National Coming Out Day brings two faces to mind for me- one from my own school years and another from my early teaching days. The first, a young man who guarded his “coming out” carefully, living in fear of the bigotry of AIDS-fueled hysteria in the Bible belt. Those who knew and loved him supported and protected him as best we could but this was before the days of school Pflag and GLAD chapters. We were his friends and that was the best we could offer him. I often wonder at the ways that we must have failed him, even with our best efforts, because there was no one there to guide us. We had so many questions about what we should do, but there was no one to ask.
Years later I sat in a faculty meeting and listened to a debate between teachers as we discussed a young person in our community who had been out for years. I wish I could say we were trying to determine the most supportive stance or the best way to make her feel included and welcome in this rural, homogenous community. In reality, the question being debated was “How could she possibly know if she’s really gay at her age?”
Yup, we were arguing over whether or not she was actually gay- like it was our place to decide that for her. I’m not sure what specifically was about that conversation (seriously- it was so wrong on so many levels), but it was a moment I’ll never forget. The absolute denial of this young woman’s self awareness and her desire to live honestly, the unwillingness to accept her as just another student struggling to find her way, the anger at her “choice” to “disrupt” our school…it was the moment I Came Out as an ally in every possible sense of the word. Trust me- I didn’t become terribly popular by standing up and saying “I’m going to make my classroom a safe place for her- and for any other students in our school who are struggling to come to terms with their sexual or gender identity. I’m not going to tell them what they should or shouldn’t feel. I’m going to do my best to keep them safe- and to help their friends keep them safe. No questions asked.”
Now I live and work in a place where we try to make orientation a non-issue. We celebrate love for the gift it is. We strive to be extravagantly welcoming and we actively seek those who will hold us accountable when we’re not walking our talk. We push our students to look at their own classrooms and schools, to surface issues of equity and to stand up for those who are least able to stand up for themselves.
No questions asked.