On Monday, March 26, 2001, I took a deep breath and told my eighth graders the truth. Ebony twisted her braids around her index finger, a sleepy smile on her face. Shawn and Pao whacked each other on the shoulders, saying, ““She for real? No, she for real?” as if it were all a strange teacher trick.
What my students didn’t know was that as an almost-graduated student in the University of Wisconsin’s Teacher Education program, I had struggled for two years with what could and could not be said in the classroom. And, finally, at this, a charter school with a majority of lower-income, African American students, I felt comfortable – even bound – to let these students who respected me know that I was a lesbian.
Every day for months, something a colleague, a student, or a novel said would reference my world outside of school. I quietly held my secret in, a tightly wound fist right there – below my chin, beside my heart.
During my first semester of student teaching, a small group of girls had caught on to this absence of information during a unit that I had prepared on the writings of Gertrude Stein, a well-known lesbian essayist. One afternoon, two of these students called me over. “Ms. Wagner,” one of them asked, “have you seen ‘If These Walls Could Talk?’,” an HBO movie with a focus on lesbian couples. I smiled and nodded. She nudged her friend in the stomach with her elbow. “Better Than Chocolate?” When I nodded again, both girls grinned, two glittery eye-shadowed Cheshire cats beaming within the confines of the library. After this day, a hesitant but increasing manifesto of poetry and short stories from these girls graced my Creative Writing “in” assignment box, always featuring the heartache of love in a world where no one knows.
Luckily, Lori Nelson, my cooperating teacher in my final student teaching semester, shines as an old-school Ms. Magazine feminist. She’s an inspiring teacher, always connecting what she teaches her eighth graders in the context of an impending high school world that too often shelves lower-income African-American kids in the back of the room.
Lori encouraged me to come out. She’d lean against the custodian’s closet during passing time, telling the kids stories about her partner (a man), her grandson, her cats. I wanted to be like that – standing with arms crossed in front of the lockers as the kids bang doors shut. I wanted to reciprocate the trust, the caring, that the kids showered upon me. I wanted to tell them the truth about my life. Every time I heard one of them say “That’s so gay” or occasionally scream “Fag!” down the hall, my sense of closeness took 10 steps back.
Then the opportunity presented itself. As part of a three week unit on “Healthy Students, Healthy Schools,” a friend who works at a local group for students dealing with sexual orientation and I developed a one-day lesson plan on tolerance. The timing felt right. I knew I was legally protected by the anti-discrimination policies of the state of Wisconsin, the school district, and my teacher education program. And I also had the encouragement of an amazing cooperating teacher.
So, based on activities suggested in the resource Tackling Gay Issues in Schools, my friend and I led the students through an assortment of activities. I remember standing in front of a sheet of paper tacked to the wall with a line drawn down the middle. On one side, students had described a gay man as, among other things, wearing earrings, having a “certain look,” and having a preference for brightly-colored shirts. There was much debate on whether or not gay high school boys usually joined the drill team. On the other side of the sheet, students defined a lesbian as “looking like a man,” having hairy legs, and not wearing make-up. That morning before school, I had put my finger on this line in our lesson plan – right there, between listing the stereotypes and actually calling them such – as the place where I would tell my students the truth.
“Really?” I said, turning to motion over the words, “This is what gay and lesbian people look like?” The students nodded emphatically, and I took a deep breath. “Because I’m gay, and I don’t look like this.” I turned to the sheet, and, as planned, contradicted each factor one by one. “I like to wear make-up. I usually shave my legs. I definitely don’t want to be a boy. …” I told them how it felt to be standing in the hall and hear someone say “That’s so gay.” I told them that they could never know who around them might be gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
I watched the students giggle, whisper, and shake their heads. And, then, amazingly, some of them shared, too. “My auntie’s a lesbian, so I hate it when kids make fun of gay people,” one said. Another said, “My dad was gay. He died of AIDS.” A third remarked, “I thought so – was that your girlfriend at the dance?”
The following day, students in fifth-hour Language Arts wanted to talk and rapidly fired questions at me: “How did you know you were a lesbian?” “What did your parents say?” And, most amazingly, “Why didn’t you tell us before?” I remember that moment, my legs shaking underneath the table, as each of the students verbally fell over each other to share about talking to their families the night before. “My mom said that you were very brave to tell us,” said one. “My dad said that we can’t be prejudged against anyone,” one student said. After the bell rang and the students rose to leave, Lori and I walked towards each other and hugged. Everything had changed.
Thinking back, I have to admit that I told the students about my sexual orientation for my own emotional well being, to live up to my beliefs of what it meant to be a teacher. What I found out was that this disclosure resonated profoundly in our classroom. I could feel it in small ways, each and every day – the way students more eagerly shared their poetry; the way they chose the more private of two journal entries to read. Things weren’t perfect – a student’s parents complained to the principal, wishing that their child had been given a “permission slip” for the tolerance lesson. Some students talked about their religious beliefs, and how their parents had said it was O.K. for other people to be gay – but not for anyone in their family. I feared being known as the “lesbian teacher.”
This year, I am at a new school in my first year of “real” teaching, at a high school. Disclosure to my colleagues has consistently brought the advice, “You have to be careful – you don’t want students to think that this is your issue only because you’re gay.”
I have not told my current group of students, although the issue runs through every lesson plan like a bad voice-over. What if someone asks about the picture of my partner on my desk? What if someone asks about the “Safe Space” sticker on my pushcart? What happens when they ask if I’m married? Through the walls, I hear other teachers framing lessons with stories about their wives/husbands/children, and I wonder when I will be able to contextualize lessons in that way, too. Seating charts and penciling names into my gradebook pass by as I wait for the right time to stop explaining why saying “That’s so gay” is unacceptable in merely an ethical sense.
And, always, I remember my eighth graders, and how maybe not this year, but someday, one of them will think of me and stop their friend from teasing someone because they “look” gay. I think how my coming out might stop one of them from letting questions about their own sexual orientation place them in the staggering statistics of gay, lesbian, or transgender students dealing with depression, substance abuse, homelessness, or thoughts of suicide. I remember how maybe when a parent, friend, or family member comes out to them in the years to come, the memory of what happened in that eighth grade classroom might stop them from walking away.
Tackling Gay Issues in Schools (1999). Published by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network of Connecticut.
All students’ names have been changed.