As a high-school teacher, I kept quiet about my sexuality because I didn’t want to draw attention to it. Instead, I created a deafening silence, a vacuum that tugged on everything around it and demanded attention by its absence. I was silent because I thought my sexuality shouldn’t matter. I was also silent because I live in a state that has no protection against termination of employment due to sexual orientation. It’s not called “discrimination” here; it’s an employer’s prerogative. Because a few administrators at the school where I taught were Good Ol’ Boys, I was afraid. I was afraid that, as a new teacher, my sexuality would become an issue, a liability, or a pretense for joblessness. I was afraid the school’s small surrounding community, transitioning from rural to suburban and demographically divided by which church everyone went to, would question my fitness as one who works with children to get them to think bigger thoughts and question the status quo. I imagined protests to the principal. I imagined parents saying awful things about the person teaching their children. Being two years younger than Matthew Shepard, I imagined suffering a fate similar to his. The county where I worked had a history of acceptance and inclusion that was tarnished at best.
So I silenced myself. As an introvert, that came naturally. I didn’t tell students about my home life. I never mentioned my boyfriend as anything other than a friend. I placed no adorable photos on my desk and never shared my personal life with my students.
Curious, that phrase: “personal life”. It suggests that there’s only a portion of our lives that is ours, and the rest belongs to someone or something else. Perhaps our jobs dictate what happens in our “work life”, but who’s actually doing the living then? Isn’t that life still personal?
While I taught high school, I sure wasn’t living a personal life. I cared about my students. I connected with them. I listened to them. I supported them, and they confided in me. But the olive branch I offered the outcasts was extended with timidity: I merely co–sponsored the school’s gay-straight alliance, letting a straight peer’s name appear in any publicity because I didn’t want my name associated with it. It met in my classroom, but the announcements that played on campus used my peer’s room number from across the hall.
I know now that the only one I was hiding anything from was myself — students on campus had already figured out I was gay. They saw through my denial and avoidance, turning my efforts into a highlighter, pointing out exactly what I didn’t want them to see. As a result, I was blindly broadcasting an aura of fear, of unacceptance, through the very efforts that were intended to accept and support the students. Students who were like me, who needed support and acknowledgement in a potentially hostile environment. It’s not that the campus was violent. Kids at that school didn’t get beat up for being gay. But the only time sexuality was discussed by anyone was for derisive or offensive purposes. And because I never brought up my sexuality on campus, I continued the discrimination. By hiding, I not only expressed my fear but also directly contributed to the problem I wanted, in my own feeble way, to provide relief from. I wanted students to feel safe in my classroom. Instead, I showed them that even I was not.
I had to miss work for a day; I forget why. But I knew in advance, so I was able to plan ahead and choose the substitute I wanted to take over my classes. My then-boyfriend happened to be registered as a sub, and he happened to be available that day. He knew how I worked, he heard me talk through my classroom policies, and he heard me complain about problematic situations and challenging students. He knew how my classes ran better than anyone else. Picking him as my stand-in was a no-brainer.
He subbed for me for one day. Days after I returned, several students asked if he was my brother. They commented on how we spoke alike, how we shared mannerisms, how it was almost like I was still in the classroom despite being gone. Those weren’t the only similarities he and I considered before my absence. This particular substitute and I had to make sure he wore a tie to class that I had never, and would never, choose to wear myself, thus revealing our domestic connection. To the students, the substitution was a combination of eerie and amusing. But it worked. They did what they needed to do, and my class continued without missing a beat. By all accounts, the day went smoothly for everyone. And by all accounts, when the day was over, the substitute locked the classroom door before he left.
We’re pretty sure the vandals didn’t have a key. But they got in somehow. By the time the custodian got around to my room, it had already been trashed. Instead of cleaning any of it up, he wisely left it exactly as it was, knowing it was a situation that other people needed to see. That mess greeted me (with a student in tow for extra help before classes started) the next morning when I unlocked the classroom door and entered.
I don’t have a photograph of the whiteboard because my immediate reaction — to get rid of what I saw — kicked in before I realized the scene was worth documenting. But scrawled across the three adjoining boards in the front of the room, in huge lettering written with black marker was something along the lines of “FRIEND IS A FAGGOT.” It was probably a little less polite than that, but I don’t recall the exact wording. As I looked elsewhere around my classroom, those words blurred into an overall scene of disorganization.
I want to say it was a scene of “destruction”, although nothing had been physically broken. The neat, clean, organized arrangement of desks, tools, and supplies got destroyed, and it took my confidence and sense of control right along with it. So while it’s accurate to say the scene was disorganized, I felt suddenly destroyed.
The contents of my desk had been strewn across the classroom floor, creating an atmosphere of post-tornado disaster in the room. That left room for the vandals to use a dry-erase marker to write threatening, obscene messages on its surface: “Mr. Friend is a fucking fag who deserves to fucking die!”
I somehow managed to teach that day. I don’t remember what I thought we were working on, but I went through the motions. That still amazes me. What now infuriates me is this: I maintained my policy of silence, distance, and separation. I didn’t explain what had happened, what it did to me, why I was so shaken by it, or why it happened in that community. The only unmistakable sign of trouble was the pile of disheveled papers I had collected on one side of the room during first-period plan; I told those who asked about it that my room had been vandalized, but I omitted the details about why or the messages I had found.
My silence had persisted all the way until third period (a whole hour!), when I decided to use the overhead projector. Earlier that morning, I had removed all the threatening language from the projector’s surface so that I could use the machine as intended. I never thought to check the screen, which had stayed retracted into its housing. I pulled it down to use it, with a full class of students watching. Rather than a blank, white surface, the screen was filled with another message left in marker: “Kill the gays!! Dicks are for chicks!”
I immediately rolled the screen back up and used the whiteboard instead, apologizing for the glare. The glare. I acted as though the writing — the actual problem that was hurting me and disrupting my ability to function and feel safe — wasn’t there. Of all the “teachable moments” I’ve encountered in my career, this was probably the one moment that most needed to be taught. Yet it was the one moment I tried hardest to cover up because I was uncomfortable with being gay at my own school, with being who I was while at work. I wasn’t ready to stand up for myself because I believed speaking up risked more damage than remaining silent. I didn’t want to stand out as “the gay teacher”, but my attempts to silently hide drew just as much attention. It seems I needed that teachable moment more than my students did.
Well, more than most of them. One student, upon seeing the writing on the screen, started laughing. I gave him the fiercest look of death I could manage, but my voice wasn’t able to cooperate at that moment. I was angry, embarrassed, and choked up, effectively mute.
Another student took up my cause and told the laughing student that his actions were inappropriate, etc. I don’t recall exactly what she said or how the conversation proceeded, but I recall how much I immediately loved the student who spoke up, saying what I was physically unable to say. The one student who gave voice to the problem and who openly admitted that something was wrong. The student who drew attention to a problem while her teacher was too shocked, unwilling, and frankly terrified to draw any more attention to the issue. I admired her courage in speaking up on my behalf.
I’ve spent time — on Hybrid Pedagogy, on my personal blog, and in conference presentations — talking about the opportunity for and benefits of bringing the outside world inside the classroom walls using online technology. I believe a hybrid approach to education helps open the door to learning that matters in the world outside school. Looking back on that vandalism, I’ve started to see that the “outside world” also includes the personal. Pretending my personal life and my educational practice can be separated denies the validity and relevance of both. I am a gay man who teaches; I am a teacher who is gay. I cannot be only one of those things, and I cannot expect my students to interact with only one of them, either.
Those of us in this invisible minority have an obligation to speak out, most especially as teachers. I’m not talking about any “agenda” or political assertion. I’m talking about identification. We must make our existence less invisible and less silent. Not only will greater visibility help students who might be in less-accepting environments feel a connection with others, but the visibility will also speak directly to those in the majority, letting them know we exist and showing that we are not afraid to be heard.
I now believe the exact opposite of what I did when I started teaching in that high school. I want to draw attention to sexuality, to make it matter, to end the silence. My sexuality is not a liability, and it should not be a reason to sack me (though my local laws still offer no protection). Instead, my sexuality offers perspective and experience, both of which I can only give my students when they’re first aware I possess them. To teach as myself, I must let my students see who I am. I must use my voice and end the silence. We all must stop hiding, stop perpetuating the shame, and stop pretending sexuality is a non-issue. We all must find our voices.
So let me re-live that day. Let me stop my routine and talk to my students. Let me come out to my classes. Let me show that I can shake with combined anger and embarrassment. That I can shed tears from being overwhelmed and caught off-guard. Let me point to the vandalism and say that I live in a society that allowed such an act to happen, that allowed the perpetrators to go unidentified, and that trapped me into being silent. With this article, I am ending that silence and committing to use my own voice. I will use it to speak up on behalf of those caught without the ability to speak for themselves. I will use my voice to speak more loudly when others hope for silence. And rather than hoping the problem of discrimination will simply go away, I will give my voice to the problem and say that the problem is both very real and very destructive. Because no matter how loud the silence may have felt, using my voice makes me louder.