I have been a high school math teacher in the inner city for 13 years.
I have been an openly gay high school math teacher in the inner city for 13 years.
Those are two very similar sentences, but they are also worlds apart. Those two words represent a vast difference in how a teacher is viewed and treated — by students, parents, administrators, and other teachers. These differences can certainly be negative, but they can also be positive.
Teaching in the Open
When I became a teacher, I was used to being "out" in my previous jobs. I was given advice by colleagues that I should probably go back into the closet because I lived in a state that does not protect gay people from employment discrimination. But it was just not possible for me to be in the closet. I have always been the only openly gay teacher in the school, no matter where I taught.
On my very first day of teaching, I told my class that the room would be a safe and respectful place for all students, regardless of race, or gender, or sexual orientation. Right away, a student asked if I would sponsor a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).
Now, here's the thing about GSAs. By law, schools must allow them, but many schools do not support them, either because administrators are personally against them, or because districts don't want to deal with the controversy among parents. Over my career, I was asked by several students to be the faculty sponsor for a GSA. And while I always said yes, the administration always found a way to stop it from going forward — they delayed starting it until the student that wanted the GSA graduated. Then there was no more demand for a GSA, and the school could avoid the controversy of supporting LGBT students. It's a common approach to the topic in schools all over the country.
And of course, there was the daily language. The phrase "that's so gay" was used all over, everywhere. "Faggot" was another common one. I never allowed those phrases in my room, but I was about the only teacher that took an active stand against those phrases. Hell, even some teachers said them.
One approach I took to the phrase "that's so gay" was to treat it literally. One example was when a student didn't like an assignment and said, "that's so gay." I asked him how an assignment could be gay. He looked at me like I was uneducated, and told me that it means "that's stupid." I asked him why he couldn't just say "that's stupid", instead of insulting gay people. He didn't have an answer. So then I said, "maybe when I see something stupid, I'll say 'that's so straight'." The student replied "You can't say that." I asked why not, and he said "because that's not what it means." I stared at him, and the light bulb came on. For about two weeks, when he was in my class and decided he didn't like something he would say "that's so straight". And then he stopped using that insult altogether.
Speaking of language, classmates have traditionally been a barrier to LGBT students' safety and comfort. Teaching in an urban environment, I've noticed that black homophobia has always been a strong force. Black students would not give a white gay student as much trouble as they would a black gay student. I remember a young black man coming to see me during lunch to have a conversation when nobody else was in the room. He told me that he thought he might be gay, but he was confused. We talked about why he felt that way, and I soon told him that he didn't sound confused about who he liked. Then the student responded,
But over the past several years, things have changed a lot, and it seems to be gaining speed.
There has been a rapid change in how gay black students are perceived. About a year ago, a black student arrived in my class. He had just moved here from California. He was friendly, but quiet. One day, I noticed he was wearing a GSA shirt for some school I'd never heard of. After class, as he was leaving, I complimented him on wearing the shirt and asked where it was from. He told me that it was from his previous high school. I asked him if people treated him badly for wearing the shirt. He shrugged and said, "No, not really. Hey, can I join this school's GSA?" I told him that we didn't have one. He stared at me for a minute, and then asked, "Can I start one?"
I told the student I would check into it, ready for the stock answer of "we'll get around to it." But I was shocked to hear that the administration was not only going to allow it, they actually encouraged it. And as word got around, the teacher in charge of student council approached me and said he would make sure the student council helped the GSA in any way they could.
The first meeting attracted about 20 students. Over the weeks, teachers would stop by to show their support. They were given the freedom and privacy to talk openly about the issues that concerned them.
It wasn't all perfect. Most of the posters hanging around the school that announced the GSA were defaced or ripped down. The administration responded by giving us a new batch of posters - that were laminated.
One student was complaining that it wasn't fair that there was a GSA group at school without a "straight pride" group, so he was going to start one. I notified the principal about the student's plan, and he laughed. He asked me, "Are straight people allowed at the GSA meetings?" I said of course they are, that's why it's called the Gay-Straight Alliance. The principal said, "Well, then, straight people already have a place to meet and be proud — in the GSA. There will be no 'straight pride' group."
From Gay to Transgender — Widening the Focus
This year, transgender issues are at the front of most meetings. We have several transgender students that are in various phases of coming out and discovering who they are. The choir teacher came to the group to ask how to make improvements to the program — he wanted to change the names of the traditional “boy’s choir” and “girl’s choir”, because he didn’t want transgender students to feel that they couldn’t join the choir that they personally identified with. The students were stunned. They were not used to being asked their opinion on such issues. They were used to being told how they should feel and where they should go.
Like many school districts, ours is dealing with the "problem" of transgender students and bathrooms. Many district officials want all students to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their school enrollment form. But my principal, a great LGBT ally, is challenging the rule and trying to establish a bathroom system so that everybody feels safe.
Not only are LGBT students feeling more comfortable coming out, but I have talked to quite a few students who are themselves straight, but who have gay siblings or parents. One student brought his two dads to meet me at our last parent-teacher conferences a month ago.
Where To Go From Here?
I am still the only openly gay teacher in my school, although I know other teachers that are gay, and are kind of letting it be an "open secret". I have had gay and lesbian teachers come talk to me about how they are afraid to come out to their students, or who want to, but don’t know how. Meanwhile, two well-liked, straight male teachers just portrayed gay dads in the latest school play last week. Not everyone in the audience approved of gay dads in a family-friendly, school-sponsored production, but they were greatly outnumbered by the people who were fine with it.
With the election of Donald Trump, who is working with people who want to turn back the clock on LGBT rights, many students who were feeling more and more normal are now suddenly scared and confused. Anti-gay sentiment has ticked up at school, as homophobic students are feeling more empowered to make their feelings known. There have been more gay slurs since November 9. The other day, a student said "that's so gay" in my class. But as another sign of hope, before I could say anything, another student jumped in and said,
The thing is, we’ve reached a tipping point. The best that LGBT students used to hope for was that the straight students would just leave them alone. For their part, straight students were uncomfortable with the idea of gay classmates, and wanted the LGBT students to leave them alone — preferably by staying in the closet. But that's changing... and it's changing more quickly among the students than it is among their parents.
So being an openly gay inner city math teacher for 13 years, I am not as alarmed at this recent backlash against LGBT people, including students. I've seen it before. Things always swing from bad to good and back again. But it's not as bad as it has been in the past. This backlash is the final stand of people who cannot accept that the world has moved on without them — that what they consider to be "good morals" is actually bigotry. The backlash will go away; the haters are trying to bring the country back to a time that doesn’t exist anymore, using techniques that don’t work anymore. As long as we don’t let our guard down, and all work together, this backlash could even be seen as a good thing. It’s a sign that the old, prejudiced world realizes that it is finally getting defeated.
The next 13 years of being an openly gay inner city math teacher actually looks pretty bright, if you ask me.
This article was created as part of the Creators.co fanzine, We Will Make It Better: Stories Of Hope For The Future Of LGBT