for me to tell the boys to sing one part and the girls another, when there may be closeted trans kids present?
- When asking kids to hold hands in a dance, I generally tell them to find a “hand-holding buddy” rather than specify a gender to connect with; that’s OK, right?
Gender and sexuality are fraught topics for many in this country. As teachers, it is not appropriate to share our personal political views. But is our sexual orientation a political view, or can it just be a shared characteristic? What do you think? I think I probably worry too much. It’s a Catholic thing.