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Op-ed: What I Learned From My High School's Gay English Teacher

Op-ed: What I Learned From My High School's Gay English Teacher


A straight high school junior in Lexington, Ky., gets a lesson in empathy from an out member of her school's faculty.

In the wake of state senators approving Senate Bill 76, which sought to forbid transgender students from using the restrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity, I had been assigned a piece about the LGBT community more broadly.

I was vaguely aware that as editor of the school paper at the city's second-largest high school, I was positioned to lead the charge in transforming my small part of Kentucky into an accepting group of people, working to spread that acceptance. And I was standing outside room 113 to make that change.

I wasn't sure what to expect as I walked into the classroom of one of the few out gay teachers at Dunbar High School in Lexington, Ky. I straightened my button-down and adjusted my "Newspaper Staff" badge. I smiled wide as if to say, "From this point on, you are polite and concise." I knocked on the door, and a man with blond stubble and a warm stare opened the door, his face easily stretching into a smile. I introduced myself for the first time since contacting him via email several weeks earlier. He shook my hand and I hoped mine wasn't as sweaty as I thought it was. "Hi, I'm Eddie Mullins," he said. "What would you like to know?"

Despite the English teacher's warm demeanor, I was more nervous than I had ever been during my three-year stint as a student journalist. I accepted Mr. Mullins's approaching handshake, then walked myself to a table to set up the recording device.

Before my interview with Mr. Mullins, I'd never had a conversation with him. That's the problem with going to a school of 2,200 students. I had, however, heard a lot about him from other students and teachers, mostly that he was unforgiving when it came to turning in late work. Plenty of other students also told me about his openness and honesty -- which struck me for its contrast with the standard young adults who generally believed their teachers were part of an underground failure-delivery system. I had a list of questions to ask him and I was more curious about the answers than I thought any reader could be.

"I went to Garrard County High School, which was pretty rural," Mullins began. "I was absolutely aware that I was gay at the time, but I was terrified of anybody knowing. I didn't tell a soul until after I graduated, because I just felt like it would be complete and total rejection. I also felt like it was wrong; I didn't want to be gay at that time. I felt like I had to hide it and suppress it. It was a very dark and troublesome secret for me."

I'll admit, I was apprehensive at first to take on this assignment -- mostly because at the time, I wasn't quite sure how I felt about commonly discussed topics like same-sex marriage. I did know, however, that this was a kind man, willing to answer anything I threw at him.

I grew up in a relatively conservative household, and didn't know anyone who was gay until I got to high school. By then, anything I learned about LGBT people was through TV or family conversations. When I was young, I thought that men only liked women and women only liked men; I didn't know any better.

But my conversation with Mr. Mullins opened my eyes to a common thread I've seen with students involved in our school's gay-straight alliance or LGBT students in the drama department. There is an unspoken mantra within these communities: Be honest with me and I'll be honest with you. I've watched LGBT students, teachers, and parents calmly debunking antigay rumors or misperceptions. And depending on the accusation, this calmness is quite impressive; it takes a big person to politely defuse a hostile interaction.

Mr. Mullins knows this routine well, using his own lived experiences to validate and support LGBT kids.

"I think it's important for LGBTQ students to have visible role models in their lives," he says. "Not in the sense that they need to be like me or live their life like me, but for students who don't have any gay family or friends in their lives ... they need to see that LGBTQ people are just normal, everyday people, living their lives like anyone else."

And thanks to Mr. Mullins, I was able to see just that. I'm grateful to have gotten the chance to write the piece -- and the positive reception it garnered doesn't hurt, either; several teachers shared the post on social media, and it became quite popular among the faculty. But I'm more appreciative for the timing.

My interview with Mr. Mullins taught me about the struggles he dealt with growing up in small-town Kentucky. So when I heard the news about the Rowan County clerk refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court's decision in favor of marriage equality last month, I had a firsthand source to help me appreciate what it was like to live without being able to be yourself.

I still formed my own opinions and understood both sides, but I was no longer basing my thoughts only on what I had grown up hearing from family and friends. I could see the issue with new eyes.

I went from a reserved, detached writer to someone who was willing to ask questions off the record. It took some time and humility, but in these last couple months, I've become more than a purely objective journalist thanks to the use of a little empathy. That's the lesson I learned from Mr. Mullins.

Fortunately, I'm not the only one to have a change of heart, as the transphobic SB 76 died in committee in the House of Representatives. It's encouraging to know that the political leadership may finally be listening to the concerns of our state's young leaders.

After the interview, I thanked Mr. Mullins and swung open the heavy door to the hallway. I held the recording device in my palm, toucing the microphone with my thumb as I thought of the humbling information humming inside it. I had changed after the interview. And I was ready to put it in writing.

Pamx120_0PAM STRAVITZ is a recent graduate of Dunbar High School in Lexington, Ky., where she was editor of the school newspaper.

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