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Obama to Address Nation’s School Children September 3, 2009

Posted by gayteacher in Uncategorized.
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On Tuesday, September 8th, 2009, at 12 pm EST, President Obama will be addressing the nation’s school children in a televised speech intended to encourage children to take their education seriously.  Teachers have suggested lesson plans that they may implement that are appropriate for grades K-12.  How this could possibly incite anger and skepticism I’m not certain, but it has.  

Almost immediately after news of this was made public, outrage resulted in a call to organize and disseminate details on “Keep Your Kids Home From School Day.”  Throughout the blogosphere, people are declaring it their right as parents to shield their children from being forced to listen to the political agenda of a president they do not support in theory and/or practice.  Some teachers complain that it will reduce their instructional time.

The absence of logic in the arguments is staggering.  If anything, the unfounded outcry has heightened this event to the point where it seems unlikely that once it has aired we will see much of anything else in the media for days thereafter, rendering it virtually impossible to shield children from seeing it in some form at some point.  In fact, for many of us teachers, the time itself is inconvenient for our classes as they are at lunch then, or are in transit from class to class due to school schedules; to compensate for this, many districts are taping the speech to be shown at a later time or date, as well as for repeated viewings.  Keeping one’s child home may send a message, but it will not prevent children from seeing the speech eventually.

It’s the message that proponents of boycotting the speech wish to send that is the most disturbing.  Reason dictates that any words intended to reach an audience that includes children as young as five must be broad in scope.  When I think of the messages that we send to our students that transcend age barriers they include general positive affirmations:  work hard, study, be respectful of yourself and others, strive for your highest potential, prepare for a changing future, believe that all things are possible, and don’t forget to bring a sharpened pencil.

Although it’s true that there is no advance copy of the speech, it is unfathomable that it will include discrediting predecessors or subtle brainwashing that would have nine-year-olds coming home to report that their parents should support stem cell research or become Democrats.  That is the red herring that is being used to support keeping students home: that some aspect of the speech will be biased towards a political slant, despite there being no evidence to bolster such outlandish claims.  Speech writers are artisans who analyze each word for any possible interpretation other than the one intended. If anything, there may be an ambiguous religious reference to a higher power, but those opposed to Obama speaking to children directly don’t fall into the same category as some of us who do resent the implication that everyone believes in a higher power.

So, to what do they truly object?  It can be only one thing:  the president himself. As a member of the glbtqi community, Obama has not endeared himself to me by wiping away archaic laws.  He has stated that he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, thus giving further credence to DOMA, a measure signed into law by Clinton, another Democrat helped into office in part by our community.  There is reason to hope that may change over time, but even if it does not, the importance of airing his address to students is directly tied to the underlying theme that binds all civil rights movements.  Obama embodies the educational goals that we have set forth as a nation.

Before Obama was elected, we assured our students that anything in life really was possible, but secretly knew that it was only a half truth.  There were limits, and there still are.  After all, not everyone can become anything.  Yet, as I watched young faces enraptured by the inauguration during school last winter, I realized that this was not about the man himself or his politics.  It’s not about partisanship or policy.  It’s not about color or any other demographic marker.  It’s not even about respecting an office or a system of government.  

It’s about all children internalizing the messages we teachers so desperately wish our students would accept as reality.  Anything *is* possible.  Do not permit others to define for you who you are.  Set your goals high and work towards them at fever pitch.  Chart your own course.  Know that the world is becoming less willing to allow hatred and prejudice to rule over civility and rational thought.  

His very presence sends these messages before he speaks his first eloquent word on any subject.  The message that parents will send by keeping their children from this experience is incongruent with the very tenets of education in our land. The message we should send to those parents is that their children should not be in public schools, where encouraging all children to reach their highest potentials is supposed to be more than just a vain ideology.


My Coming Out Story August 3, 2009

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There isn’t just one, of course.  Coming out is always made to sound like a grand event, where we state the fact that we’re queer, and press on from there.  In reality, short of wearing a t-shirt or visible tattoo clearly proclaiming our status, we are relegated to the world of assumptions to be overcome every time we encounter a new person in our lives.  Whether that new person is a student, a coworker, a neighbor, or just the sweet little old woman in the supermarket line asking if I’m able to get my husband to eat quiche, we are again faced with the option of setting the record straight or not being bothered with correcting the perception  that we are straight.  People in religious minorities must struggle with this same issue, having to decide each time if they should stop to educate the world or just hurry up and finish shopping to get home.

In my case, educating children is my job.  For the most part, I stick to the subject matter I’ve been charged with teaching, but I am under a broader directive to impart a sense of social justice as well.  I do stop bullying and homophobic comments when they come up, but combatting negatives is not the same as promoting positives.  So, I designed a lesson under the broad umbrella of the anti-bullying policy, and in a calculated, perhaps cowardly move, delivered it on the last day of school to departing 5th graders.  I say cowardly because I knew that the likelihood of parents complaining to a school their children would no longer be attending would be reduced.  

My job that day was essentially to babysit the students so that their teachers could take a break.  Usually in such cases, I would just let the kids chat away that last day, or throw in an educational video in a half-hearted attempt to get a bit more learning in before they headed off for summer break.  On this day though, I had decided to try to give them an actual lesson, one that I hoped would have real meaning in their lives.

I wrote the word “prejudice” on the board, and asked them to break it down to its prefix and root.  They saw that it meant to judge before, to render a verdict without first knowing the facts.  We talked about the civil rights movement, and how different groups of people have been treated and continue to be treated in our country and around the world.  My school is very diverse, and many children shared their experiences.  An African American girl told of elders in her family cautioning her not to associate with whites because they have germs, and how that hurt her because she had white friends.  She wondered aloud how it could be wrong for whites to hate blacks but fair game for the reverse to be true.  

“I don’t want to hate anybody,” she said.

A Middle Eastern boy said that when he first came to our school, another child had called him a “sand ni@@er,” and that it made him feel like garbage.  He hadn’t done anything to provoke any kind of reaction, he explained.  He had been new, and quiet, just wanting to fit in or even be invisible, but still he had been taunted.

One girl spoke of her church.  Her pastor had taught her that we are all God’s children, and that hating any of His creations meant hating God.  She was surprised to learn that not all people believe in God, but since it didn’t detract from her right to believe as she wished, she surmised that it was “their business.”

An outspoken girl demanded to know if we’re all supposed to be equal in this country why we didn’t have any female presidents.  Another countered that we will one day, and gave a rather eloquent narration on women’s rights, and how far we have come from the time when women couldn’t vote or own property.  She even saw an urgency in girls banding together rather than fighting each other.  We talked about how there are words designed to hurt girls that don’t exist for boys, and how girls using those words against each other was self-defeating.  A boy raced to support the position, saying, “I’m not a girl, but if someone used that kind of talk about my mother, he’d be in for a world of pain!”  We then discussed alternatives to violence that could be more effective in combatting prejudices.

“What about gay people?” I asked.

Startled looks were exchanged.  There were a few snickers.  The climate of the room had changed from one of acceptance to tangible discomfort.  I told them that I was gay, and that making fun of gay people was no different than making fun of any other group of people.  I had outed myself in the past in isolated incidents, but think they usually dismissed the revelation as an attempt on my part to demonstrate sensitivity rather than the truth.  

Some children didn’t understand, and asked what being gay meant to me.  I explained it meant boys who liked boys or girls who liked girls, but there was still disbelief that I personally could be gay.  That was washed away with my tears, when I couldn’t stop my emotions as I explained that it was painful to me that they had such a hard time relating a teacher they were very fond of to their preconceived notions of what being gay entailed–not because I required validation personally, but because being gay is seen as negative by many people, and that it translated into children taking their own lives.  I continued, saying that I truly believed in each and every one of their abilities to do great things in their lives, and that I absolutely could not tolerate any one of them giving power to prejudiced people that would deter them from their paths of glory, and would not tolerate anyone who would be an instrument of hatred against their fellow human beings because of their color, their religion, their size, their gender, who they loved,or any factor not directly related to the content of a person’s character.  

I told them that the only true way to combat bullies was to be the person who stood up for the victims even when they couldn’t identify with being in the minority group being persecuted.  It’s not enough for people to stand up for themselves, but for all people to rise up in the name of humanity itself.  Then I took my soggy tissue to the next class and the next and did it all over again, each time ending with my fervent wish that as they grow, they truly try to make this world a better place for all.

For the most part, it went much as I had anticipated.  My own son was in one of those classes, part wishing he could disappear, part ready to take on anyone who might have a problem with his mother, part nodding along in appreciation of a logical argument.  What I didn’t expect was that it would go quite as well as it did. One boy literally jumped out of his seat and cried out, “HALLELUJIA!!”  A little girl held me in a tight grip until I whispered for her to have a great summer and made my way to the next class.  A boy with whom I had fostered a relationship over the years, who had been retained due to learning difficulties, but had managed to remain sweet despite resembling a fully grown linebacker in elementary school called out, “Tell that story!  Say your truth!  Anyone has a problem with it, they can see me about it.”  After school, another girl came to me and thanked me repeatedly with tears in her eyes until the very last minute when she had to catch her bus.

It may not have been geared to a particular subject matter, but I’ve never felt as worthy of the title of “teacher” as that day.

A quiet revolution July 30, 2009

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There’s a long standing dispute amongst gay activists over the efficacy of vociferously demanding equality vs. quietly demonstrating that we are people just like everyone else until they realize that we are entitled to it.  This debate has existed throughout history not only in terms of gay rights, but within any group of people seeking change.  The Internet is filled with voices weighing Malcolm X’s style to The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s.  Both approaches have their place, and both are required.

As a teacher, I value education to overcome prejudice, and do not enjoy confrontation.  My pro-gay t-shirts stay in the closet on school days, even on teacher planning days when no students will be present.  I haven’t stormed into administration demanding to know why we don’t have bulletin boards featuring famous gay historical figures.  My time as a teacher is spent writing, preparing for, and delivering lessons that have nothing at all to do with the struggle for equality.

Perhaps wildly hypocritically given this blog, I no longer have the passion for appearing in public to make impassioned speeches.  Part of it is attributable to being older and having watched the process over the years; another part is fear now that I am older and have more to lose and less energy to give.  Some of it has to do with the awareness that pushing any issue can have an alienating effect.

We all know that person we encounter in the teacher’s lounge who makes us cringe at the prospect of being trapped in a lengthy diatribe on their pet peeve or project, whether it’s how they lost their weight or found their savior, need sponsors for a walk to stamp out an illness or signatures to help a war torn region.  It’s not that the issues aren’t important, but that they seem to lose their weight and elicit more eye-rolling than support when the person becomes more associated with a cause than as a respected coworker who happens to make sense when a discussion about the cause comes to them rather than from them.  I don’t want my colleagues to fear my presence thinking how they really need to make some copies and don’t have the patience for listening to a broken record on gay rights that very moment.

My approach has been more of a quiet one.  At least, it is compared with my earlier activist days.  Perhaps those who know me would laugh at this self-perception; in fact, the gay teachers I know almost certainly would.  Most of the gay teachers I know began their careers at a time when there were no protections for sexual orientation in their schools–as is still the case for so many of you.  They cling to memories of teachers who were outed and fired, their names splashed across newsprint as though they were criminals whose desperately held secrets came to light to destroy their careers.  Don’t ask, don’t tell remains the norm for many gay teachers in public schools.  Even our defenders expect our silence.

“So what if he is gay?” they challenge our opponents.  “He’s a fine teacher!  Besides, it’s not as if he’s going to tell the children that he’s gay or that he lives with a man, for heaven’s sake!”

Sigh.  So close.

I do tell the children that I’m gay.  I usually wait until they bring it up, but that happens on an almost daily basis.  Being gay is the last socially acceptable prejudice.  People who would never dream of substituting any other word in the sentence still defend, “That’s so gay!” as an innocuous phrase not really meaning to cast aspersions on gay people.  It’s just something people say, they argue.  It’s unlikely they would hold the same view if we did change “gay” to “Jewish,” “black,” “Hispanic,” etc.  So, I stop in my tracks, wishing I could be on my merry way to make copies, knowing I must gently point out  to the tiny offenders that I’m gay, and that using the word that way makes it sound like it’s a bad thing, which hurts my feelings.

Three fourth grade boys are playing at recess.  One of them accidentally uses the pronoun “he” when he truly meant to say “she.”  The other two pounce, “Ooh, you said he!  Do you want to date boys?  Are you gay??”  The embarrassed child rushes to defend himself, pointing out forcefully that they knew he meant to say she, it was just a slip of the tongue.  I’m racing to get to class, and wish I could just ignore it all as childish banter, then remember that everyone else does just that.

I draw in a sharp breath, “You are nine years old.  No one is dating anyone.  When you do get older and begin dating, there is nothing wrong with boys liking boys, so stop being prejudiced against people like me who are gay and go play soccer or something.”  I race to class, furious that these exchanges still take place, and with myself for feeling flustered over outing myself yet again.

Sometimes, I address the issue on request.  Teachers have come to me knowing that I am gay because they want the conversation but don’t feel comfortable initiating it in their classrooms.   It’s usually a  response to a  situation that has already gone bad, where a child is being teased for being perceived to be gay.  My only objection to this is the blindness to the fact that every class is statistically likely to have a queer child in it, and every class is certain to have children who live in a world where there are queer people; but it only becomes a problem to be addressed when a stereotypically effeminate male, butch female, or transgendered/intersexed  child  has been  eroded to the point that school has become a hostile environment they dread.

Perhaps if I were less reticent to be loud, there would be no need for  quiet damage control.

We don’t need permission July 29, 2009

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Education isn’t supposed to be about the teacher’s agenda; it’s supposed to be about the children.

All of the children are excited.  Soon dismissal will be upon them, and two glorious weeks of winter break will begin.  

A thoughtful child asks, “Ms. Rosenberg, what do you want for Christmas?”  

Without hesitation, the teacher seizes the teachable moment.  She smiles and explains, “I’m Jewish, so my family doesn’t celebrate Christmas.  Can anyone recall what holiday Jewish people celebrate this time of year?”

Another child raises his hand, eager to be chosen.  The teacher calls on him and he proudly displays his knowledge, “Chanukah!  You light the candle thing every night for eight nights because that’s how long the oil thing lasted in the story.”

“It’s called a menorah,” a little girl adds.  She had been quiet, but now she is animated and makes eye contact with her teacher.  “I’m Jewish too!” she adds.

As the bell rings, the teacher wishes everyone a safe and happy break, reminding them to try to do a bit of reading each day.

In one sense, the scene represents a nonevent.  There will be no repercussions. When the children mention that their teacher is Jewish, parents will not pull the car over on the way home demanding to know what made the child say such a thing.  The principal will not have to interrupt the teacher’s break for a somber meeting in which the teacher is informed that she’s on very shaky ground; that she has no right to reveal such a controversial aspect of her personal life; that parents have the right to decide when and if their children will be exposed to religious ideologies incongruent with their own.  The teacher will not spend her break in fear, wondering if she just cost herself a career.  

Reporters will not swarm upon her, demanding to know if it’s true that she’s Jewish, pressing for a confession that she did in fact tell impressionable children that she was.  Talk shows will not debate the issue, allowing the argument that these Jews, despite representing a miniscule percentage of the population, or perhaps because of it, are constantly trying to undercut traditional values to force their views on others in a blatant effort to recruit innocent young children to their religion.  Radio pundits will not point out that Judaism is a choice,or that Jews are in a regressed state, calling for Christians everywhere to enhance their efforts to bring nonbelievers to the light and compassionately guide these misguided souls to make the right choice.  

In another sense, the exchange changed the world.  Observers might be quick to point out that, yes, it is good that the little Jewish girl was able to take pride in her own identity by seeing a part of it reflected in a respected authority figure.  It is, but the bigger picture is that all of the children in the class were able to put faces to something that may have previously seemed unrelated to their lives.  Their views on Jewish people are forever changed, and it will affect their attitudes and interactions for the rest of their lives.

We gay teachers know that it would have the same positive consequences if we were to state as a matter of fact that we are gay; but we are immobilized by the real fear that making our own simple declarations actually would result in backlash.  That is our greatest evidence of inequality.  Many of you are shaking your heads reading this, thinking that my words may ring true, but that where you live, there is no inclusion of sexual orientation and/or gender identity as a protected group–and that even where there is, there are other ways to fire teachers or make our lives miserable.  They may not legally be able to fire you for outing yourself, or teaching gay history, but that one day your car breaks down and you are late arriving to school will be their justification, or you will be subjected to a surprise evaluation in which your teaching abilities are called into question.  After teaching 5th grade for decades, suddenly you’re “needed” in kindergarten.  

It’s scary for all of us.  It’s easy enough to point out that social change requires sacrifices, but much harder to volunteer to become a martyr for a cause.  Besides, being sentenced to a book repository won’t do much to help children see that we are all entitled to equality.  We have mortgages, car payments, perhaps children of our own, not to mention little desire to subject ourselves or our loved ones to any negative consequences.  There are crazy people out there who could cause us real harm.  

The problem with this thinking is its direction.  We know what is right, and what we need to do to be good teachers.  Education isn’t supposed to be about the teacher’s agenda; it’s supposed to be about the children.

Gay Education July 28, 2009

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I can picture images of Harriet Tubman in my mind, furtively glancing around for near certain danger, risking her life to help slaves who fled a system that held as a matter of course that people could be property.  Elementary school teachers taught me about the Underground Railroad, where the slaves passed messages through songs, and looked to the night sky for direction; and about The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated by a madman filled with hatred.  There was no rebuttal.  People did not share their views that it was a good thing King was silenced, and unfortunate that it led to black people being treated as though they were equal to whites when they simply did not believe that was true.

By high school, my textbooks talked about Brown vs. the Board of Education, Southern states that maintained separate but equal drinking fountains, and studies showing that a century after slavery was ended, little black girls still chose the white dollies as superior to the black dollies.  I remember pictures of the Little Rock Nine.  A black girl clutching her book, looking determined (but, oh, she must have been terrified), as angry white faces contorted around her.  The message was clear–those white people were wrong, hateful; the frightened teenaged girl the hapless victim of unthinkable bigotry.  There was no rebuttal.  No one pointed out that the white people were just trying to keep things the way they ought to be and should be viewed sympathetically.

I’ve learned a great deal more about this part of our nation’s history since my days in public education, and have much more to learn; but those are the childhood memories that come to me most readily, memories that I imagine many of us brought up in the U.S. education system remember.

Even with all of the prejudiced views in our country, by the time my schooling was under way in the 70’s and 80’s, allowing that another perspective was valid had been relegated to niche groups such as the KKK or neo-nazi sects that were regarded by mainstream society as dangerous fringe lunatics.  Quietly, amongst friends and family, mainstream society did often express outright disdain for African Americans, characterizing the culture in only negative terms, giggling over racist jokes…but the numbers of people who agreed that the jokes weren’t funny anymore were starting to swell.  Society was becoming less segregated, and personal associations were starting to change beliefs.  It’s gotten to where making a racist comment just isn’t safe anymore, because the white recipient just might have an African American mate, child, friend…  People are entitled to their beliefs, and we do still see evidence of blatant and de facto hatred and discrimination today.  What we don’t see is the rebuttal.  

Teachers still educate children about the ongoing history of African Americans, and then as now, we do not allow for opposing points of view.   If the First Amendment protects people whose opinion is that slavery was bad, shouldn’t it also secure the rights of people to speak their beliefs that African Americans are inferior, are subhuman, and that we should go back to the good old days?  In a predominantly Christian nation armed with a bible that indicates that slavery is as old as humanity and is perfectly acceptable, does the majority populace and its religious doctrines hold no weight whatsoever in the public schools?   That is correct.  It does not, and no amount of raging against the irony of free speech applying only to minority groups can change it back.  

Opponents who rally against this way of thinking, quite rightly racing to point out the double standard, have ignored that which they detest about the public schools:  our doctrine is designed to offer a liberal education.  They bandy the word about as though it’s an epithet, something a few renegade teachers have turned the school system into as opposed to its mission.  

We are assigned the job of changing society to be less discriminatory, more open to understanding differences, and to promoting diversity whether we like it or not.  It is no coincidence that the vast majority of teachers in the public school system lean to the left politically: believing what we’re supposed to convey makes for a more pleasant day.  Those who gripe over it have missed the point.  

The First Amendment does allow people to think and say that they do not believe women should have won the right to vote; just not in the public school system, where our directive is to show minorities achieving equality in positive lights.  To do that, we teach children about very sensitive subjects.  Slavery is an emotional topic.  The Holocaust also elicits strong feelings.  History isn’t always pretty,or distant.  We do this because we need knowledge to make connections, and because we value students having an understanding of their place in the universe  in relation to the other people in it.  The intention is to reduce prejudice and bigotry by indoctrinating children as young as we can get them to believing that all people have inherent worth and dignity.  Therefore, we do not permit a rebuttal. Hitler wasn’t an inspirational leader with a legitimate plan to reform his country:  he was a monster.  You can teach your children that a woman’s role is to be a wife and a mother, but we must teach her that she can have every opportunity she seeks, and help to prepare her for them.

So, where’s the gay history?  Where’s the gay culture in our schools?  Kindergarten children know about King; have they ever heard of Milk?  Could your students identify and describe the factors that led to the Stonewall Rebellion?  Are they aware that every species of animal that has been studied has gay subsets just like people do, as a simple matter of better scientific understanding?   Do they have a clear view of the legal scope of the land?  We don’t read Langston Hughes without remarking on his color or the fact that he was part of the Harlem Renaissance, yet we skip over the fact that his being gay may have also influenced his writings.  We hold Whitman up as an exemplar of early American writers, but become very uncomfortable at the prospect of mentioning that he was a gay man.  That part isn’t in our texts.  It’s not in our curriculum.  

Our edict to keep our children safe and provide them with the best conditions to reach their potential cannot be met if our only action is weak attempts to keep ignorant people from beating them to death instead of doing our job of actually dispelling ignorance.

As long as gay culture is whispered about instead of presented as a matter of curriculum in our schools, we can do nothing to achieve equality: the most human and loftiest objective of our nation’s public school system.  When history looks back on us after equality is inevitably reached, at least de jure equality if not de facto, will we be proud of the roles we have played?  What side of history do you want to be on?  

(Translation for pedantic English teachers:  On which side of history do you want to be?)

On tolerance July 27, 2009

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It is one thing to teach children to be tolerant, but you have no right to teach children that being gay is acceptable.

This objection is often wrapped up in the guise of several underlying issues, with religious beliefs used to justify a “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality.  This poses an etymological conundrum in itself, as “accceptance” is a synonym for “tolerance;” but in common usage, “tolerance” has come to mean putting up with something rather than embracing it.  Most people will grant that anti-bullying campaigns do have a place in the public school system; what they reject is the paradigm shift that calls for changing children’s thinking so that they no longer view being gay as a negative attribute, or as a benign trait that can be overcome, but as a positive aspect of a person’s life to be celebrated.

However, the bullying that children who are perceived to be gay receive is directly tied to the belief that being gay is unacceptable.  The goal of preventing abuse in school cannot be achieved without directly offering our youngest students positive affirmations and representations of gay people.  Imagine the outcry if the only message we gave to our students regarding any other minority group was that not all of them are bad; that while your parents have the right to teach you that all members of of that group are in fact bad, taunting those people is impolite at school.

When incorporating gay culture in the classroom is addressed at all, it is usually at the high school level, by which time it is too late to be truly effective.  High schools offering gay clubs and alliances create vital links for teens who are at the greatest risk of suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, truancy, unplanned pregnancies, and violence.  Unfortunately, they come into place, if at all, after eight years of education in which the absence of gay culture in schools and a laissez-faire attitude to anti-gay slurs has been fully ingrained in our children.

Tolerance is in itself an obstacle to understanding, not a gateway.  This becomes clear when we apply the terminology to any other group of people.  Is it our goal to teach students that women should be tolerated?  Do we merely tolerate the fact that  some children do not celebrate Christmas?  Are we charged with the task of telling children of all colors that people who are not caucasian are to be tolerated?

Putting up with people who do not fit a rigid construct is a backhanded attempt to appear sympathetic to that which is deemed undesirable.  We tolerate a traffic accident that impedes our travel, unabated pain that we must ignore to finish a job, or any other repugnancy we wish we could do away with but must accept as an unfortunate reality.  Our mission as public school teachers is to foster thoughtful appreciation of diversity, not to convey a message of having to endure the fact that we are not all the same.

That’s something we cannot tolerate.

A sensitive subject July 26, 2009

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Discussing matters of sexuality with children, *especially* young children, is an extremely sensitive topic.

This objection is raised frequently, usually in the form of a friendly warning meant to show theoretical support while truly seeking silence.   Fortunately, whatever one’s feelings on *that* topic, that is not *this* topic.  Coming out to students as a gay teacher is no more analogous to discussing sex with children than a heterosexual teacher who makes details of her personal lives known to students is.  If it is the enforced policy at your school or in your district that teachers are prohibited from revealing any personal information in the classroom, then it would indeed be inappropriate to come out to your students.  The double standard arises when it is commonplace for teachers to model and expose children to their heterosexuality, but exposing children to anything other is discussed in whispers, implying negative connotations.

Feminists and their supporters fought hard for a respectful title for women that did not associate a woman’s status with her marital status:  “Ms.”  When a teacher introduces herself as “Mrs.,” it is her right to be respected by the title she prefers, but she is also indicating that it is of great importance to her to reveal first and foremost to people she has just met, including young children, that she is a heterosexual woman who has secured a male partner.  Although that generally means that she shares intimacies with her partner, polite society sees her declaration as a social one, and not an effort to divulge the specifics of her sex life. 

The same can be said of teachers who have pictures in their rooms of their mates, teachers who inform students they’ll be changing their names because they are getting married, and teachers who create children by themselves engaging in sexual acts.  Relatively speaking, it was not that long ago that it was a matter of course that pregnant teachers were expected to remove themselves from teaching, in part due to the dilemma of explaining to children how a teacher came to be pregnant in the first place.  Common sense and civility won out, and there was a tacit understanding that informing children of a pending arrival is not tantamount to explicitly discussing sexuality.

Somehow, though, with no logic to justify the discomfort, for many, coming out as gay is seen as markedly different from coming out as straight.  When a straight teacher  mentions to colleagues in passing that she and her husband found a lovely restaurant, she is seen as making inconsequential small talk.  When a gay teacher makes the same innocuous comment about a lovely restaurant he and his partner discovered, it is often perceived as an attempt to push an agenda.  I submit that this is true.  The agenda is equality.  

In many respects, we have come light years in terms of doing the actual work of cultural diversity.  We are now aware that our texts, our posters, our bulletin boards, and our attitudes must be reflective of our student populations and their families.  The narrow world view many of us grew up with in our schools only featured representations of healthy, white, married, Christian, heterosexual middle-class couplings having an athletic son and a girl with pigtails in frilly dresses.  In a bizarre backlash, there are still people so fearful of change, they respond as though opening children’s world’s to differences is a threat to the representation just described despite it being the clear majority in our society.  

It’s a valid claim.  We are indeed under a directive in this global economy to broaden our students’ perspectives, and to ensure a safe environment for children to reach their highest potentials.  Where there is understanding, there will be change.  In order for there to be understanding, the subject must be addressed.

The need for openly gay teachers July 25, 2009

Posted by gayteacher in Uncategorized.
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(Note:  here, the term “gay” is used to be inclusive, solely due to the author’s discomfort with the cumbersome acronym, “GLBTQ,” and similar efforts to linguistically group all of us whose sole binding factor is defined more by what we are not than what we are.)  

Decades ago, before becoming a teacher, the civil rights movement played a much larger role in my life.    To further that end, I had gone to  upstate NY for a conference designed to help gay activists better handle the media.  A stranger approached me at the conference, calling me by name.  Putting names to faces is a shameful weakness of mine, and I apologized to the stranger, asking if we had met before.

“You wouldn’t know me,” he said, “but I know you.  We didn’t go in the same circles, but we went to high school together.  You changed my life.”

He went on to explain that my taking my girlfriend to the prom back in ’84 was a turning point for him, prompting him to come out of the closet and live his life proudly as an out gay man.  His attendance at the conference was evidence of his having gone the step further to activism, where he too was participating in the social changes necessary to create a climate where equality for all could slowly become a reality.  I say this not for self-aggrandizement, as the era was rife with potential catalysts; and my being escorted by a woman clad in a tuxedo wasn’t meant to be a political statement at the time.  However, it goes directly to how some catalyst is often needed for queer youth to accept and embrace their identities.

When we think back on our teachers, the lessons they intended to convey are usually lost on our memories.  Many of us have no specific memory of learning to read or do long division.  What we take with us is the memory of teachers who cared about us by touching our hearts in some way.  In some cases, our experiences were shaped simply by virtue of having misconceptions dispelled.  I was brought up with many prejudices that were washed away simply by virtue of having caring, competent teachers who did not fit the negative stereotypes I had been fed as a child.  

We have known for many years that the number one factor in determining whether a survey respondent is likely to be in favor of gay rights legislation is whether or not they know, and know that they know, gay people.  The perceptions of people who do not think they know anyone who is gay is shaped by an us vs. them mentality rather than a basis in fact.  Statistically, it is unlikely that there be anyone on Earth who does not know a gay person; leading to the conclusion that we are contributing to our own legal and social repression by not being out to those around us.  It is for this reason that it is crucial to have openly gay teachers in the classroom.  

If your reaction to this is fear or anger, that is understandable.  It frightened me to write it.  It frightened me when the subject of my marital status came up in the teachers’ lounge just a few months into my first teaching assignment.  I tried to appear casual despite my heart pounding loudly in my ears, smiled and stated that I was gay and had a partner and two children.  Blessed with an incredibly supportive school staff and administration, in an environment where the focus is on establishing excellence for and in the children, I am aware of how lucky I am that the news was received without much fanfare.  Still, it continues to frighten me each time I come out in the school setting, and that  fear shames me.  Equality should be the norm, not good fortune for which I should be grateful.  I had thought these apprehensions had been overcome in my youth, but the conservative nature of liberal education brought them to the surface. 

When I became a teacher, I was sent for a training for new hires.  I was frightened, but summoned the courage to ask the trainer privately about my rights as a gay teacher.  She grinned broadly and assured me that my district has sexual orientation as a protected class–for teachers and students alike.  My mind raced with hypotheticals.  Could I put a picture of my partner on my desk as straight teachers do?  Could I directly state that I am gay  to students, and that there is nothing wrong with being gay.  “Of course!” she insisted, and added, “There isn’t.”

Ironically, in my experience, that message has been embraced much more emphatically by liberal heterosexuals than ourselves.  In an almost comical display of olive branch extending, once I was out, straight teachers made an effort to point out gay friends of theirs, voiced outrage over inequities for gays, and shared interesting camp and college experiences.  Conversely, a gay colleague and friend pulled me aside with real concern for me, and possibly herself by association.  She was gentle, and had only my best interests at heart.  “They really like you.  They think you’re good at this.  But, you have to stop with the gay stuff.”  I told her that I couldn’t.  This wasn’t just about me–not that my own existence shouldn’t be reason enough.  I have children in the public school system.  There are gay children in the public school system.  There are gay and straight children who will grow up filled with hatred of others or themselves if we don’t put a stop to it.

Yet, still the fear persists.  A child spits out at another, “You’re gay!”  I frown sternly, “I am gay.  When you say it like it’s a bad thing, it hurts my feelings.  Please, stop.”  My heart pounds again.  Now the phone calls from angry parents will come.  So much for finally finding my niche in life.  Then my own anger comes.  Why am I afraid?  I haven’t said anything wrong.  There is nothing to justify but the bold notion that gay people are people.  Didn’t we take care of this nonsense years ago?  Aren’t all the legal protections, for those of us “lucky”enough to have them, testaments to that shift in thinking?  Sure, to a degree; but then why is it still a problem in our schools,and what are we doing about it?

Hello world! July 24, 2009

Posted by gayteacher in Uncategorized.

Welcome!  This site is intended for teachers and school personnel who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, intersexed, and/or teachers who wish to better serve all of our students by incorporating true diversity in the classroom.  Hopefully, it will become a forum for support and change.  Your respectful contributions are welcome.

As an out lesbian teacher at the elementary school level, my concern over the lack of gay education in our schools has been growing steadily over the years. Many of us can recall negativity and sometimes hostility towards ourselves or classmates from our own school days; and by the headlines reporting on children committing suicide, lesbian teens having disproportionately high pregnancy rates, and unfettered bullying against queer children, things have not improved significantly. 

“That’s so gay!” is still defended as an innocent comment, as though it’s an overreaction to be offended by statements that are intentionally derogatory towards an entire group of people.  Children joke about “he/shes,” lacking proper terminology and demonstrating ingrained prejudices.  Anti-gay comments are made on a daily basis by children as young as kindergarten.  A student meticulously folds a piece of paper into a “fortune teller,” and writes in the hidden sections, “You’re gay!”; there’s no chance it’s meant as a compliment, but to humiliate.  Being gay is something bad, or at the very least, something not to be spoken of aloud–that’s the message the children have learned.  

Our schools strive to offer a liberal education; it is in fact a mandate of public education.  The answer to parents who do not want their children exposed to people of different colors, religions, or beliefs than their own is supposed to be that we do not cater to prejudice.  In many cases, enforcing that ideal alone would be an improvement; but we are charged with an even greater task.  It is our responsibility to not only reassure our students that it is not bad to be of a particular minority group or of a different culture, but to offer positive affirmations. For the benefit of all children, regardless of their cultural backgrounds, we teach that being open to seeing different  traditions and cultural histories in a positive light is important to understanding the world in context.  

We hold the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. up as a beacon of hope for all children, to help them grasp the inspiring ideology that we judge people based on the content of their characters, to paraphrase.  We show children from all walks of life that people from all walks of life can achieve greatness so that they know it of themselves and of those around them.  A young deaf boy’s eyes widen in excitement when he learns that Edison was himself deaf, and he and all of his classmates gain an appreciation of how great potential is in each of us, and how we may harbor misconceptions.  We provide role models in the fact that we teachers are people, representing different cultures and abilities; and we incorporate diversity by our students themselves representing myriad backgrounds, shattering stereotypes that stem from ignorance.  

In the end, we can proudly ask nearly any child who King was and expect some recognition.  In fact, we can ask the children what an igloo is and be delighted in their knowledge of the ways of the Inuit.  We can have them pledge never to be a bully and have them emphatically profess that they are aware that, at least at school, we do not judge people by what they are but by their actions.   The only exception to all of this is being something other than a clearly defined heterosexual.

Let’s start changing that.