RAINBOWS ON CHALKBOARDS: Rural New Englanders Weigh in on Being Out in the Classroom
Naomi Rachel Ullian
In late July, in a sunny old schoolhouse redolent with the smells of freshly-baked banana bread and guava-pineapple juice set out in glasses, I sat down with HB Lozito and a small group of local educators to talk about queerness.
What I was most curious about was how queer-identified and allied teachers approach off-the-cuff homophobic, racist, and other oppressive remarks in the extra-curricular after-math-and-before-biology moments not structured by the curriculum. Among the many vibrant stories shared by the participant, the thread that stood out most prominently was a mutual hunger to share that Venn-diagram space where queer experiences overlap with responsibilities and ambitions as educators.
Several days after this conversation, I mentioned in passing to a co-worker that I'd gotten to participate in this discussion. "When? Where?" she asked, jumping at the idea that queer educators were getting together and sharing stories. I regretted that I had to tell her that such a group didn't exist yet, at least not regularly.
But here, at the start of the school year, we share these interviews in hopes of initiating a chain of conversation that builds community for queer educators and the work they're are doing in the world. If you're inspired to start your own crew, we'd love to hear about it.
One of the basic issues for queer teachers anywhere is whether to be out, if so to whom, and how often to bring this aspect of their lives up in classroom conversation.
Ellen, a middle school humanities teacher in southern Vermont has been out as queer for the entire eleven years that she's been teaching. But, she says, "It's still an area of vulnerability in the classroom. Even though I think more and more it's a non-issue for the kids, there are still situations where I feel really vulnerable."
Laura teaches 9th and 10th grade science at a progressive public charter school in Massachusetts and agrees that while being out can be an issue, it isn't necessarily insurmountable. Early in her career, she found it more difficult to be out and visible as a single queer person. "It's a lot easier to talk about my wife or partner at school than a date I went on," she says. "Now there's pictures of our child on my desk."
Where Laura teaches now is "very queer friendly" and she notes that she has been openly queer-identified the entire four years she has taught there. Prior to that, however, she taught at a private school, where the principle was also queer but requested that the staff not be out to any students or parents.
In her 15 years of teaching, Laura feels that a lot has changed for LGBTQ folks in educator's roles. "I have a lot of students also identifying as queer or are coming out as trans, asking a lot of questions, and that's a whole interesting thing, how to be a queer role model for youth."
Emily, a kindergarten teacher who worked in LGBT non-profits for many years before becoming a teacher, found the transition to be "a bizarre switch in reality where it was not possible to be out." Even today, after 11 years in the classroom, she confesses, "If I take a step back, I'm always shocked at how scared I am." The story she shared with us helped us understand her fears.
During Emily's first year teaching in a New York City public school serving mostly low-income students and families, the school principal enabled the 4th graders to cheat on their tests, motivated by a pay raise she would receive based on higher 4th grade test scores. After Emily intervened to expose the cheating, the principal pulled Emily into her office before firing her.
The principal told Emily, "I hired you and you're gay. No one else would hire you." Which
seemed to true at the time.
"My resume only had queer stuff on it," says Emily, "There was nothing else on it, there was nothing I could say without being out. As soon as I would hand in my resumes I'd get shut down. When this cheating situation went down, I got riffed from that school immediately and I had to find another job. That never happened again but I was so scared that it would."
When Emily and her partner, also a teacher, moved to southern Vermont from the city, Emily says, "There was nothing closeted about us." But being queer still proved an obstacle.
During Emily's first year teaching in Vermont, she received a bulleted letter from the mother of a student, demanding, among other things, that Emily stop mentioning her wife in the classroom.
"In the kindergarten classroom, writing instruction is picture-based," says Emily, "And when we talk about our weekends, we draw our families. Other teachers are drawing their husbands and their kids and their dogs, and I'm drawing my wife and our kid and our dog. I narrate that and the whole time I'm like, oh god, what's going to happen."
Emily took the mother's note to her principal's office and gave it to him, sobbing. He told her that she had to have expected that something like this might happen, and Emily responded that, no, she wasn't upset that a parent or student felt uncomfortable around her queerness.
Emily told her principal, "What I'm really worried about is that you're going to tell me that I have to be closeted or I'm going to lose my job."
Despite the fact that Emily was now in a rural area and not a metropolitan area, she was pleasantly surprised by the principal's response. "He said, 'I hired you for you,'" Emily remembers, "'I want you to be you, and don't you dare try to be anything else.'"
While Emily feels generally very supported by her co-workers and school community to be out in her teaching, she observes, "It should feel liberating, but every year I'm like, Oh geeze."
Ellen, a middle school teacher who also completed her teaching licensure in New York City, also observes that being a queer teacher in a rural area isn't necessarily more challenging that being herself in a big city. "I worked at a really large school, very diverse, a lot of recent immigrants. A lot of my high school students in New York were more homophobic than my middle schoolers here in Vermont, maybe because they were from places where people aren't out."
Laura explains that the issues for queer-identified individuals in rural schools is more complex than simply saying that rural schools are more homophobic than other schools.
The public charter school she currently teaches at has a reputation for being a really progressive place that some conservative families choose for their kids because of the school’s strong academic reputation. While the school itself maintains strong support for LGBTQ students and staff, the families are sometimes in conflict with the school's choices.
"We've had parents complain that our school is indoctrinating queer youth, that there are clubs you can join where you can talk about things like gender and sexuality."
Laura says that some students have been pulled out of school because their parents believed that the teachers or liberal school environment influenced their coming out.
"Some of these kids are growing up really rurally," she says, "Their families might not really know people who are queer." She surmises that the information and social contact with queer-positive community that the students receive might feel overwhelming to their families.
Many of the educators agree that having queer-friendly staff and supportive principal makes a big difference in both students' and teachers' comfort levels.
"A really incredible experience was having a teacher on my team come out as trans," Laura says. The teacher started using different pronouns and was embraced by the whole school community. "I know that it was scary for them to do that in their classroom, to field the parents' responses, but seeing the effect on students who identify as trans was amazing. It was really really valuable."
As a straight-identified sixth grade teacher in Vermont, Julie says she's never felt vulnerable or scared in the classroom. But, she notes, how other people read her presentation -- short hair, pants but never skirts or dresses -- often makes her feel more accessible for queer students and families. Most of her students and the administrators who have hired her, Julie believes, have likely assumed that she's queer, something she doesn’t feel is appropriate to address unless explicitly asked.
"I don't try to look or act gay," she says, "And I’m not trying to hide being straight. I think my presentation is more a product of six older brothers and my community. The queer community always assumes I'm gay, so those are also always my first friends anywhere I go. I'm not going to correct people unless they ask me straight out."
Julie has intentional reasons for not correcting people. "I've always thought my androgyny serves me well," she explains. "I can feel the excitement or relief from my queer students and families, like they've hit the jackpot with a safe or understanding teacher. If the kids in my class or their parents identify me as queer and feel safe with me, or the kids who come from families that are homophobic are having a good experience with me as their teacher, everybody wins."
Friends and co-workers asked Julie why she didn't change her appearance to correct being mistaken for queer, and she says, "Not that I would, because I don't find it comfortable, but if I started wearing a lot of skirts and dresses tomorrow, I think I would lose a lot of the boys in my classroom."
Julie observes that many elementary school teachers are feminine women, and that her androgyny helps her be more accessible to her 6th grade boys. "I don't feel that they have a lot people and safe places to go to," she says, "They are 12 and in puberty and I feel like they relate with me.”
"I've had that same experience," says Mel, a former middle and high school classroom teacher who now works with teachers and schools to implement restorative justice practices in educational settings. "Elementary and middle school boys love me, and I think it’s the same reason. I'm accessible to them in that way."
Mel says that, when she was teaching in the classroom, she didn't yet identify as queer, but her presentation has always been that of "a tomboy and sort of androgynous in a lot of ways," which allowed her to be seen as a safe person by some students
"Queer kids would be drawn to me, not necessarily because they'd think oh, Mel is gay, but because my gender is broader. Students who were queer or questioning gender would come to me, because they saw me this way."
Mel adds that, because she didn't feel her job was in jeopardy when she was identifying as a straight teacher, she felt confident introducing LGBTQ material into the curriculum.
"I really didn't feel that people would think I was pushing an agenda, so I said, yeah I'm going to do a unit on youth resisting homophobia, yeah I'm going to run the GSA. I had no worries about my own safety or comfort in that position, because I was straight. I wonder if I had been identifying as a queer person then how I would have felt about coming up against an administrator. I think I would have felt really different."
Emily, who openly identifies as queer in her kindergarten classroom experiences a different kind of misperception with her students.
"Strangely," she says with a smile, "For at least half of the years I've been teaching, a kid will say, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ At the end of the year, after we've spent the entire school year together. And here I am, thinking I'm a woman who loves a woman."