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‘I’m just a person who happens to be both gay and a teacher’: Why public school teachers are still in the closet

‘I never brought my partner to any school functions.’

 

Maya Wray

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Tonight I watched my girlfriend add items to her new classroom wishlist. This recently became a hobby of mine, ever since she graduated last month with that teaching degree she vowed to get as long as I’ve known her.

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We met in a high school A.V. class neither one of us wanted to take. We commandeered a tiny, cramped editing booth each day and spent most of the period talking about our vastly different lives, until the subject of our sexualities—you could say gay in those days—haltingly surfaced and it turned out we had more in common than previously thought.

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This continued for a year or so until a letter confessing feelings I hadn’t realized I shared was tucked into my hand as we left A.V. for the last time and dashed off to our remaining final exams. Now we’re here, shoulder-to-shoulder as I study for my law school entrance exam and she excitedly tilts her laptop screen toward me with the addition of every new item to her wishlist. 

Wall decor makes up a not insignificant amount of that list. A poster affirming the power of “Progress over perfection” in neat, overly saturated letters. Framed art of potted cacti claiming “Let’s root for each other.” (My girlfriend loves a good pun.) Hanging tapestries assuring 20 incoming fourth graders that they are strong, and loved, and most importantly, themselves. 

I’m not embarrassed to admit how she categorically rejected all my design ideas, 98% of which were completely unserious. However, the first to go was my entirely serious suggestion that she take our shared Pride flag and hang it up in her classroom. She didn’t turn it down with the usual huff of laughter and playful swat to whatever limb of mine lay closest, either. She said “no” quickly and quietly and I never brought it up after that. 

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But I did think about it.

I thought about the photograph I have of us, arm-in-arm outside the restaurant after my graduation dinner, tacked up on my cubicle wall where anyone passing by can see it. I thought about running around the office in my favorite pair of shoes, the ratty Blowfish Malibus with the tiny rubber Pride flags stitched on the heels. I thought about break room and elevator and parking lot conversations with my co-workers where it didn’t occur to me to censor “girlfriend” with something more gender neutral.

She has a different experience. She calls me her best friend around her students. “I told him my best friend loves Tom Petty,” she admitted once while recalling a conversation with a student who demanded to know who showed her classic rock.

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She lays awake at night wondering, should she choose to include a picture of us in the “Meet your teacher” slide of her orientation PowerPoint? How many class parents might decide they want a meeting? Leaving the haven of a student teaching classroom with a closeted but sympathetic mentor teacher and a kid with two moms totally daunts her. The obvious solution in her new school? Don’t ask, and definitely don’t tell.

Impossible for someone voted “Most likely to talk about their boyfriend/girlfriend” during their college newspaper’s superlative awards. But for her, a necessary method of ensuring no messages from irate parents accusing her of exposing their kids prematurely to what I like to think of as the real world.

You could argue that I don’t get it simply because my job doesn’t demand responsibility for the lives and learning of young children, and you’d be right. I would even point out to you that this fact has been used against me in discussions on this topic more than once by my girlfriend. 

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Yet the fact remains that there’s nothing legal about employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the U.S. So why do many queer educators like my girlfriend feel the pressure—to begrudgingly borrow a phrase from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R)—to not say gay?

A profession in the dark. Except on TikTok

I’d hazard a pretty good guess that legislation like DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which our home state tried but failed to emulate, keeps them closeted. The idea behind measures like this is that parents get a choice in the time and place their kids begin to take part in discussions on gender and sexuality, and 54% of Americans support that ability to choose, according to the Pew Research Center.

If you ask me, school seems as good a place as any to have conversations about sexuality and gender identity. School is the first real place where kids meet people, classmates and teachers alike, who have the potential to be different. It sets them up for college and the workplace, where these differences are magnified a hundredfold because they’re often expressed by mature adult minds, ready for debate.

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(Nobody ever asks me.)

But about 83% of the world’s LGBTQIA+ population is in the closet from “most of the people in their lives,” per the Yale School of Public Health. Per Pink News, about a third of LGBTQIA+ teachers stay in the closet, too.

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A December 2017 research study published in the University of South Florida’s Journal of Global Education and Research documented the experiences of 11 long-time queer educators ranging from teachers to administrators and counselors, in both public and private school environments. Some gave their reasons for choosing to conceal their identities from their students as strictly professional, despite feeling a deeply diminished sense of accomplishment as a result. 

“A challenge is that I’m not able to fully connect with some of the students,” one teacher explained. “There are some students who are gay, and I have to draw a line of professionalism about how to confide in them.”

Though closeted from her students, another teacher said she believed “those students who need to know, who need a role model, realize” her queer identity. However, her school’s administration “prefers my discretion,” she added. 

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“I never brought my partner to any school functions,” an administrator revealed in his interview. “I never felt comfortable doing that.”

These kinds of stories from experienced teachers discourage my girlfriend. So, as people our age are wont to do, she turns to TikTok to find hope that she can be open with her class about her lesbian identity. 

She realizes her own dreams in the skits shared by Atlanta-based elementary school teacher Ms. Chang (@MsChangGifted on TikTok.) Her and her wife raise two boys who attend the same school that she works in. My girlfriend clings to the hope Mrs. Chang gives her that she will no longer suffer the usual rush of uncertainty when her colleagues in the teachers’ lounge politely inquire about her living situation in such an expensive city. (And later, the overwhelming feeling of defeat at failing to tell the truth.)

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@mschanggifted Supportive Parents #lgbtqteacher #mschanggifted #elementaryteacher #representationmatters ♬ Cooking – Oleg Kirilkov

My girlfriend—here I go again—takes fashion advice from New York City TikToker Tori (@heyitstoriiiiii), who sometimes models school-appropriate outfits for queer teachers. A struggle to find balance between comfort and straight presentation ensued throughout her student teaching semesters. Though compromises could be found in pastel button downs and high tops printed with smiley faces, she still searches for true self-expression in her professional wardrobe.

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(Sometimes, it’s easier to let the kids see you in a dress and sandals and avoid the blunt questions that a button down exposing your sternum tattoo would invite.)

She delights in the humorous stories narrated by gay music teacher Jay Long (@jaylongofficial), whose students consider his smoking habit his big secret, not his identity. She observes the ways Teacher Robi (@teacherrobi) addresses their use of they/them pronouns with their young art students. Music and art are hardly the classes to discourage self-identity, after all, and my girlfriend marvels at the lack of concern their classes seem to have about their open queerness. She applauds it. In spite of fear, she strives for it.

And that’s just one of the reasons I’m certain she’ll be a good teacher. This particular feeling of guilt always accompanied her decision not to reveal her sexuality beyond stilted conversations with her mentor teacher while the kids attended lunch. Not guilt about lying, but about keeping that part of her identity a secret when one of her own students could be struggling to navigate something similar. It kills her to think of someone already at such a tender age—ages that we ourselves began grappling with our queer identities—imagining they’re alone.

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But a new year is coming. Only 70 days remain until she greets a room full of fourth grade students for the first time. As their familiarity grows, they will undoubtedly do what all of her past students have done: Beg to see the tattoos covering her arms, crack themselves up comparing her to Ken instead of Barbie, and bashfully wonder aloud if she has a boyfriend. 

And when they do, I hope she’ll catch sight of those tapestries I’m sure I’ll be helping her hang come August. The ones that tell her she is strong. That she is loved. That she is, most importantly, herself. 

As Mrs. Chang so plainly stated in a video, “I’m just a person who happens to be both gay and a teacher.” My girlfriend hangs onto those words as tightly as she can, and I hang onto the feeling our Pride flag might wind up finding a home in her classroom some day. When it does, I’ll be adding “interior design” to my resume.

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