The day was like every other day in my history class: some history, some making a fool of myself, some laughs at my expense -- you know, the usual. Then, out of nowhere, and completely off-topic (we were discussing our midterm exam), one of my favorite students, who is African-American, raised his hand and, with a straight face, said, "Mr. F, it's no big deal, and I don't care if you are, but are you gay?"
The class became silent and awaited my response. I responded, "No, I'm not." Out of curiosity, I added, "Why do you ask?"
He said, "Because you help out the [gay-straight alliance], and you always are talking about gay and lesbian issues. I just thought you wouldn't care that much about them unless you were."
I smiled, partly in response to his curiosity and genuine innocence, and said, "Well, if this was the 1960s, would you support civil rights and African Americans' fight for equality?"
He said, "Of course, I have to: I'm black."
I then responded, "And so would I, and I'm not black, and that's exactly why you should support all your classmates, especially those who are struggling for their rights, just as African Americans did in the '60s and women did in the early 1900s and continue to do today."
He thought about it for a moment, nodded and said the words that every person, especially teachers, love to hear: "You're right. It is the same thing."
That moment was one of those rare "aha!" moments that justify our role as educators and give us such gratification. I wasn't going to let this moment slip away, so I went on to discuss why it is important when people support causes to which they themselves have no personal attachment just because it is the right thing to do.
My colleague and dear friend Jackie Edge was asked that very same question when she fought against overwhelming opposition to start our school's gay-straight alliance (GSA). Jackie, who is straight and married, could have easily thrown up her hands and said, "Well, I tried," when she faced obstacle after obstacle, but she didn't. She knows, like I do, that it is even more important that the straight educators support our LGBT students than it is that our gay or lesbian colleagues do so.
The student who asked me if I'm gay went on to apologize in front of the class for asking and said that he was sorry if I was embarrassed. I smiled even bigger and said, "Why would I be embarrassed? It was a fair question, and either way, being gay is nothing to be embarrassed about."
I know that I have students who are going through incredible struggles, not only with themselves and their places in this world but with their sexualities. I tell my students how in my eight years as a teacher I have had five students come out to me, and how they were in tears because they were afraid that their friends and families would hate them. Every one of my students, even my tough and manly athletes, looks so sympathetic when I share those stories. Teenagers are far more understanding, especially of how difficult it is to be a teenager, than adults and even parents.
As educators, straight or gay, we have to know that our students look up to us, observe us and even adopt many of our views about nearly everything. We have to make conscious efforts to provide perspective and teach our students to be empathetic on all issues and not just to respect their differences; we are preparing them for when they become parents themselves. I look forward to when my students ask me about my sexuality in response to my involvement with our GSA, or because I often discuss gay and lesbian issues, because it allows me the opportunity to discuss the need to support all civil rights issues, especially those that pertain to people who are being persecuted in the present.
Our youth, especially those dealing with internal struggles like sexuality, need heroes and guidance, and it has become appallingly obvious that the examples and role models they see the most are not the ones who are presenting the best displays of behavior and character. In my completely unbiased opinion, teachers are the last bastion of hope for most children in America; they have such a profound impact on the future of the world and are in a position to influence many children. This is why it is imperative that all teachers, especially straight teachers, openly support their LGBT youth and clubs.