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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Should Teachers ‘Come Out’?

By Peter DeWitt — March 01, 2016 5 min read
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Coming out.” The words conjure up this image of a ballroom filled with people as someone slowly walks down the steps in a sequenced gown or tux waving. As they get to the last step they stop at the microphone to tell the crowd that they are gay.

But it’s actually not that glamorous.

In many cases coming out means that someone is individually telling friends and family members they are gay, and the words don’t always easily come out. Although watching television and seeing reality television shows may give you the impression that coming out is easy to do these days, it is not.

LGBTQ youth still face homelessness and risky behavior at a higher rate than their heterosexual peers. Slowly schools are coming to the aid of these students, but in many towns around the country, LGBTQ students do not feel safe, and they are not fully engaged at school if they do not feel safe.

But what about teachers in the LGBTQ community?

Sometimes those teachers are the only ones in their small school community who are gay, and they aren’t sure how to negotiate their way through school...much like the LGBTQ students who are in school with them. Let’s face it, many of us remember the teachers who were gay...or considered gay...when we were growing up. Those teachers were the topic of negative conversation among students. That issue has not completely changed...yet.

It seems strange, right? How can LGBTQ adults not feel safe in school?

Without a supportive school leader, it is very possible teachers who are gay will not talk about their personal lives in the same way their heterosexual peers do because they are concerned about student and parent complaints. There have even been times when gay teachers are told not to share information about their personal lives.

A Teacher Comes Out
Recently I read, Patty Smith’s guest commentary, “You Come Out Because You Can’t Not,” which you can read/watch here in it’s entirety. Patty’s story was featured in Kevin Jennings’ new book One Teacher In Ten In the New Millennium. Jennings is known for many things like his involvement with the US Department of Education, but to most of us he is best known for starting the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

How much strength that must have taken to start GLSEN when so many others had opposing opinions.

I loved Patty’s story. Personally, I always value when I hear or read coming out stories. Many people wouldn’t understand what it takes to come out to your family, and others have no idea what it’s like to be openly gay in front of students and parents. And believe me, whether gay people tell their story or not, it all comes out for one reason or another. Let’s face it, people talk...

But one comment in response to Patty’s blog might give you an idea what it’s like to always be concerned about coming out. Ebasco commented,

I do not see how this is relevant to students any more than your support of a particular political candidate or membership in a religious organization. These positions, by their very nature, disenfranchise the students who come from homes which have opposing views. In the end, it is their classroom, not yours. I do not see how advocacy based on the teacher's disposition fulfills the "desire to create a safe space for all students." ALL is the operable word here. I suggest a review the article and comments from some time ago about political positions in the classroom://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2015/08/how_should_teachers_address_po.html"

Political candidates and membership to a religious organization is a choice. Being gay is not. Gay people have heard the “choice” argument before.

It’s no surprise, but I disagree with most of his comment. Don’t get me wrong, this is not about Ebasco, but what his comments represent, because he is far from the only one who believes this way. Let’s start with the parts I agree with in what he wrote. I agree with his comment that “in the end, it is their classroom.” He is absolutely right. The classroom is for the students, and although I think there are teachers who believe the classroom belongs to the adult, I do believe that Patty would agree with the fact that the classroom is for the students.

Classrooms are about learning. And learning has many different contexts. There is learning that happens in books or online through the use of tablets and smartphones, and then there is learning that happens through conversations. I’m not talking about scripted conversations but I do mean real conversations that take place in those down times that teachers and students seldomly see.

You see, being that classrooms are about the students, there are many straight and gay students who enter into those classrooms. Unfortunately, for those gay students, there is very little literature or modeling that takes place. Which is sad, because gay students are often the ones who lack the images and role models they need unlike their straight peers.

Coming Out
We can thank Ellen Degeneres, Melissa Etheridge, and television shows like Will and Grace and Modern Family for paving a path and making it a bit easier for gays and lesbians, but in many cases those who came out did not live in situations that mirrored television where everything was ok by the ending.

Coming out can be extremely difficult for people. Although society has become more open, and there are more gay characters on television and in the news than ever before, coming out requires a great deal of introspection and people figuring out who they are, and what friends they are willing to lose because those friends will discriminate toward gays and lesbians. And much to the comment made by Ebasco many people in the LGBTQ community merely want to live their lives.

And although many adults in the LGBTQ community have struggled with coming out, imagine how difficult it is for students who may lack the status or support that those adults have? They need stories of hope in order to move forward with their lives.

It’s funny though, because when heterosexual people talk about their children and spouses, it does not seem to attract negative criticism, and yet, when a teacher like Patty Smith wants to talk about her partner, there seems to be a great deal of criticism that comes with it. Why can’t we have it both ways? All students will benefit, regardless of whether they agree or not.

Awareness and dialogue matter, and it can be approached in a way that does not disenfranchise any of them.

Sadly, until I did my doctoral research (Dignity for All) on how well LGBTQ students are safeguarded by administrators, I had no idea how bad it really was. In my dissertation I used the research of GLSEN, which showed that over 85% of LGBTQ students were bullied and harassed each year. Many school administrators did nothing to change their school climates to be more inclusive for LGBTQ students.

In their 2013 National School Climate Survey, GLSEN found that,

55.5% of LGBT students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 37.8% because of their gender expression. 64.5% heard other homophobic remarks (e.g., "dyke" or "faggot") frequently or often. 51.4% of students reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff, and 55.5% of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other school staff. 74.1% of LGBT students were verbally harassed (e.g., called names or threatened) in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 55.2% because of their gender expression."

What was that about each classroom being for the students?

We need role models, much like teachers like Patty Smith because there are too many naysayers who are quick to jump to the comment that there is no place for LGBTQ conversations in the classroom. All students need role models, and there is no time better than now to have these conversations about being “out.” And I for one would like to thank Patty and Kevin Jennings for keeping the conversation going.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.