A month into my first year of teaching seventh graders in Oakland, Calif., we were in the school library, using the big tables there to spread out as we outlined Africa on poster paper and added geographical features. My students chatted as they worked.
"Are you married, Ms. Sokolower?" one of them asked me. My stomach instantly tied in a knot. I was a brand-new teacher in what felt like an incredibly challenging teaching situation. But I knew I didn't want to teach from the closet. I started teaching at the middle-school level partly because it is such a difficult time for kids struggling with their sexuality, and there are so few role models. I just didn't know I would have to deal with this so soon.
"Well," I explained in what I hoped was a calm voice, "I have been with the same partner for a very long time, but we can't get married because we're lesbians. My partner's name is Karen, and we have a daughter. She's 9."
Immediately, everyone had questions and comments.
"Are you for real?"
"How could you have a daughter?"
"How do you know you're a lesbian?"
"Right now we're working on Africa," I said. "But I want to answer your questions. How about this? You think about appropriate questions, and tomorrow we'll save some time to discuss this. I'll bring in pictures of my family to show you."
Twenty minutes later, as we walked back across the yard to our portable, my afternoon class came running toward me. "Is it true you're a lesbian? Will you talk to us, too?" I repeated my request that they think about appropriate questions and agreed.
That night I collected a few pictures of myself with my partner and daughter, cooking and hanging out at the playground, and one of our extended family. I also thought about how to explain this in a way that would be appropriate for middle schoolers.
I decided to say I knew I was different when I was in middle school and high school, but I didn't know what was wrong with me. When I was young, no one talked about being lesbian or gay -- the whole subject was silenced. Later, I was lucky to be in college at the beginning of the women's movement and the gay liberation movement, so when I realized I was a lesbian, I had lots of support. I met Karen when we were in our early 20s, and we have been together ever since. When I first told my parents I was a lesbian, they were really upset, and that made me feel terrible. But eventually they realized that it is just part of who I am and that Karen is a wonderful person. I'm glad that now it is a little easier to come out than it was when I was young, but it still takes a lot of courage.
I also set clear parameters in my mind about what kind of questions I wouldn't answer: nothing about sex, and nothing that felt deliberately disrespectful. And I found wording in the social studies standards that I could use to back up my decision to do this.
The next morning there was a note in my box to go see the vice principal. "I hear you're planning to tell your class about your sex life and show pictures," he said. "I forbid you to do that."
"I'm not talking about my sex life," I told him. "I'm talking with my students about what a lesbian family is. I promised them I would explain and answer their questions if they're appropriate, and I'm going to do that."
That day I spent about half an hour in each class telling my brief story, passing around the pictures, and answering questions. Several kids told me that their church says homosexuality is wrong; I simply acknowledged that I know many churches have that perspective. One of the kids asked a question about lesbian sex -- not a disrespectful question, but a question. I said it was a good question for a sex education class but not something I could discuss. Everyone else had relevant and engaged questions or comments:
"How does your daughter feel about having lesbian moms?"
"How does your mother feel now? Are you still angry at her?"
"How did you know you were a lesbian?"
"My cousin is gay."
"My aunt is a lesbian."
"My dad says I'm lucky to have a teacher who will talk with us about so many important things."
The next day I received a letter from the principal, telling me that she was putting a formal complaint in my file. I also received emails from several teachers offering support and encouragement (including two from teachers who told me they were gay but asking me to keep their secret). There were no complaints from parents. I contacted my union representative, who sent a letter to the principal and to my file supporting me.
I felt only positive results in relation to the kids; I could see the progress over the year, as the kids who thought homosexuality was a sin struggled with the dissonance between that belief and the reality of who I was and how I treated them. Two students told me in their journals that they thought they might be gay or lesbian. And I felt that my openness changed the class dynamic; the kids knew I trusted them with important, adult knowledge, and they responded accordingly.
In the spring I received a notice that the district was not rehiring me. In response, the other teachers at the school raised such a clamor with the principal at a staff meeting that she told them it was a clerical error and renewed my contract.
Why am I telling this long story?
Even in the Bay Area, it's not easy to come out when you're a teacher, particularly at the middle-school level. In my own case, after two years of battling homophobic administrations at two different middle schools, I opted to teach high school in a situation where I knew other teachers who were open with their students about being lesbian or gay. Each situation is different: each school, each district, each personal situation. In some places the risks are greater than the benefits, and I certainly don't want to push anyone to come out to their students if that person isn't ready. But I do want to talk about some of the reasons to come out, and to talk about ways to make it less risky.
To me, the overwhelming reason to come out is to make school a safer place for youth who know, think, or fear that they are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Adolescence is hard enough without positive role models for every aspect of who one is or is striving to become. One young lesbian told me I saved her from suicide; she was brought up in an abusive and homophobic family, and knowing that I had a family, a career, and a positive self-image made her life feel worth living.
In so many ways silence is the enemy. Having it out in the open makes it easier for kids struggling with their own sexuality, but it also makes it easier for kids with lesbian or gay parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. There are a lot of us, so there are a lot of kids affected one way or the other. It also is an important piece of education for students who are being raised in homophobic families or communities. There is nothing quite as strong as a living example to counteract stereotypes.
Coming out can protect lesbian or gay teachers, too, in many situations. Innuendo -- the snide comments under kids' breath, the graffiti on the door -- is an insidious opponent. Once it's out in the open, you can see where everyone stands, and it's possible to engage the issues. When it's all rumor, nothing changes for the better.
Making It Work
I have the privilege of writing this from a section of the country where there is more support for lesbian and gay issues than in many other areas. For this, among other reasons, I can't say what will work for everyone. But here are a few ideas from my experience:
Don't come out to your students before you're ready. In particular, don't come out to your students until you've been "out" awhile in other areas of your life. In the beginning stages of coming out, it's almost inevitable to feel vulnerable, and it's hard to have perspective. At the middle- and high-school level, students often react to teachers based on what's happening with a parent or elsewhere in their lives, and it's important not to take it personally. When you come out at school, you're deliberately creating a dissonance between who you are, as a teacher and human being, and the homophobia in the greater society and in some students' homes and churches. The process can be tumultuous as students wrestle with their feelings and thoughts, so you need lots of perspective and experience to ride it out.
Line up support ahead of time. Start with teachers who you know will be supportive. Find other LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer) teachers at your school or in your district. How have they dealt with it? Is there a Gay-Straight Alliance at your school? If not, does it seem possible to start one? Is there a straight teacher who would be willing to co-sponsor it? (Gay-Straight Alliances are not just for high schools; in some ways they're even more important at the middle school level.)
What about your union? Will they support you if problems arise?
On the other hand, I would think long and hard before talking with administrators. Unless you know that your principal is going to be supportive, you are probably better off coming out first. If they tell you not to do it or keep asking you to wait for some discussion or event that never happens, you're in a worse situation than if they have to decide whether to publicly defend or attack you afterward. But you know your own situation best.
When and How?
Over the years, I have sometimes decided to wait to come out to my students until a relevant situation arose, and other times decided to deliberately create a situation for coming out. For me, it works better to decide when and how to come out, and to do it very early in the year. That way, it's part of who I am from the beginning, not something that upsets the students' view of me later on. It also saves me the anxiety of constantly deciding when to do it, or whether a specific question from a student is the one I should respond to by coming out.
For example, one year early in my teaching career, a planned field trip to the Castro district of San Francisco sparked a deluge of homophobic comments throughout the seventh grade. I tried to organize a gradewide response, but the other teachers didn't want to confront the issue directly. I came out to my students that week; I didn't feel I could talk to them about the homophobia without being honest about my own relationship to it. But my disclosure created its own level of tumult and clouded the issues in a way that made me regret that I hadn't come out earlier.
So I usually tell my students I'm a lesbian mom as part of modeling an introductory activity in the first couple of weeks of school. One way to do that is with an Identity Poster Project I use to push students to think about why larger social issues are relevant to their lives:
As part of explaining the assignment, I show them my own identity poster. As I talk through the symbols I used, I tell them a number of things about my life: that I have asthma, that I'm a lesbian with a longtime partner and a daughter, that I love to read, that I cry easily. I mention that two people I love are in prison, and that this is a source of pain in my life. If questions arise about my lesbianism, I answer them, but mostly it's just part of who I am. I'm not making a big deal out of it, and I don't expect them to, either. I try to create an atmosphere where it's safe to be who we are, where we don't need to have secrets. At the same time, I emphasize that I am not pushing students to divulge information about themselves that they don't feel comfortable sharing.
Teachers who identify as straight -- and aren't vulnerable to homophobic attacks in the same way -- can be really important sources of support. I had a striking personal example of this during my second year of teaching middle school, the year of the field trip to the Castro. The principal told me I should have known better than to come out because the students were too mean to trust with that kind of information. Then I was out sick for a week, and the adults at the school left a homophobic slur on my door for the entire time. But the students in my classes were supportive and open, our process was encouraging, and I thought I was coping well.
One day after school in the early spring, I noticed homophobic graffiti scrawled on a stairway wall. Dispirited, I walked into the room of the teacher next door to tell her about it. "Don't worry," she said. "Harris [a student working with her] and I will go clean it up. It's not just your problem." I burst into tears. Until that moment, I hadn't realized how isolated I had felt, or how important it is to have straight allies.
So if you're a straight ally, please take this on as your issue, too. Talk openly in class about lesbian and gay friends and family. Discuss homophobia when it comes up in class, in the halls, in the news, in literature. If your school doesn't have a Gay-Straight Alliance, think about starting one.
Integrate lesbian and gay issues into the curriculum -- as protagonists in literature and activists in history. Science and math teachers may have a harder time with this. But if it's on your mind, you'll realize that word problems can include same-gender couples or parents. When teaching genetics, substitute male and female genes for mother and father. It might seem contrived, but every time we refer to genes as coming from a dad and a mom, we're reinforcing traditional families as the only norm.
Unexpected Side Benefits
Is coming out, particularly in a conservative school or district, worth the risk? Every situation is different, and there is definitely a "can't put it back in the box" quality to this decision. On the other hand, taking this risk -- to make it safer for teachers and students to be who we are -- can lead to unexpected gifts. In my experience, it has played a significant role in establishing a kind of classroom community where students feel supported to be open about a whole range of issues, and to be able to talk about difficult topics -- racism, sexism, sexual harassment -- in ways that are thoughtful, deep, and respectful of each other.
This article was first published in Rethinking Schools (winter 2010).