The halls were ringing with the squeaks of wet sneakers on linoleum as students rushed from lockers to classrooms. The hallways were marked with muddy red sneaker prints and bright yellow “Caution: Slippery When Wet” signs. School had been cancelled the day before as a “mud day.” We rarely got snow days, but if it rained heavily, there were enough students living on unpaved roads that school was cancelled because the buses couldn’t bring them to school. One of the oddities of living in the rural South is that cell towers may reach students’ phones, but asphalt doesn’t always reach their driveways.
As my class wandered in, Joseph walked by, looking heartbroken. Because he was normally so energetic that he seemed to bounce even while sitting still, it alarmed not only me but his classmates as well. Several eyed him and then glanced at one another, looking for some explanation. Their shoulder shrugging and raised eyebrows told me that they didn’t know any more than I did what was wrong.
The tardy bell sounded and the morning announcements started, ranging from yearbook sales to the athletic schedule. One reminded students that it was hunting season, so they needed to remove firearms and bladed weapons from their vehicles before arriving at school.
I glanced over at Joseph and saw a tear slide down his face as he kept his head down and wrote in his class folder. Concerned, I made up an excuse – my computer was not working – and asked someone to take the attendance to the office for me. I immediately had 30 volunteers, but I handed the paper to the one who hadn’t raised his hand – Joseph.
Without looking up, he crumpled the paper and stood. As he reached the door, he quietly grabbed several tissues and walked out. By the time we had finished going over the warm-up, he hadn’t returned, so I left a note on the door reminding him that we were going to be working in the media center and ushered the other 11th graders down the hall.
“Somebody asked him if he was my boyfriend.”
As I watched the students working in their research groups, Joseph showed.
“You took a crazy long time getting the attendance to Ms. Morgan. I almost sent out a search party.”
He tried to laugh and shook his head.
“What’s going on? Why’re you so upset, Joseph?”
He glanced around us, ensuring that no one could overhear. “Marcus is mad at me.”
I looked over at Marcus, who was helping a shorter student pull a book from the top shelf. The idea of Marcus being angry about anything seemed strange to me; the idea of him being seriously mad at Joseph seemed impossible. They had been best friends for years.
Joseph hung his head and sniffled. “Somebody asked him if he was my boyfriend. He got mad, ’cause he thought I told them that.”
Marcus and I were two of only a few people who knew that Joseph was gay. Both of us had been immediately supportive, but there were serious risks in our community for anyone who was openly gay. In one of my first years of teaching at the school, the local paper had printed a half-page editorial declaring that gay marriage was against God’s will. In recent years, several people at the school had warned me that letting students know that I am a lesbian was a sure way to get fired, despite a successful teaching record. Only the day before I had driven to school behind a car with a bumper sticker referring to Leviticus 20:13 (“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them,” in the King James version).
The biggest concern for Joseph, though, was his father, an outspoken conservative pastor who had openly condemned what he termed “the gay lifestyle” for as long as I had known the family. In an area of approximately 5,000 people, if Joseph came out, news of his sexual orientation would reach his father in record time. It was probable that, like several congregation members, Joseph would be disowned.
“Did you tell someone that Marcus is your boyfriend?”
He shook his head, nearly in tears again. “I told my friend Carol at play practice that I hoped that I found a boyfriend like Marcus. What if Marcus never talks to me again?” He hesitated. “Or what if he starts talking about me to other people?”
I looked at Marcus, who seemed completely engrossed in the book he’d picked up, and then back at Joseph, whose bottom lip trembled. “Why don’t you tell Marcus what you actually said and the two of you figure out how to move beyond this misunderstanding?”
Joseph nodded slowly, fully aware of how few options he had.
“Do you want to talk to the counselor?”
“I don’t wanna hear that lady tell me about ‘This is your choice, but I support you’ like I just wanna be gay here in the stupid boondocks.”
I patted him on the back and then watched him walk over to sit in Marcus’ research group.
I Change My Teaching
Several days later, it seemed clear that Joseph and Marcus had resolved their problem, but I wasn’t OK with me. I had fallen into a common trap for LGBTQ supportive teachers: I professed my personal support while offering little or none in the curriculum.
Teachers love their students. Even in my extremely conservative community, teachers would express their support for students’ “sexual preferences” at lunch. One of my fellow English teachers patted herself on the back each year when she made sure to tell her students that Oscar Wilde was gay, just before she continued on to his imprisonment and death.
But, however well intended, the cursory mention of a gay author does little if students aren’t asked to consider how that element of the author’s identity matters. Not a single teacher in the English department would have read Richard Wright without exploring racism or Kate Chopin without exploring women’s rights. But canonized authors like Whitman, Wilde, and Woolf are generally taught with no discussion of their sexual identities (leaving students to assume they were heterosexual), or with their sexual identities mentioned so cursorily, or so associated with negative events, that students must assume that part of who the writers were is “wrong.”
As I reflected on my teaching and my own experiences as a student, I realized that I wasn’t measuring up to either my professional or my teenage expectations. Because I remembered the feeling of being left out of the literature in my own schooling, I actively taught texts about poverty, race, and religion – often omitted issues that mattered very much to my students, too – but I had played it safe in terms of sexuality and gender. Besides Joseph, there was no telling how many other students had sat in my classroom and, just like me as a teenager, had wondered where they were in the assigned texts.
I went to the bookroom. After finding two spiders and tons of dust, I found Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. As we started reading the play in class, my stomach rolled as I weighed the consequences of talking about a possibly gay character. But before I could say anything, students began commenting on Antonio’s behavior after Bassanio’s appearance in Act I.
“The only way you’re gonna give somebody who’s that broke money, after they’ve already wasted all of the other money you gave them, is if you got it bad,” one student said.
When I asked her to explain, another student rolled her eyes and said, “Man, Ms. Shelton, that fool’s in love.”
A few of the students were startled by and rejected their interpretation, but the text gave them a way to discuss a topic that had been taboo only the day before. By the end of the play, after many discussions and several essays, some students were sure that Antonio loved Bassanio, some thought the two men loved one another, and others decided they were just close friends. Regardless, the conversation normalized the topic of sexual orientation, allowing discussions then and later.
“They turned all his pictures to the wall.”
Despite how proud I was of my students and myself following the play, I did not want to limit their conversations to a couple of white men in a Shakespearean comedy. So we read a variety of informational texts that required conversations about sexual orientation and gender normativity (see Resources). One student brought in readings on transgender children after she’d watched a documentary. Marcus introduced a news report on a lesbian teen who was fighting to bring her girlfriend to prom.
When my student teacher’s supervisor visited, she was stunned that several students were writing research papers on LGBTQ topics. After she’d chatted with one student who was writing about gay marriage, she told me, “I didn’t know they even used the word ‘gay’ in small towns like this.” All seemed to be going well. I felt like my teaching was honest now, and Joseph became more and more comfortable telling others that he was gay. Several months after his fear of losing Marcus, he now had many friends who knew what he described as “the whole me.”
And then one morning Joseph wasn’t there when I took attendance. I asked Marcus, who shrugged and said: “I thought he was gonna be here. Me and him are supposed to be doing a presentation in history today.”
Another student lightly slapped his shoulder. “Man, you and him are supposed to be best friends. Who’s gonna keep up with him if you don’t?” She laughed and Marcus shrugged again.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe he got sick or something.”
The next day, there was no Joseph, and still Marcus was unsure of what was going on. I used part of my lunch period to call his house and left a message for his parents to call me. No one did.
On the third day Marcus came in and said, “Ms. Shelton, I gotta talk to you.” We walked into the hallway as the other students started their warm-ups.
“Ms. Shelton, they turned all his pictures to the wall.”
Unprepared for this beginning, I replied, “Huh?”
“His pictures. I called his house last night and his mama wouldn’t let me talk to him, and when I called his cell phone, it just went to voice mail. So I knew something wasn’t right, you know? I told my mama that I thought he was in trouble, so she called his house and Joseph’s mama told her, ‘You can just come get him! I don’t want this filth in my house! If you wanna take it to yours, that’s fine, and I’ll pray for you and yours.’ So me and Mama went and got him and brought him to our house.”
He stopped and took a deep breath, as if he had stopped breathing while he’d been talking. Something Marcus had said still didn’t make sense.
“What about his pictures, Marcus?”
“I guess somebody told Joseph’s parents about him or something, ’cause when he got home on Monday, they knew. They knew he’s gay. He said they yelled, they screamed, they prayed, and then they sent him to his room. When he got up the next morning to come to breakfast, every picture that they had of him had been turned to the wall. Like he didn’t exist anymore. He just went back to bed and cried.”
In that moment I felt a lot like I had as a small kid trying to stay afloat in the deep end of a pool. No part of my teacher education or my years of experience had taught me what to do for Joseph in this moment. “Marcus, how long is Joseph going to stay at your house?”
“My mom is taking him home today, and she’s gonna talk to his mom. Make sure he’s gonna be safe there.”
It saddened me that Joseph was going back to his parents so soon, but I understood. All of the students at the school qualified for free breakfast and lunch, and there was no way that Marcus’ mother could afford an additional person in her household. In addition, because of Joseph’s father’s position in the community, few adults in Joseph’s neighborhood would be willing to support Joseph rather than his father. One of the difficulties of living in a rural area is that the schools have many of the same issues as those in urban settings, but with fewer resources and little outside awareness. Plus, the resources that are available are often tangled with community politics and conservative church connections. For Joseph, there was no food bank or shelter, and probably no local family that would take him in. Joseph would have to go home. He would have no choice.
“How come they’re all rich?”
Joseph’s classmates and I started looking for free resources that could help him. One day a student came in and said, “Y’all know about some online stuff that has people talking about things that happened when they told folks they were gay, and they’re OK now?” She looked at Joseph. “Some of them sound kind of like you. You ought to look online.”
One of the other students snorted and laughed: “Girl, you are so stupid. You know he hasn’t got internet where he stays, just like I don’t. How’s he gonna look online?”
I said, “Well, if some of you want to help Joseph find this online stuff, I can write a pass for you to use the school computers during lunch.” A group of three agreed and, for the first time in a while, Joseph looked hopeful.
The next day, as students wandered in from the locker room, I asked Joseph, “Did you find the websites yesterday?” He nodded and then paused, looking puzzled. “What is it?” I asked.
“Well,” he began, “some of those folks were kind of like me. I mean, they had parents who treated them real bad, too. My folks just ignore me, but some people talk about way worse stuff.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
“How come they’re all rich?”
“How do you know they’re rich, Joseph?”
“Ms. Shelton, most of them are talking on their computers in their houses, and the stuff behind them in the room is really nice, and they’re all wearing name brand stuff.” He paused and then continued, “Aren’t there any poor gay people besides me?”
There are plenty of teacher resources and scholarly articles detailing strategies for teachers to create more inclusive and socially just classrooms, but the issue in my rural Southern school was that those resources did not acknowledge the inevitable community resistance that I, and other teachers like me, would face for introducing LGBTQ topics in their classrooms. Although I was very proud of my students, there were community complaints about me, including a call to my administrator from a local pastor, who claimed that I had “dismissed the Bible.” If I had been a novice teacher, I probably would never have mentioned anything beyond the textbook in my classroom again, and I would have lived in daily fear of losing my job. As a teacher educator now, I am very aware of the limitations that particular communities and schools present for teachers and students who want to discuss sexuality and gender within the context of academic curriculum. Knowing what to do and wanting to do it are not the same as being supported in doing so, or even allowed to do so.
What is more, the pop culture visibility and online existence of LGBTQ characters and “survivors” can be contradictory, or even damaging. There are promising signs of LGBTQ acceptance on a national level, but that acceptance is not all-inclusive. Almost every openly gay character on a prime-time show is an economically stable white male, and many online testimonies by LGBTQ adults and youth who have survived trauma offer the same demographics, or slight variations.
Joseph and other LGBTQ students I have supported since do not look at these people and see themselves. They are fully aware that the background sets of these television shows suggest middle-class comfort. They hear that the online testimonies are delivered without my students’ pronounced Southern drawls. They understand that the options in the plot lines and real-life testimonies are not available to them.
All Is Not Lost
However, it is important not to underestimate the power of the school experience in supporting LGBTQ students. Ultimately what got Joseph through high school were not television programs or online promises of a better future. The community of friends and learners that had formed in my 11th-grade classroom was his lifeline until he graduated. That there were at least one adult and a few dozen peers who knew him, who accepted him, who loved him, was essential for Joseph.
Several days before graduation day, I walked into my classroom to find a carefully folded note under my door. I opened it to find a four-page handwritten letter from Joseph.
He thanked me for all that he had learned, for all of the essays that I had made him write, and for all of the times that I had listened when he had drama. The end of the letter was what sent me in search of tissues:
I know you’re probably tired of reading all this stuff I’m writing, and you always fussed at me about not being able to read my handwriting, but I want to end by saying that you saved me. You saved all of us. Every single day when I walked up the bus ramp to come into this school, no matter how bad my morning had been at home, or how many times I heard “fag” or “gay” in the hallway, I knew that in your classroom we were all safe. Not just me, all of us. You always joked about how we’re gonna be in charge of the world some day and you’re just hedging your bets and trying to make us a little smarter, but you did more than thatÑyou helped make us kinder. We will leave the world a better place, and you were part of that. Thank you.
It is not for the thank-you notes or the tear-inducing moments that we teach. We teach so that both our students and we know that the world will be a better place. For all of us.
- Bouie, Jamelle. 2014. “Anti-Gay Jim Crow Comes to Kansas.” The Daily Beast, Feb. 13. thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/13/anti-gay-jim-crow-comes-to-kansas.
- Denizet-Lewis, Benoit. 2009. “Coming Out in Middle School.” The New York Times, Sept. 23. nytimes.com/2009/09/27/magazine/27out-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
- Hutchinson, Bill. 2014. “Missouri Football Player Michael Sam Says He Is Gay, Aims to Be First Publicly Gay Player in NFL.” New York Daily News, Feb. 09. nydailynews.com/sports/football/missouri-sam-aims-openly-gay-nfl-player-article-1.1607997.
- Sancya, Paul. 2010. “Michigan Teacher Suspended Over Anti-Gay Punishment.” USA Today, Nov. 16. usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-11-16-michigan-teacher-suspended-gay_N.htm.
- Walsh, Michael. 2013. “School Staff Bullies Lesbian Student with Anti-Gay Slurs, Calls Her ‘It’: Lawsuit.” New York Daily News, Dec. 29. nydailynews.com/news/national/school-staff-bullies-lesbian-student-anti-gay-slurs-calls-lawsuit-article-1.1560922.