Today, October 11th, is National Coming Out Day. National Coming Out Day was started in 1987 when half a million people participated in the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Since then, National Coming Out Day has continued to promote a safe and accepting world for LGBT individuals.
I’m currently student teaching in a really wonderful district. The teachers are amazing, wonderful, and supportive of one another. The students are really close knit. The school thrives on diversity. However, one thing I have noticed in the hallways is that the school has a slightly homophobic feel to it. There are no out teachers (that I have met). There is no Gay-Straight Alliance for students to join. In particular, my students have frequently used the phrase “That’s so gay!” or “You’re so gay!” in the classroom. I have had at least four conversations about respecting one another and each other’s differences in my one classroom, but it sometimes feels as if I am beating a dead horse.
Last night, I was so overwhelmed by the ignorance displayed by my students that I was literally restless. I remembered that today was National Coming Out Day, and I became even more restless. I started Googling “student teachers coming out to students as lesbian” and the lack of results was even more overwhelming. The more I Googled, the more I wanted to cry. There were plenty of resources to help support students who were coming out, but none for teachers coming out to their students.
I then remembered a book I had bought at some point last year (one teacher in 10, edited by Kevin Jennings) that is a collection of words of wisdom from LGBT-identified individuals in the teaching profession. I dug the book out and consulted it. While it didn’t really offer much advice on working a Coming Out Day lesson into one’s plans, it gave me inspiration to try to think outside of the box.
I went to bed at 12:30am, but I didn’t fall asleep until close to 2:30 last night. (This is bad when you get up at 5.) My mind and heart were weighed down by my worries about my students, and whether or not I have the potential to help them be more accepting of others. I also was still very conflicted on whether or not a Coming Out Day Lesson would be detrimental to my classroom environment.
When my alarm went off, I was already up and on Facebook. One of my Facebook friends had responded to my post looking for Coming Out Day Lesson ideas by suggesting I take a look at an anti-bullying lesson a New York teacher had done. The lesson appeared on BuzzFeed and proved to be a true source of motivation and inspiration for me.
In my Creative Writing class, where I’m already known as the “cool, weird teacher,” I handed each student a small slip of paper and told them to destroy it by whatever means they felt necessary. Some ripped their pieces, others folded them, and one student even chewed on his. One of my students laughed and said she was “demeaning the paper” as she wrote mean names on it. After the papers were destroyed, I told my students I wanted them to return the papers to the original state as when I had handed them to the students. They all stared at me, dumbfounded, before they attempted to tape, glue, erase, and uncrumble their papers back to normalcy. After a few minutes of scrambling, I told my students to stop, that it was impossible to return their papers back to the original state.
I discussed the one girl’s paper, where she had written mean names and curse words on one side and compliments on the other. “No matter what nice words you may say, the mean words still remain. Bullying is like how we destroyed our papers– once you say something to someone, you can’t take it back. The scars remain.” I explained that I had had the students complete the activity because I noticed a lot of students saying “That’s/ You’re so gay” or “That’s/ You’re retarded” in the hallway. I commented that you never know who can hear what you’re saying, or what scars you’re giving someone as you unknowingly bully them, their friends, their family, or other loved ones. I also explained that it was National Coming Out Day and that some people in the school might come out today, and I wanted my students to try to be supportive of them by making the conscious decision to be careful with what words they say, as you never know who’s listening.
The reaction was AMAZING. A few of my students said “they felt like shit” and that “they just wanted to hug their papers.” A lot of productive conversation was stimulated by the activity, and although I only included it in my Creative Writing class (it wouldn’t have gone over well in the other class setting), it felt like a HUGE success in my day.
Although I have struggled with my identity as a closeted out educator in my school these past few weeks, I chose to NOT come out today because I felt it was irrelevant. Instead, I chose to have a lesson that was relatable to my students. I wasn’t just a gay teacher to them– today, I was a role model. I taught my students a valuable lesson on the power of words and bullying, and I stimulated conversation in the classroom. While my students may not have received confirmation that I’m a flaming homo, they did receive confirmation that I will not tolerate any discrimination in my classroom. That alone is all the more powerful than coming out on National Coming Out Day.
I can honestly say that, for the first time in years, I feel the need to remain closeted in my life. I’m not afraid to be me, but I am afraid of being labeled a lesbian before an educator. Without the label, I am able to teach my students about love and tolerance first, and worry about myself second. That is far more valuable than any moment of sharing my lesbian identity with a bunch of teenagers.
The only evidence of my sexuality today: a NOH8 button I added to my bag