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Teacher Voice

I Have the Courage to Teach LGBTQ Literature Because It Saved My Life

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”—Franz Kafka When I was 21 years old, three years after I had come out to myself and my family, I was struggling with a tremendous sense of internalized homophobia. This was fueled, in part, by the fact that my mother was convinced that I would never be able to keep a job, much less a teaching job; she couldn’t imagine why I was choosing to make my life so difficult; and she was convinced I would get AIDS. It was the late 80s, and lesbians were invisible then. It was a full decade before Ellen would come out on the Oprah Winfrey show. When newspaper headlines touted AIDS as the gay plague, no one bothered to clarify that lesbians were actually in one of the lowest risk groups for contracting HIV. It was implied that God hated us too. The summer before I landed my first teaching job, I stumbled across “Annie on My Mind,” a young adult book about two teenage girls falling in love, by Nancy Garden. This book, for me, was an axe for my frozen sea. Here is an excerpt:
It was like a war inside me; I couldn’t even recognize all the sides. There was one that said, “No, this is wrong; you know it’s wrong and bad and sinful,” and there was another that said,  “Nothing has ever felt so right and natural and true and good,”... and another that just wanted to stop thinking altogether and fling my arms around Annie and hold her forever.
It was the first time I had ever read about someone like me, and it was transformative beyond words. It was just a year later that I secured my first job as a junior high English teacher. Vera Ames was my unofficial mentor; we didn’t designate mentors back in those days. She was warm and kind and passionate—everything I dreamed of being as a teacher. When I spied a copy of “Annie on My Mind” on her bookshelf, I was dumbstruck. To me this seemed to be a remarkable act of courage. Vera, it turns out, was a civil rights activist—one who was busy fighting for gay rights through her very progressive church when we crossed paths in rural Wisconsin in 1989. She understood that all students deserved to see themselves represented in literature. I summoned the courage that year to put “Annie on my Mind” on my bookshelf too. While I have since moved into an instructional coaching role, I’m happy to share that the landscape of our middle school looks very different today, a quarter of a century later. On teachers’ shelves and in their literature circle selections, students will find titles like “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Saenze, “Ask the Passengers” by A.S. King, “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” by John Green, “Personal Effects” by E.M. Kokie, “Every Day” by David Levithan, and “I’ll Give You the Sun” by Jandy Nelson, just to name a few. Students who identify as LGBTQ have many opportunities to see themselves represented not only on the shelves, but also in the curriculum. And all children benefit from the wellspring of understanding and empathy these books inspire. And yet, despite the fact that Ellen came out 20 years ago, and gay marriage is legal in every state, it still takes courage for teachers to offer literature selections like these for their students today; doing what’s right sometimes does take courage. The reality is that the world is often a hostile place for many of our students who identify as LGBTQ (and sometimes, even for their allies). This can be evidenced in the higher rates of suicide, homelessness and bullying for these children. These books can provide students with a safe haven. These books can save lives. For educators and children who identify as LGBTQ, the importance of allies in schools cannot be understated. The courage of these educators who act as allies can often serve as a beacon for people like me to find their own.
Jane McMahon is the 2014 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She currently serves acting as the director of teaching and learning in the Baraboo School District. McMahon taught middle school language arts for 24 years and acted as an instructional facilitator for two before moving into administration. She has presented at ...

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