The Importance of an Out Teacher for LGBTQ Youth
Having an out teacher can significantly affect the school experience for LGBTQ students, yet there are few protections for queer teachers brave enough to be out
“Well, they can’t fire me now.”
That was my first thought upon being selected as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year. After 15 years as an educator, it wasn’t until I received this public recognition that I finally felt safe to do the work that I’ve felt called to do.
My career longevity was never something I could count on. Because I’m from the 13th congressional district in the Texas Panhandle, identified by the Cook Political Report as the reddest in the country, my job wasn’t guaranteed to me if someone took issue with me being openly gay. In fact, my home state is one of 28 that will not protect your right to work if you are gay or transgender.
And if you’re one of 10 million K-12 public school students in Texas and seven other states, so-called no promo homo laws restrict your learning about health for gay or transgender youth. These laws have a chilling effect on curriculum beyond health class, causing teachers — a profession known for rule-following — to avoid discussion, history, or literature that could possibly be seen as violating the laws. Beyond the school, books with LGBTQ characters or themes are often the most challenged books in schools, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship.
The issue goes beyond Texas. The 2018 national Harris Poll data shows a sizable amount of people (31%) are “somewhat or very uncomfortable” with the idea of discovering a family member is gay or in having their children attend schools where they might be taught by an LGBTQ teacher. Almost 40% said they would be uncomfortable with their child learning an LGBTQ history lesson.
Anecdotal stories from LGBTQ friends in blue states reflect a need for self-protection. After Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rolled back Title IX protections for transgender youth, and with the Justice Department embroiled in a fight against Title VII job protections of gender identity, LGBTQ rights are becoming increasingly vulnerable. The Equality Act, which would codify these protections into law, along with protections for sexual orientation, has stalled in the Republican-led Congress and is opposed by President Donald Trump.
For both of us, it was a lesson in the power of being seen, valued, and safe.
When students feel unsafe at school, they don’t attend classes and they avoid school activities. However, in schools where students have protections, they have higher outcomes and less absenteeism, according to survey data on school climate from Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
“Allies who want to make a difference can advocate for local policies in their districts that help to create a more welcoming environment that allows everyone to thrive and perform at their highest level,” says Brenda Barron, GLSEN’s Director of Public Policy.
A common theme of coming-out stories, I learned from professor Timothy McCarthy, is the lack of role models. For those of us growing up without LBGTQ adults around, we needed to know, as Dan Savage says, that life gets better.
This was true in my experience. There were no LGBTQ adults to counteract the poisonous narratives I heard in the pews of my fundamentalist church. There were no models of a life built on love and service. No older folks to show any of us that you can be gay and accomplished, gay and well-adjusted.
In the absence of role models, we default to looking at the culture and what the culture has shown for so long is that gay people are essentially nonpeople.
Last fall, I was a teaching fellow for an undergraduate course at Harvard where I co-led a lecture on gender and sexuality. It was the first time I stood in front of a classroom and identified myself as a lesbian. This decision began a different type of dialogue with several of the students who identify as gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender.
It’s important to have a gay teacher, Amelia, a freshman who is gay, told me, because “when you’re in school, most of the adults you’re interacting with in a serious way are your teachers. And they’re the ones showing you the worlds you could inhabit. When those adults are openly and without consequence owning an identity that you are still afraid to claim.”
That’s especially true if you are gender nonconforming, says Luke, another student who identifies as trans. “In my case, not having a teacher who was trans or familiar with the trans experience often caused me to not bring up my own gender identity as I was afraid it would be intrusive or unproductive,” Luke says. “The cost, unfortunately, is that I am not understood fully and struggle to find real interpersonal connections with people who don’t ask or even know to ask to understand me.”
Damian, a bisexual junior, didn’t come out until he was at Harvard. After the lecture, he hugged me and said, “You’re my first out teacher.” His words stayed with me all the way home where I found myself uncharacteristically tearful. For him and for me, just the willingness to be open about my identity freed both of us to be more authentic in our section discussions. For both of us, it was a lesson in the power of being seen, valued, and safe.
All of our students deserve that — especially our most vulnerable young people.