Please Don’t Call Me Brave: For Those Who Continue to Teach From Within the Closet

It is nearly impossible to understand what it is like to be an LGBT educator who has to teach from within the closet if you have never been one yourself.  Here is the closest I can get to explaining it:

Imagine, for just a moment, that feeling that occurs for many educators when any large, national election rolls around.  Imagine what it is like when a student, or parent, or coworker asks you who you are voting for.  Chances are, you pause for just a moment.  Maybe you even begin to sweat just a little. Maybe your heart races a little more quickly. Because you know that, as a teacher, you are not supposed to talk about your political beliefs.  Now, you don’t exactly remember who has ever told you that.  You don’t remember reading it in any of your education class text books, you don’t remember it being said at your new teacher district training, you don’t remember your principal telling you not to reveal your politics, but somehow you just know you aren’t supposed to.  Maybe no one has ever really said it to you and still, somehow, you know.  And even if you don’t know, not really, you still fear what will happen if you do share who you are voting for. Will a parent be upset? Will an administrator be upset? Will someone claim that you were trying to persuade your students to vote the way that you vote? It all just feels too risky. So instead of answering, you find some way around the question. And you just hope that no one else will ask. When the topic comes up, you feel yourself start to hope that no one will ask you any questions.  You dread someone asking you any questions.

So imagine that feeling. And then multiply it by about a million.

Imagine that feeling, but not just around election time, but every moment of every day of every year. Imagine that feeling, but not about who you are voting for, but about who you are as a human being, about how you live your life, about who you love, who you live with, who your family is.  And you do hope, every second of every day of every year, that no one will ask you any questions, because every time they do, you have to make a choice.  Do you lie about who you are, do you lie to your students or parents of your students or coworkers, or do you risk being honest?

I remember those moments so clearly.  I remember when my mom came to visit my classroom and when she left, one of my students asked me, “Do you still live with your mom?” And I said no. And then another student asked me, “Well, where do you live?” And I replied, “In my apartment in the city.” And then another student asked me, “Do you live by yourself?” And I stopped. And my heart started beating more quickly and my mouth got a bit dry and inside my mind I had to make a decision. Do I lie to my students or do I risk being honest? And I lied. I had done it so often and it still felt so awful. “Yep.” That was my response. Except, I didn’t live alone. I lived with my then girlfriend (who is now my wife) and we had lived together for two years at that point. But I wasn’t out at work, I wasn’t out to my students and so I had to lie to them.

And lying to your students. It just feels so awful. And even worse than that, lying to your students about who you really are. That feels worse than almost anything. Because if there is one thing that I try to teach my students, above everything else, it is to be proud of who you are, to be honest about who you are, to accept who you are no matter what. And yet, I was modeling the exact opposite. What I was doing was lying about who I was.

And I wasn’t doing it because someone told me that I had to. I wasn’t doing it even because I was afraid that I would lose my job. I was lying about who I was because this world made me believe that was what I was supposed to do.  This world had been sending me messages since I was a very little kid, since before I had even come to terms with the fact that I was gay, that being gay was something that you hide. And as I began teaching, the world began to send me the message that being gay and being a teacher just didn’t go together. And even once I got past that, even once I believed that I could be a teacher and I could also be gay, I still believed that I couldn’t be both parts of myself at the same time.

Because what if a parent had a problem with it? What if a kid laughed when I told him I was a lesbian? What if the kids didn’t know how to handle it? What if someone went home and told her parents that I was trying to make them believe that it was okay to be gay? What if someone told me that in church or in synagogue they were told that it was wrong to be gay? There were so many what-ifs. And the answers to those questions were just too scary. So I stayed inside the closet.

And then eventually I came out.  And it has made my life infinitely better.

But here is the thing that I want people to understand and here is the thing that I have been thinking so much about lately: I am not BRAVE for coming out of the closet at work.  I am LUCKY.

I am lucky that I teach in a fairly liberal community. I am lucky that I have had close relationships with my three buildingprincipals. I am lucky that I work with people who are open-minded. I am lucky because I had a coworker to guide me through the whole experience who had already come-out in our district and been accepted and she allowed me to follow in her footsteps.  I am lucky that I have never really known any real disapproval or lack of acceptance from the people closest to me. I am lucky that when I came out to my mom, she hugged me, bought me shoes and offered be Xanax. I am lucky that though my dad is a rabbi, he made sure to let me know that no job of his would ever stop him from fully accepting and loving who I was.  I am lucky because I have never faced real life-impacting discrimination from the people in my life for being gay. I am lucky because I didn’t have negative past experiences that made me fearful of what would happen if and when I decided to come out at work.

The problem that I have with people saying that it was brave for me to come out of the closet, or to be an out educator, or to run a chat about LGBT issues in school, is that it somehow implies that those who don’t come out, those who teach from within the closet, those who are not able to be out on Twitter for fear of who might see who they really are, it implies that all of those people are NOT brave.  That they are somehow weak.  It puts the blame for being a teacher who is in closet, it puts that blame on the LGBT teacher himself.

And that is wrong. Those teachers are not weak. Those teachers are so brave. Because they continue teaching even though it means that they have to continue lying about who they are. Their dedication to their students and to education in general is so strong that they are willing to give up a part of who they are, just to be able to continue to teach. That is so strong. That is so brave.

It is this world that we live in that can be weak. This world that is too afraid to embrace change. This world that is too afraid to stand up and speak up for those who are not able to. This world that would rather talk about apps and computers and Twitter than use those things to talk about how to make our schools safer for all of the people inside of them.

It is not the responsibility of LGBT educators alone to make it safe for all teachers to be out and not fear the consequences of being who they are. It is the responsiblity of all educators. Straight teachers cannot continue to stay silent and then to hope that everyone knows that, of course, they would support a teacher who was out in their building. Administrators cannot continue to stay silent and assume that teachers know it is safe to be out in their schools.

We cannot continue to stay silent because there are too many teachers who must stay silent. Who fear what will happen to them if they speak up. There are too many teachers who continue to teach from within the closet and they cannot join in these Twitter chats because they are afraid of who would see.  I know that these teachers exist because they have reached out to me, so bravely, to tell me that they read along with the #LGBTeach chats and wish that they could join and find hope in the support they hear from those who participate and yet they themselves are unable to join in.

So we must speak up for them.

That is our responsibility.

Those of us who are out, those of us who would support teachers who are out, those of us who want to be vocal supporters so that we can begin to do the work of convincing everyone that it is safe to come out of the closet, we all must start speaking up.

So this Thursday, January 22nd at 8pm CST, #LGBTeach chat will return. And we will talk about what it is like to teach from within the closet and we will talk about all the different kinds of things that we feel that we must hide as educators and we will talk about what we can do to start to change the culture within education that keeps so many people hiding inside of the closet. And we will talk about what so many teachers can’t talk about. And I hope you will join us and I hope that you will share this so that others will join us and I hope that you will join me in speaking up for those who are not able to.

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9 thoughts on “Please Don’t Call Me Brave: For Those Who Continue to Teach From Within the Closet

  1. I know that you don’t call yourself brave but you are. I wish that we lived in a world were you didn’t have to be brave but we don’t. It takes courage to be who you are, especially when who you are is not what everyone thinks people should be. Though I myself am not gay, I have seen the ridicule, hurt and destruction that coming out to the wrong community has and it is sad. We are all people first and foremost, that we still have biggot ideas based around hate is wrong. So I do say your brave. Your brave for putting your self out there. Your brave because by doing so you are paving the road for others to do the same. This post is beautiful and I will be sharing this with as many people as I can. Thank you for writing it.

  2. I never really thought too much about my teachers sexual orientation, but I can now see how hard it must be. Because you do have to walk on egg shells, not knowing if a parent of a student will be understanding or homophobic. I think all teachers are brave because your lives are scrutinized for “the sake of the children” when most personal aspects should be left at that personal. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Wow! Jess this is so incredibly powerful! Prayers that your chat is flooded with voices who ache to heard. Keep leading 🙂

  4. What resonates with me most about this post is when speak about the world being weak:

    “It is this world that we live in that can be weak. This world that is too afraid to embrace change. This world that is too afraid to stand up and speak up for those who are not able to. This world that would rather talk about apps and computers and Twitter than use those things to talk about how to make our schools safer for all of the people inside of them.”

    I find this infinitely true. We are afraid and we are weak. We find it easier to put everything into little boxes that fit into what we believe school is or should be.

    However, the narrative that I think is most at odds with us making schools safe for all teachers is the one that claims teachers don’t have a life outside of schools. If we admit that teachers don’t only exist between the first bell and the last, we have to accept that they are complex enough to have personal lives. If we stop believing the only purpose teachers have in this world is to grade papers and plan lessons, we would have to think hard about how they are human, and they are us.

    As an educator, we are brave when we deny this narrative. As a non-educator, we are brave when we see teachers as complexly as we see ourselves. We all deserve this brave world. We all deserve to see people for who they are, and not merely the roles they play within our small corner of the universe.

    Thank you for showing that teachers are people and for sharing your complex and wonderful story with others. There will come a time when the world is brave enough to accept this from everyone, but until that time, I am glad you are thinking and writing out loud.

    P.S. This comment is a part of the #C4C15 project. Find out more here: http://bit.ly/C4C15

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