Here’s How We Help Our Students Take ‘Pride’ in Who They Are

Jun 27, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Tiffany Moyer-Washington

Coming out is never simple or easy, but it’s especially tough when you’re a teacher. The first time I “came out” to my students, it was a disaster. I was getting married in a neighboring state over the weekend, since at the time my state didn’t yet honor same-sex marriages. A student had overheard some of the teachers talking about attending my wedding and asked me about it. Not entirely sure how to handle the question, I paused and then awkwardly explained that yes, I was getting married, and yes I was marrying a woman. We were in the main hallway as classes were changing. Needless to say, it was not a private conversation between two people; it was practically a school-wide assembly. This led to an incredibly uncomfortable Q & A session. Though I went home feeling uncomfortable, I felt like I had done the “right thing.” Well, I won’t get into the politics that followed or the parents who pulled their children from the gay teacher’s classes. Let’s just say that I learned that how I “came out” had to be handled less dramatically and publicly.

Take Two

Three years later, I was working at a new school and, after weighing how to “come out,” I decided that this time I would wait for the right moment and just drop it in casually. But that wasn’t exactly how it played out. During the first week of school, two students in my class were arguing over something when one blurted out, “you’re so gay,” to insult his peer. I saw this as my moment, and announced, “Me too!” The class was mortified, surprised and once again, I was drawn into a deeply personal, awkward question-and-answer session. By lunch, not only did all of my students know, so did the entire study body.

The Challenge for Our Students

As a gay teacher, I struggle to find that right time, that line, that moment when it is OK to tell students who you are. But the struggle is even greater for our students. I didn’t grow up in an overtly open and affirming home, so I understand the real fears of telling parents who might not understand. For some students, their parents’ cultural, religious or political beliefs might make acceptance of who they are difficult. It is important as educators not to push our students to talk to their parents when they aren’t ready, especially if they aren’t certain of their living conditions after they do. At the same time, as educators, [pullquote]it is also our responsibility to ensure that students never need to fear for their safety or acceptance in our own classrooms.[/pullquote] In many respects, teachers act as surrogate parents for students: setting appropriate boundaries, offering praise and encouragement, and even giving life advice. Because of this unique relationship, it is crucial that students know they can come to us and tell us who they are without fear of ridicule or rejection. It is our responsibility to create classrooms where all students feel comfortable in their own skin—no room for “that’s so gay,” or “man-up” or other micro-aggressions that only amplify a student’s feelings of inadequacy. Over the years I have become far more comfortable with “coming out” in the classroom. I mention my wife and children casually, when appropriate. I bring my kids and wife to basketball games or other school-sponsored events. And what I have found is that, while no student has formally “come out” to me, the gay kids always end up in my room at lunch or after school. They awkwardly run up to my wife at public events and introduce themselves like they’ve just met a celebrity. Just knowing that there’s someone comfortable with who they are allows them to feel more comfortable with themselves.

Working Together

Interestingly, it has been my straight colleagues that get the heartfelt “I’m gay, but no one knows” conversations from our LGBTQ+ students. I think most students assume I know, implicitly. The straight teacher’s responsibility is great also, as their response will truly set the standard for how children in the LGBTQ+ community begin to accept themselves. [pullquote]My teaching experience has demonstrated to me the importance of both gay and straight teachers uniting to create a culture of pride and acceptance.[/pullquote] I co-lead our school’s Safe Space with a cisgender, straight man. He is the best “undercover” ally I’ve ever had. Students know better than to use a homophobic slur in or around my classroom, because I’m “the gay teacher.” But that isn’t enough to transform their behavior or their homophobic beliefs—all it usually does is suppress them. Where I start to see change in students is when this straight teacher calls them out for hate speech or wears rainbow glasses on the Day of Silence. I start to see change when he chaperones the Rainbow Ball and Gay Prom. Change starts because straight students can see themselves in him. They recognize that the road to acceptance does not lie only with the gay, bi or trans students, but within themselves. Gay teachers can’t do this alone. We need our straight colleagues to start gay-straight alliances, stop hate speech, and create safe spaces for students. Pride isn’t a “gay” issue. It’s a human issue. And we are all in the business of educating kids—it is our responsibility to provide a welcoming environment where all students can learn.

Tiffany Moyer-Washington

Tiffany Moyer-Washington is an eighth-grade English language arts teacher at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy in Hartford, Connecticut, and a member of Educators 4 Excellence.

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