The hardest part about my deepest, darkest secret when I was in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade was that I had no “out” role models. There were faculty members who I suspected were gay or lesbian (and confirmed a decade later), but they kept it all a secret. I was getting the message loud and clear that if you were gay, or any other kind of different, you better blend in, and you better keep quiet.
When I became a teacher I vowed never to send that message to my students. In my first four years of teaching in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, I came out on the very first day of school, in the very first five minutes of every class of 8th and 9th graders. That decision always resulted in one or two parent complaints, but I was always rewarded with exceptional support and respect from my students. I believe and cherish the fact that the relationships I built and memories I have with these students are a result of my candor.
When I moved to Texas, I was slapped with the reality that the progress we’ve made in some parts of the country, does not exist in others. I was petrified of working in this blue state as an “out” teacher. What used to be a non-issue, and a non-negotiable value of mine to be an “out and proud” teacher for my students was challenged even before students arrived.
I asked my principal how I should respond if students ask about my sexuality. Reflecting on this now, this was my first mistake. Today, I hope I would have the courage to say to him, “I am going to come out to students on the first day of school, this is a non-negotiable value of mine, are you prepared to support me or should I find another job?”
My principal told me to tell students, “it’s none of your business”. Naturally, I thought this was a disasterous way to try and build relationships with students, so I sidestepped, but didn’t resist completely, his suggestion. Instead, I placed a discreet picture behind my desk which included my partner and I in the center, and the rest of my family surrounding us. I told students who the people in the image were, my mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law, cousins, aunt, but I never identified my partner. The craziest thing happened. The students never asked. It was like some unwritten rule that they all knew to abide by; “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
From the moment my principal told me not to come out to students, I was heartbroken. I had to go back into the closet after almost a decade of being comfortable in my own skin. Worse, it was painful to imagine the damage I was doing to any adolescents in my classes who were secretly questioning their sexuality and trying to figure out how to exist in a heteronormative world.
By mid- year, a student came out to me in her journal. I came out right back: “me too”, I wrote. She was so happy, she couldn’t believe that she finally had a teacher who could be who they were, comfortably. Although, I didn’t see it the same way. Even though students essentially figured out my deceit through omission, it still was a topic that was not openly discussed in my classroom. I perpetuated the myth that gay people must live in secret and assimilate to straights. This is a decision that has haunted me ever since that first encounter with my principal.