I am a gay, African-American male. After teaching for nearly 10 years, I have decided to come out to my students and colleagues. Let me tell you why it’s taken me so long.
The gay pride movement in our country has resulted in increased acceptance and progress towards equal rights. It has also created a conundrum for some gay teachers in low-income, minority schools. These teachers often battle with an internal conflict when considering talking openly about their sexuality with their students, debating between living their own truths or focusing on the many obstacles their students already face.
In many progressive neighborhoods, the reality that some students and adults may be gay is seamlessly embedded into schools’ climate. Many schools have worked hard to eliminate bullying and create inclusive cultures, flying rainbow flags freely and banning the use of word “gay” as an insult.
However, for students who deal with racism and poverty on a daily basis, there may be little space to explore the topic of homosexuality. In the black community in particular, being open about sexuality is a serious challenge. Acting outside of the strong heterosexual male stereotype is seen as weakness, equated with being defective, and in too many Black churches, being gay is still seen as a terrible transgression. Because of this, in many low-income minority schools, including the one in the neighborhood in which I teach, both students and teachers are still afraid to talk openly about their sexuality.
Conflict and Confusion
As a poor black teenager, I came to understand that coming out would give society even more reasons to discriminate against me. I assumed my family would not be accepting. Growing up in an impoverished neighborhood where teenage boys worked to put food on the table and often served as fathers to their younger siblings, little room was left to consider what it meant to be gay. I learned to suppress my desires and forced myself to consider it a phase. Like many young black men, I kept my sexuality a secret, but inside of me conflict and confusion took center stage.
My experience is not an uncommon one. A 2009 report from the National Education Association notes that LGBT minority students often face a combination of conflicts in coming to terms with their identify, stemming from their experiences of sexuality, racism, and exclusion from both minority and majority groups as a result of their sexual orientation and skin color.
Likewise, I was not surprised that the NEA found that many gay teachers feel sheer terror when coming out to students, due to factors that range from parent objections to losing their jobs.
Despite my lifelong fears, I now realize that my students look to me today for guidance. For this reason, I know I must do what is best for me and my students: Live my truth with pride and courage and share that truth with my students.
This will not be an easy thing for me to do, but I am inspired by other gay educators who have acknowledged their sexuality their students. Last year, I attended a pride event with Pete Cahall, then the principal of Wilson High School in Washington, who had recently come out to his students. I was energized by his willingness to own his truth. Whispering from the sidelines I said, “Me too!” That whisper wasn’t carried any further than to the small group of friends who danced in the streets with me that day, but Cahall’s bravery and self-acceptance quaked my own sense of being and caused me to question how much I recognized my truth. I had been focused on my identity as a black male, but I needed to cultivate my identity as a gay man as well.
Claiming My Identity
I draw parallels between my situation and that of some famous African-American writers and artists. It is well-known now that Langston Hughes and James Baldwin lived double lives in order to elevate the status of African Americans in 20th century and to be true to their sexual orientation. Much of their work was a bridge between the two worlds, connecting expression with the essences of sexuality and race, but the overarching focus of civil rights permeated the social movements of their eras and took away from their identity as gay artists. These men often pushed the agenda of equality for African Americans ahead of the agenda for gay rights. This is a complex decision that gay men of color still face today.
At this stage in the nation’s history, I strongly believe that we must build respect and support for LGBT students and teachers. But in low-income, minority schools where students are faced with the debilitating effects of racism and poverty, issues of gay pride and inclusion seem less relevant. Placing a rainbow bumper sticker on a car becomes second to raising a fist to show unity for black rights. Teachers and students of color are still fighting to be accepted by society. They do not always want to add additional reasons to discriminate against them.
However, I have come to understand that if I choose to fight to change the status of black men in this country, then I must also choose to fight for gay rights. If I aim to expand my students’ perspective of fairness, resilience, dedication, and respect, I have to remain truthful and proud of who I am, including my sexual orientation. If I want to be a role model for my students, they should know that the teacher they view as strong, cool, and intelligent is also gay (and that those qualities are certainly not mutually exclusive with homosexuality). I have the responsibility to increase my students’ awareness and support those students that may be struggling with their own sexual identities.
I also have a responsibility to address the misunderstandings that lead to discrimination against gay people, many of which are prevalent in my community. I need to do this for my students as well as myself. When I chose to become a teacher, I made a commitment to advocate for my students and be their leader. In my classroom we discuss coping with domestic violence, the loss of loved ones, and issues of racial discrimination. The injustices facing gays and lesbians must also be included in our conversations about these societal issues, and I can’t lead such discussions honestly without talking about my own experiences.
I know that my decision to stand up as a proud gay African-American man in my classroom is the best one that I can make for my students and for myself.