Prizm News / August 19, 2019 / By Kevin Warman
One teacher’s thoughts on being out and proud in an Ohio classroom
August marks the beginning of a new school year. New pencils. New lessons. New teachers. But, for countless of us educators, the start of the school year represents another deeply personal journey: deciding whether to come out of the closet.
This decision is most certainly without a universal roadmap. We try and orient ourselves in the mental wilderness of the unknown, answering the persistent howls of myriad questions: Do I feel ready? Will my staff support me? What questions will students have? Will I be fired?
I became a teacher in 2017 knowing that I would come out to my class as gay even before I was hired. Growing up, I fiercely battled self-hatred, lived in fear, and now was ready to teach in full Technicolor.
But on that first day, I stood well-dressed and completely frozen in front my first of three 6th grade classes. My 25-year-old voice registered several octaves higher than usual, cracking as I informed them, “I am excited to be your teacher and I am gay!” The syllables ricocheted in the classroom hitting what I can only assume were many busy and varying thought-bubbles.
With two more classes in front of me, I would love to say that this coming out process became progressively easier for me. It didn’t. Each time I shared my identity, my students were tongue-tied. As the months went on, I would adjust to being open and my students adjusted along with me.
In crowded, buzzing halls I would hear students casually lob comments drenched in homophobia: referring to others as “Skittles”, “LA”, “fruity”, and even calling someone an “Edible Arrangement.” The connotation and association with the LGBTQ+ community was habitually and consistently negative.
I myself did not escape the crossfire. School leaders were aware that a few students had repeatedly called me gay to intimidate me and make me feel bad about my identity. Alongside several staff members, I expressed my frustrations to school administrators about these instances of intolerance. The response? Not much.
Several of us were given the funding to attend seminars to help create a more LGBTQ+ inclusive environment. The only hitch: every single one of us who volunteered to attend were members of the LGBTQ+ community. No administrators. No straight allies.
After the seminars, I followed up to ask about how we would incorporate addressing homophobia into our curriculum. I was told by administrators that there were no set plans for this to occur. And that was that.
Although it has been 40 years since the defeat of the Briggs Initiative—Proposition 6 in California that tried to ban gay and lesbian individuals from working in public schools—there is still so much more work to be done. Working in a state lacking in employment protections, Ohio teachers need administrators who will do more than put up safe space stickers as a sign of their support to their LGBTQ+ students and teachers. We need allies who will help students understand why calling someone an “Edible Arrangement” is dehumanizing. We need colleagues who take seriously the concerns of our LGBTQ+ siblings. And we need real leaders who will proactively protect the rights of every eager individual in the classroom…including the teacher.
Kevin Warman is a Cleveland-based educator and advocate for the advancement of education.