Op-ed: When Teaching Means Going Back Into The Closet

Op-ed: When Teaching Means Going Back Into The Closet

I have always considered myself an LGBT activist. I came out when I was 17 years old and brought a guy to my senior prom as a statement. I was involved with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst’s Stonewall group and helped organize four buses to the National Equality March in Washington, D.C., in 2009. I’ve dedicated my career to LGBT equality, as I currently work for the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the world’s largest provider of programs and services for the LGBT community.

At the age of 22, however, I went back into the closet — something I never thought would have happened, and it had a mental toll on me that I did not realize until afterward.

After receiving my undergraduate degree, I joined Teach for America in 2011 and served for two years as a seventh-grade special education math teacher in Oahu, Hawaii, where I was working in the lowest-ranking public school in the state. My two years in Teach for America were extremely challenging. I had to learn a new curriculum, navigate a career entirely foreign to me, and try to assimilate into a culture I knew nothing about. I worked for 12 hours on a good day, and I was also in graduate school for special education.

As a result, I was in complete survival mode, and the idea of being out to my students was something I did not have the mental capacity to even process. We place so much emphasis on creating safe spaces for LGBT students, yet I did not feel that I had any support as an LGBT teacher. I was nervous about coming out because there was a level of homophobia in the school I worked at (as in most communities where Teach for America corps members are placed throughout the country), and I was also the only openly gay member in my 2011 corps group.

During my first year teaching, I always put off the idea of being out to my students. Essentially, I went back into the closet. There never seemed to be a “right” time to announce it to everyone, so I always put it off. I began measuring my behaviors and what I said, and on top of that, I would become extremely uncomfortable when students asked me about my personal life or the dreadful question, “Mister, are you gay?”

At the time, my regional support in Teach for America did not seem to have many resources for helping with this situation. I did not feel comfortable enough to ask for help. It isn’t until now, when I look back on that situation, that I realize how much I was suffering by going back into the closet as a teacher.

Unfortunately, I know I am not a rare case — this is a very common situation with LGBT Teach for America corps members (and, I’m sure, with many teachers who identify as part of the LGBT community). Instead of feeling ashamed about my decisions in the past, however, I decided to use my experiences to shape future LGBT corps members experiences for the better.

In September I started working with Teach for America as the head of its LGBT DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness) sessions for the city of Los Angeles. We have created a space where LGBTQ and ally corps members can discuss their experiences and challenges in the classroom.

In addition to providing tangible resources for use in classrooms and opportunities for rich discussions of how race and class intersect with the LGBT community and movement, I have also brought on board GLAAD's Ricky Carter to share his expertise and experiences working in the LGBT community. During the school year, Ricky and I co-manage these monthly sessions, and our goal is to allow all LGBTQA corps members to feel comfortable, educated, and aware of all the resources available to an out teacher in the L.A. Unified School District, and to support their students’ backgrounds and diversities.

After our first session, one of our corps members who had attended came out to her students, and she credited her courage to being in a space where there was an opportunity to talk about these situations.

But our monthly sessions are only a small part of a broader plan by Teach for America to provide more support for its LGBT corps members. In October, Teach for America announced a launch of its national LGBTQ initiative, “to support LGBTQ students and create safe classrooms for them to learn, bring educational equity to the forefront of conversations within the LGBTQ community, expand the impact of LGBTQ students, corps members, alumni, and staff; and help demonstrate teaching in high-need schools as a career pathway for those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning." The organization has hired Tim’m West to be the new managing director of its strategic LGBT initiative.

I am optimistic that these initiatives will result in LGBT corps members feeling more comfortable being themselves in the classroom and a step forward in the movement for equality within the educational sphere. As a gay alumnus of Teach for America, I know the pain of being unable to be open about my sexual orientation firsthand. By increasing the support and attention for LGBT teachers in the classroom, we are facilitating an opportunity to make a difference. 

AMIR MOINI is a foundation grant writer for the Los Angeles LGBT Center and a 2011 Teach For America alumnus.

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