Magazine Feature

Out at Last

School policies that protect LGBT educators pave the way for more honest teacher-student relationships.
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Illustration by Nate Williams

“He’s gay anyway, so it don’t matter.”

It was a typical Friday in class. My students were working at their desks when I overheard one of them, Steven, make this remark. I had to speak up. “So you have a problem with that?”

“Why?” he responded. “Are you gay?” I’m not sure if he was being straightforward or trying to get a rise out of me, but he certainly wasn’t expecting the answer I gave him.

For five years, a determined group of teachers, students, counselors and community members had been working to persuade our school board to include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy. This year, they finally had. I was, for the first time in my career as a teacher, able to be out as a lesbian at school without fear that I could be fired for revealing my sexual orientation. I was finally free—sort of.

It’s one thing to know that a policy protects you and a completely different thing to put that policy to the test. This year, though, I decided enough was enough. If a student asked me, “Who are you going on spring break with?” I would muster up the courage to say “my partner” and not “oh, just some friends” as I had so many times before.

People who are not LGBT may wonder why gay men and lesbians need to announce their sexual orientation to the world. I can only answer that I don’t necessarily want to announce my sexual orientation; I just don’t want to have to hide it. 

So there I was—Steven’s question hanging in the dead air. All eyes were on me. I took a deep breath and answered.

“As a matter of fact, Steven, I am.”

For years I had agonized over how students might respond if they knew for certain I was gay. Would they fear me? Hate me? Ask to be removed from my class? Homophobia had painted some ugly scenarios in my head, but never did I imagine the response Steven gave me—disbelief.

“You are not! You’re just saying that to teach me a lesson,” he shot back, grinning like he was on to my wily teacher ways.

“No, Steven, I’m for real. I’m not just saying this to teach you a lesson. Well, I am trying to teach you a lesson, but I’m not just saying I’m gay. I really am.”

“Oh, man, no way!”

For the remainder of the class, Steven asked questions that ranged from naively curious to grossly inappropriate. It occurs to me that some might think I was inviting Steven to delve into my sex life by revealing my sexual orientation. For the record, I wasn’t. Of course sexual orientation is about sex, but first and foremost it’s about love. 

That’s why I propose we use the term affectional orientation to place the emphasis on the emotional part of being gay. After all, sexual activity accounts for only a small percentage of time in any relationship—gay or straight.

At the end of the hour, I told my class I would answer any school-appropriate questions they might have. One by one, students spoke up:

“We still love you, Ms. Brown.”

“I gotta give you a hug, Ms. Brown.”

“That was cool.”

As the hallways cleared and students scurried off to their Friday night dates and football games, I ran down the hall to tell my department head what I had done. I half expected the worst. Students would tell their parents. Parents would call the superintendent. The media would cover the story—“Teacher Comes Out to Her Classes: Your Tax Dollars Supporting Gay Rights!”

It’s one thing to know that a policy protects you and a completely different thing to put that policy to the test.

Yet, retelling the story to my colleagues, I felt like a giddy eighth-grader after her first dance. Other teachers circled around me listening, laughing and assuaging my fears about the consequences of coming out to my students. “Ah, they’ll probably forget all about it by Monday,” said one colleague.

And for the most part, they did. I don’t think the students actually forgot. I think it just didn’t really matter that much to them. It was just another fact they knew about me, like knowing I have a Labradoodle or that I go biking on weekends. I wasn’t fired or made into a tabloid headline.

In fact, the subject of my affectional orientation didn’t come up again in that class, and I am OK with that. I don’t need to talk about my partner or my life outside of school in class every day. We have important work to do and not enough time to get it done as is.

It is just nice to know students can know me, the real me, and still respect and learn from me.

Students and a teacher, with a blue tint overlay and the Teaching Tolerance Toolkit watermark

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