by Read Karsell
If you haven’t had to come out, you likely don’t know how overwhelming and all-consuming it is. From early middle school when I began to realize I wasn’t interested in women, being gay was all I was thinking about. It's paranoia. Every second you talk, you worry you don’t sound straight enough.
I didn’t say gay throughout high school; yet, a day didn’t go by when it was not on my mind. Throughout my education, I had to insist I was straight whenever I was asked if I was gay (which began in forth grade when I didn’t even know what gay was). In high school:
I’d arrive home, struggling daily, because I had this secret I was keeping from my family. I knew they'd be accepting of me, but every day until my coming out was riddled with guilt because I felt I owed it to them. To combat this, I started setting goals:
What ended up forcing my hand was a combination of my mom asking me directly and my self-made rule that I wouldn’t come out to my dad by bringing a boy home--and I held myself to it.
And, one more thing: my experience is privileged.
My Story is a Success Story
I am privileged to have been born into a family that, for whatever reason, is accepting of me. Having met a lot of queer people after coming out, my story is a lesser known one--one of total acceptance. Most people don’t get that. Many have family they have yet to tell, and/or have family that doesn’t acknowledge them. The family of a person very close to me “accepts and loves them unconditionally, will never accept that part of them.”
So, to sit and write this, know my story is true, but I share it sitting unscathed in the rose garden while so many in my community are being pricked by thorns.
My Character Helps Students Sketch their Own Character
I am was not the first closeted kid in that high school and I won’t be the last. This is and will always be true about every school in every town across every state in the U.S. no matter the laws that are in place. Every day I get to be the teacher I never had: the openly gay teacher
When I told my students I am gay at the start of the school year, I promise you, not one student was fazed. Each class had multiple faces light up, each class had one or two students who gasped with happiness, and one class had two students who exhaled a “YESSSSSSSS” and then turned to high fived each other.
In the immediate days following, those students talked to me more, they brought their significant others to class and hugged or kissed goodbye at my door, and they all showed a relaxedness in the space we had created. It confirmed to me that there are students who are looking for queer educators and it makes a difference to have them.
Help Students Draft Authentic Stories
No matter who you are as an educator, there are ways to support LGBTQIA+ students.
Support Character Interaction
Start by going to GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) meetings.
This was a hurdle for me because I had actively avoided my own high school’s GSA (out of fear of being seen there and being outed), so doing so as an adult in the school I teach was still strangely difficult for me. I found it’s because I still have to come out to myself in different daily moments. The cause of that: internalized homophobia mashed with toxic masculinity. A horrendous cocktail that has a hold over the gay community and could be a doctoral thesis in and of itself.
My first GSA meeting was magical. It is a group of students in many different stages of their journey--some already aware of their sexuality and/or gender, some still trying to figure it out, and some trying to have a place where they can live as their true self for an hour a week.
This group of students--so special and unique--are the students you see in the halls every day, the students you have in the front seat of your class, and the students who just need an adult to say, I see you. I hear you. I am here for you.
Having attended regularly, I have been able to make connections with students who now stop by my room to check in with me. I can share my lived experiences with them, and they teach me about their lives and what they are discovering as they go along--so impressive and so empowering.
A GSA meeting from just a few weeks ago brings me to my next “here’s what you can do” point. A speaker came at one point and talked about a “Day of Silence'' as a day that the GSA could host at school. They explained it could be one of two things: (1) a day of silence for participating students to not talk as an act of solidarity with LGBTQIA+ people who live in silence everyday about who they are, or (2) a day to celebrate not being silent anymore and getting the word out through conversation and advocacy.
It was when the presenter referenced “people living in silence everyday about who they are and out of fear for their safety” that the student sitting next to me, a student I have in class, mumbled, “Relatable. That’s me everyday. Living in silence.”
Hearing that from my student, I was shocked; yet, not all. Living in silence wasn’t a new concept to my personal life, but it hurt that the student I teach everyday felt the need to be silent.
Add Some Dialogue
This student is in one of your classes too. You’ve walked by them in the hall many times, you teach their best friend currently, you’ve smiled at them as you chat with another teacher in their room. They are there: silent.
Consider writing a note.
I wrote that student a note the next morning. And it simply said,
Student, I heard what you said yesterday during GSA and I want you to know that I see you. I hear you. And when you do talk, know that I am listening and you are heard. When you’re ready and if you need, you can always talk to me or I can help you connect with someone you feel comfortable talking with.
Super simple. No pressure. But assuring. Then, at the end of class, in a tone and confidence that I never saw coming, the student came to me and assured me that if they ever needed, they would talk to me. Then I walked out just as casually as I had dropped the folded note on their desk at the start of class.
You can do that too! You don’t have to be queer or attend GSA, but you do have to listen. You have to pay attention to your students, and you’ll be able to find what to say. You also have to say gay--because gay ain’t going away.
Word Choice Matters
I want to touch on the other side of “Don’t say Gay”--straight isn’t going away either, and neither is being cisgender. The idea of “Don’t say Gay” enrages me because wedding rings won’t leave the ring fingers of all the people in man/woman relationships. The family photos won’t be taken off desks. The stories of my husband/wife, kids, and I went to the water park last weekend won’t go away. The straight and cisgender world will continue.
Meanwhile “Don’t say Gay,” as it is solely meant to, will eliminate a school community where students who aren’t checking the straight and cisgender, 1950’s expectations can be seen and heard.
Please, do say gay. Please, say they/them. Please, say Tanner even though the student roster says their name is Emma. Please, talk about what a healthy relationship looks like and how to get through the rough patches. Please, talk about sex instead of pretending abstenance works. Please, do say gay.
"Don't Say Gay" is a Fictional Tale
The “Don’t say Gay” bill is, at its core, impossible.
Even though it was hard to get the word out of my mouth, it was in my head every second of every day, from my bus rides home to conversations during math class. And, it’s on repeat in the minds of students today too.
Let’s acknowledge these silenced students, and the students who have made their voice heard too:
And, if none of this sits well with you, start with reading a book or watching a movie/tv show about the LGBTQIA+ experience: acquaint yourself with what your students are going through currently. If you’re feeling ready to take bigger steps forward, hang up a pride sign on your door and put an “I accept and support all” paragraph in your syllabi, write that student a note when you hear they need it, go attend a GSA meeting or start your own club.
And, of course, make sure to use the word gay.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.