National Coming Out Day. It may not be apparent that there are many places to come out if you are LGBTQ. There’s your family, your friends and also your workplace. For years, I was out with my family, friends and coworkers, but was strictly closeted with my students. One day, that all changed. My “coming out” story in my classroom is a story of hope. This may not be what works for all communities, and all classrooms. But it is my story and it wouldn’t have happened without two incredible students of mine.
An open letter to two of my former students:
Dear Seeta and Torsten, Thank you. About five years ago, you came up to me in my middle-school classroom and asked me a question that changed my life. Marriage equality had just been passed in Maine the night before. You asked me, “Ms. Turner, is there a beautiful, magical day in your future?” You were both grinning ear to ear, filled with excitement and absolute support. I translated this question to mean, “Are you going to get married to your partner?” I have an Achilles’ heel, that luckily, most people don't know about. I can’t lie. So, if any student had asked me before if I was gay, I would have had to be honest. But, there was an unspoken “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in my classroom. I think many students knew I had a female partner, but it was never brought up. I rarely referred to anything that happened in my life outside of the classroom. This was painful. I never felt like I was fully honest with my students as I was hiding such a huge part of who I was. Yet, I kept this hidden. Until you asked. So, I answered, bursting with love. “Yes! Yes, there’s a magical day in my future!” I think there were probably some squeals of delight. Other students looked with curiosity at what was going on. So, I shared. I don’t know exactly how I bumbled through it, but I somehow shared that I would be marrying my partner. Finally! There were some confused looks, but not much was said. We moved on to the lesson of the day. I felt lighter. I felt free. Thank you.
This was a moment I had been fearing for my 10 years of teaching. Strangely, though, after I was out, the lightning bolt never struck me down. Nothing horrible ever happened. I know, however, that I’m lucky. In many parts of the country, it wouldn’t have gone over so well. In many parts of the country, a teacher coming out to her students is still unheard of. I am incredibly fortunate to live in a such a supportive community. Your sweet question changed me, and I imagine it changed students. There are now rainbow ally stickers on the doors of our school. Other teachers can be out at our school. Students know that I have a wife, and it really is no big deal. I feel like I’m authentic to my students and don’t need to hide the truth. I hope that this can be an example so that my students can be true to who they are, whatever that may be.
Thank you, Torsten and Seeta, for asking a question that changed my life.
Every Teacher Needs a Seeta or Torsten
My dear fellow LGBTQ teachers, I sincerely hope you have a Seeta or a Torsten in your life, who can help nudge you out of your classroom closet. I sincerely hope that your school community can be supportive of you. Before this happened, I was terrified of being “found out.” Yet, it was such a relief when it happened. Being open with your students is a huge step in building trusting relationships, which we know is critical to learning. More importantly, you can be a model for your students, that things get better, and that there is a healthy, positive life to lead as an LGBTQ teacher. For your students who are realizing that they may be LGBTQ, you can be a beacon of hope for them and a trusted adult they can turn to. And to teachers who are straight and/or cisgender, know that your LGBTQ colleagues are carrying a burden if they are in the closet. They’re holding their breath that “it” won’t be brought out. Talk with them. Let them know you support them. Don’t for a moment let aggressions stand against the LGBTQ community. We need you as an ally, now more than ever.
Becky Tapley is a middle school teacher at the Brooklin School, a small jewel of a school on the coast of Maine. Becky is a 2017 Maine Teacher of the Year Finalist. She is a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the Maine Teacher of the Year Association. Becky served on the 2017 Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers Maine Planning Committee. In 2012, ...