07/30/2013 09:53 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Coming Clean on (Not) Coming Out in the Classroom


There is less than a month left of summer break and all the telltale signs of the vacation's end surround me: back-to-school flyers in the newspaper, increasing emails from students and administrators, and the rising panic inside me about not having gotten enough research done before the semester starts. Another telltale sign, which I fight to keep at bay, is a nagging worry about when and how I will come out to my students this year. Although I've been teaching for the better part of two decades, since I started a graduate program in 1995, I don't think I've ever gotten this right. I was reminded of this last spring when I observed a colleague's class; he very casually and comfortably mentioned his wife, his son, the baby they were expecting, and even their dogs. I found myself feeling annoyed by it, envious of the ease of it all, and critical about my own inability to get it right in the past, to be fully and comfortably myself in the classroom.

While I am by no means closeted, coming out has never been my strong suit. I royally screwed it up the first time around with my mother, and I've been botching it on a regular basis ever since. Kind of ironic, given that I study language, identity and interaction for a living. I am out at work, in a general sense. My colleagues know I am a lesbian, and when my wife and I were married in October, many of them were at the wedding. All the signs are there for students who are looking: I have a picture of my wife and me on my desk; I have the university's "safe zone" sticker on my door; I have a very cool trans doll a friend crocheted for me; my bookshelf is chock full of books about gender, identity and sexuality; I have references to my Huffington Post blog posts on my professional website and curriculum vita, which one can access through my university profile; and I attend all the LGBTQ events I can on campus. For the college professor, however, each fall means a new group of students, most of whom know nothing about you.

Although there are still plenty of homophobic spaces and heteronormativity is still the order of the day, the world today is so different from the one described in Karen Harbeck's groundbreaking book Coming Out of the Classroom Closet, published in 1992. In addition to marriage equality in over a dozen states, protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in lots of workplaces, the end of DOMA and DADT, and more out celebrities than I can keep track of, there is a greater public awareness of the consequences of homophobia, prejudice against LGBTQ people and bullying, from depression and other mental health issues to drug abuse and suicide. I live and work in the liberal-to-libertarian Northeast, so there is relatively little risk in coming out to my students; I teach in one of the least religious states in the union, and the students are generally pretty supportive of LGBTQ rights. Also, I have tenure, which, though far from the guaranteed job for life that it is often made out to be, does afford me some level of job security. In other words, there is very little risk for me, which is definitely not the case for many, many teachers and professors elsewhere. Yet Harbeck's call in the introduction to her edited volume haunts me: "We do hope, however, that whenever an opportunity arises to educate people about homosexuality and bisexuality, those who can risk it in that moment will do so for the sake of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth and for each other."

I "risk it" in a lot of ways. For example, I regularly include LGBTQ-themed readings and films in my language and conversation courses, and I even designed and taught (while still untenured) a semester-length course examining homophobia and heterosexism, along with racism and sexism, in Spanish. Regardless of the topic of the class, I consistently push students to examine their received understandings of sexual and gender identities, their presumptions about race and ethnicity, and their language prejudices and stereotypes, but I have to admit that I do so from a relatively comfortable position as a white, middle-class woman who is likely to be read by students as heterosexual. I never really thought of it as passing, but it really is. Am I doing a disservice to my LGBTQ students by not explicitly and proactively coming out? Am I missing opportunities to educate students -- gay and straight -- by not asserting my lesbian identity more explicitly?

When NBA player Jason Collins recently came out in a Sports Illustrated piece, he called his former coach Doc Rivers, then of the Boston Celtics, to give him a heads up before it was published. I was irked by the coach's response: "When he called me to tell me, you could tell he wanted to tell me. I told him before he said it, 'Jason I could care less about what you're about to tell me.' And that's how I feel. I honestly feel that way." This response, generally framed as supportive by the mainstream media, effectively silences LGBTQ folks because it implies that we are somehow out of line by talking about our identities and by asserting our right to be fully who we are. We are accepted as long as we don't "make a big deal about it" (i.e., talk about it) or "rub people's noses in it" (i.e., talk about it). This is the same response I worry about from my students: "Why are you telling us this?" or, "What does this have to do with Spanish?" or, "I couldn't care less!"

I've come to realize that it is ridiculous to allow these imagined reactions to prevent me from possibly helping an LGBTQ student or potentially educating a non-LGBTQ student. But what is the right way to come out?

My old policy is that I would say something if it ever came up, but, to be honest, most semesters it never did. And to be even more brutally honest with myself, my definition of "it coming up" was pretty flawed. I remember with regret one semester when I was teaching a series of gay-themed films in a conversation and composition class with 16 students, one of whom I believed to be gay. I never came out explicitly, and neither did he, but he was totally silent, and I later wondered how isolated and exposed he might have felt, particularly if he saw himself as the only gay person in the room. I feel like I let that student down, and I think about him a lot. The recent observation of my colleague's class made me realize to what extent my self-imposed policy left me feeling like less than a full person in front of the classroom too.

The opposite end of the coming-out spectrum -- including "soy gay" ("I'm gay") as part of my first-day-of-classes introduction, along with other bits of my identity, such as where I am from, where I went to school, what I research, etc. -- seems unnatural and forced to me. I teach exclusively in Spanish, which complicates the situation a bit, as the overwhelming majority of my students are not using their native language in class. If I tried to come out by casually slipping a reference to "mi esposa" or "mi mujer" ("my wife") into conversation -- a kind of middle-of-the-road coming-out option that just treats my family like any other family and sidesteps the whole "I couldn't care less" problem -- students are likely to either miss it completely or be confused.

So as the "back to school" flyers and commercials increase in their frequency and intensity, along with scrambling to get more research done, finishing my syllabus, and doing a ton of reading to prepare for two new classes, I will also be thinking hard about how and when to come out to my students this year. Feel free to share what you do, what you would do, or what I should do; my virtual suggestion box is open.