As a gay high school teacher, I often ask myself how to best navigate my sexual orientation in my classroom. I believe that at a time when cultural conversations about what it means to be a man or a woman are not so clear, LGBT educators have the unique qualifications to explore sensitive topics like gender and identity with their students.
I thought at first that teachers should separate their personal and professional selves. But senseless acts like the Pulse shooting and the recent increases in the vitriol and violence against LGBT people have served as sobering reminders that queer acceptance in the United States is not only tenuous, but has life and death ramifications. I felt that my decision to stay in the closet made me complicit in the culture of apathy, intolerance, and discrimination that too many LGBT students are forced to endure; I felt responsible to visibly exist for these kids and embody the mantra that “it gets better.”
To my surprise, my decision to come out has also resonated with many of my non-LGBT students. In particular, it helped me to develop closer connections with my straight male students, the group I feared that my disclosure would comprise my relationship with the most.
Take Christian, for example, a quarterback who has often made sexist and homophobic jokes in class until I came out. My coming out allowed us to talk honestly about the roots and impact of his comments at a personal level and work toward the revelation that proving one’s masculinity need not be at the expense of others. Another student, Bryan, a 17-year-old with a sleeve tattoo and twice my height, found an emotional confidant in me after I shared my personal struggles on being queer. He started chatting with me after class, often by skipping his own lunch, to process the emotions and issues he was going through: the pregnancy scare he had with his girlfriend, the confrontation he had with a police officer, and the hurt he felt about his incarcerated father. What he appreciated was access to a safe space and a person with whom he could articulate his vulnerability without fear of judgement.
When I think of my decision, I think also of students like Noah, an MFA fighter in training whom I taught in his sophomore year. After I came out, he made a habit of stopping by every once in a while until the day he graduated. He’d usually come in to calm down from something that set him off, or seek advice on solving “a beef” without dealing a punch. A survivor of domestic violence, he vowed to be “a different man” from his father and we spent hours discussing what that might look like. I won’t forget the moment he broke down in tears, not knowing how to help his mom who found herself in another abusive relationship. I can’t say that I helped him resolve all his struggles, but I know that by being able to listen, emphatically and warmly, I gave him the support he needed at the time.
For these young men, it mattered less who I loved, and more that I could explore with them what it means to be a man in a world with many expectations but with little direction. In our conversations came organic opportunities to address the soft skills that too often society deems unimportant to teach young men: the value of listening with empathy and without judgement, the tools to recognize one’s emotions and to control them, the framework to process maleness in a cultural context that imparts meaning beyond our ability to navigate it.
I’ve had similar breakthroughs with straight girls and trans students, where my insights as a queer person opened up channels to explore issues of gender without circumscribing its meaning and function. As those who’ve historically lived outside the margins of gendered expectations, queer folk can impart to others a blueprint to reconcile gender with the stereotypes and pressures that come with it; this is why I encourage LGBT educators to come out in their schools.
It’s not that straight educators can’t have these moments with students ― they certainly can ― but queer people, through their lived experience, offer an alternative insight against the rigid rules and pressures that govern our genders; and for many non-LGBT students, this comes as a relief.
On the morning after the Pulse shooting, Noah swung his head in my classroom during passing period. He said in a thick New England accent, “Yo mister, if anyone gives you crap about you being you, I’ll knock their f*ing teeth in.”
It turned out our support system was not a one-way street.
TAKERU NAGAYOSHI is a 9th- and 10th-grade English teacher in southern Massachusetts, and a Teach Plus Commonwealth Policy Fellow. All names and some details have been changed to protect students’ privacy.