Paul Emerich France (www.paulemerich.com) is a third-grade teacher, soon-to-be published author, and LGBTQ advocate. His first book, Reclaiming Personalized Learning, is set to come out this August.
Almost two months ago now, we published “We’re Here, We’re Queer, and We’re Teaching Your Kids.” Due to the positive reception and the outpouring of stories shared to our form, we want to keep making the stories of LGBTQ educators visible. We want to keep amplifying the voices of those who must remain anonymous for the sake of maintaining employment.
Because we’ve realized this bold statement–to have the privilege to say loud and proud that “we’re here and we’re queer”–is not something that many educators are able to do.
Less than twenty four hours after publishing our last post in August, we received a message from a teacher who was afraid she’d lose her job because she, too, had shared the post on Instagram. The administration not only told her to delete her Instagram account because of its LGBTQ content; she was also told that if she wanted to keep her job, she would need to meet with parents who opposed her presence in the classroom. For weeks, she lived with the palpable fear of losing her job–simply for being queer and for advocating for others like her.
Stories like this are ubiquitous. Far too many teachers across the country face these repercussions when they own their identity in the classroom. It’s rarely easy for any teacher to be out.
Take this story from Texas. While less extreme, it is equally as powerful.
“This is my fourth year teaching and I have been with my partner for 7 years,” one teacher from the state of Texas told us.
“I started teaching in a very conservative district. I wasn’t told to remain closeted,” she states shortly before qualifying her statement, “but it was implied to an extent.”
This brave teacher revealed a powerful idea to the both of us. Many LGBTQ teachers are seen within their schools. Their co-workers, supervisors–and in some cases, even some families and students–are well aware their teachers identify as LGBTQ. But their straight counterparts, oftentimes in an effort to preserve heteronormativity, both implicitly and explicitly ask for these teachers to not be heard. For them to refrain from speaking about their sexual or gender identity openly.
The teacher from Texas continued, telling us that one day “kids had noticed my engagement ring. Being middle schoolers, [they] freaked out and pestered me with a million questions. I never gave them information and always used the gender neutral “fiancé” for references.”
This teacher’s trepidation and fear is undeniably palpable. On her finger sits a ring, a symbol of committed romantic partnership. An emblem intended for the whole world to see, yet she was unable to speak about it openly and honestly.
“Two students figured it out by the end of the year. I knew I didn’t want to lie to kids so I confirmed their suspicions.”
As many LGBTQ teachers know, however, it’s not necessarily the kids that we fear. We can handle educating our kids on dicey topics. We know how kids’ minds work, and we know how to help them grapple with the uncertainty and discomfort that comes with new ideas. Parents, on the other hand, are an entirely different story.
“By the end of the week I had a parent email saying this ‘lesbian rumor’ was being circulated by her daughter and she wanted to apologize. My heart dropped, and I knew a meeting with my principal was imminent.”
Too many teachers experience this panic when faced with dilemma of owning their identity and coming out. While this teacher chose the courageous route–she chose to confirm her identity as lesbian–many are simply unable to, for fear of repercussions that could result in punishment or termination.
“But rather than retreating and hiding, I owned the rumors and expressed that my relationship did not affect my classroom performance,” she continued. “Thank goodness this particular parent loved me and the work her child was doing in my class and after school, because it didn’t go any further. I was fortunate.”
But should she have had to say that? In what ways could her loving relationship with her partner possibly affect her ability to teach a group of students who clearly respected and connected with her enough to ask about her engagement ring. Moreover, should this teacher have had to wait on bated breath, expressing gratitude towards a parent who, in actuality, just did the right thing?
It wasn’t long before this educator left her position to work at another school. As many educators do after they leave, she still felt connected to the community and had returned to visit with her students after they had competed in a play festival. She brought her fiancé with, spoke with former students, and even introduced her fiancé to many parents at the event–many of whom knew who she was. One parent, in particular, was close friends with the aforementioned parent–the one who notified her of the “lesbian rumor.”
“That parent had no idea I was gay,” she reflected with surprise. “Clearly my identity was not as scandalous as I had thought it was.”
This teacher’s story ends well, despite the fear, panic, and pain it may have caused along the way. She was able to see that, in part, her fears about coming out didn’t quite meet the reality. She was more accepted than she thought she was going to be. But this isn’t the case for everyone. In fact, many teachers have it worse. Choosing to be “out and proud” could be a dangerous choice.
But even those who feel comfortable–those who have managed to overcome hurdles with regard to coming out to students, families, and co-workers–possess a latent fear that lies far beneath an outer shield of confidence and poise.
“In my new district, I treat my openness on a need to know basis. If I know I can be an ally or a positive role model for a student I will share that my fiancé is female, otherwise they just know I have a fiancé.”
You might wonder, even with this overall positive story, why a queer teacher might still choose to conceal their identity–even when they work in an environment that’s open and accepting.
It’s because that fear, panic and pain never entirely go away. It lies within you like an old wound, healed only by unsightly scar tissue. Our safety feels temporary and fragile. Who we are will likely always feel scandalous, no matter how much support we have, for scandal has become not only a part of our self-image, but a part of our identity, too.
“Who knows what I will do when I no longer have a fiancé–but a wife–but for now I am alright.”
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