a lion roaring

Finding My Voice as a Minority Teacher

 Published on February 12, 2014 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris /  “Roaring lion” by Tambako The Jaguar; CC BY 2.0 /  19

Pedagogical Alterity

This article is part of a series addressing the issue of difference and marginalization in teaching. The goal is to intentionally make space for voices that are often silenced in conversations about education. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

As a high-school teacher, I kept quiet about my sexuality because I didn’t want to draw attention to it. Instead, I created a deafening silence, a vacuum that tugged on everything around it and demanded attention by its absence. I was silent because I thought my sexuality shouldn’t matter. I was also silent because I live in a state that has no protection against termination of employment due to sexual orientation. It’s not called “discrimination” here; it’s an employer’s prerogative. Because a few administrators at the school where I taught were Good Ol’ Boys, I was afraid. I was afraid that, as a new teacher, my sexuality would become an issue, a liability, or a pretense for joblessness. I was afraid the school’s small surrounding community, transitioning from rural to suburban and demographically divided by which church everyone went to, would question my fitness as one who works with children to get them to think bigger thoughts and question the status quo. I imagined protests to the principal. I imagined parents saying awful things about the person teaching their children. I don’t think I feared a lynching, exactly. But the county’s history of acceptance and inclusion has lingering tarnish.

So I silenced myself. As an introvert, that came naturally. I didn’t tell students about my home life. I never mentioned my boyfriend as anything other than a friend. I placed no adorable photos on my desk and never shared my personal life with my students.

Curious, that phrase: “personal life”. It suggests that there’s only a portion of our lives that is ours, and the rest belongs to someone or something else. Perhaps our jobs dictate what happens in our “work life”, but who’s actually doing the living then? Isn’t that life still personal?

While I taught high school, I sure wasn’t living a personal life. I cared about my students. I connected with them. I listened to them. I supported them, and they confided in me. But the olive branch I offered the outcasts was extended with timidity: I merely co-sponsored the school’s gay-straight alliance, letting a straight peer’s name appear in any publicity because I didn’t want my name associated with it. It met in my classroom, but the announcements that played on campus used my peer’s room number from across the hall.

I know now that the only one I was hiding anything from was myself — students on campus had already figured out I was gay. They saw through my denial and avoidance, turning my efforts into a highlighter, pointing out exactly what I didn’t want them to see. As a result, I was blindly broadcasting an aura of fear, of unacceptance, through the very efforts that were intended to accept and support the students. Students who were like me, who needed support and acknowledgement in a potentially hostile environment. It’s not that the campus was violent. Kids at that school didn’t get beat up for being gay. But the only time sexuality was discussed by anyone was for derisive or offensive purposes. And because I never brought up my sexuality on campus, I continued the discrimination. By hiding, I not only expressed my fear but also directly contributed to the problem I wanted, in my own feeble way, to provide relief from. I wanted students to feel safe in my classroom. Instead, I showed them that even I was not.

I had to miss work for a day; I forget why. But I knew in advance, so I was able to plan ahead and choose the substitute I wanted to take over my classes. My then-boyfriend happened to be registered as a sub, and he happened to be available that day. He knew how I worked, he heard me talk through my classroom policies, and he heard me complain about problematic situations and challenging students. He knew how my classes ran better than anyone else. Picking him as my stand-in was a no-brainer.

He subbed for me for one day. Days after I returned, several students asked if he was my brother. They commented on how we spoke alike, how we shared mannerisms, how it was almost like I was still in the classroom despite being gone. Those weren’t the only similarities he and I considered before my absence. This particular substitute and I had to make sure he wore a tie to class that I had never, and would never, choose to wear myself, thus revealing our domestic connection. To the students, the substitution was a combination of eerie and amusing. But it worked. They did what they needed to do, and my class continued without missing a beat. By all accounts, the day went smoothly for everyone. And by all accounts, when the day was over, the substitute locked the classroom door before he left.

We’re pretty sure the vandals didn’t have a key. But they got in somehow. By the time the custodian got around to my room, it had already been trashed. Instead of cleaning any of it up, he wisely left it exactly as it was, knowing it was a situation that other people needed to see. That mess greeted me (with a student in tow for extra help before classes started) the next morning when I unlocked the classroom door and entered.

I don’t have a photograph of the whiteboard because my immediate reaction — to get rid of what I saw — kicked in before I realized the scene was worth documenting. But scrawled across the three adjoining boards in the front of the room, in huge lettering written with black marker was something along the lines of “FRIEND IS A FAGGOT.” It was probably a little less polite than that, but I don’t recall the exact wording. As I looked elsewhere around my classroom, those words blurred into an overall scene of disorganization.

I want to say it was a scene of “destruction”, although nothing had been physically broken. The neat, clean, organized arrangement of desks, tools, and supplies got destroyed, and it took my confidence and sense of control right along with it. So while it’s accurate to say the scene was disorganized, I felt suddenly destroyed.

The contents of my desk had been strewn across the classroom floor, creating an atmosphere of post-tornado disaster in the room and leaving room for this, written in orange dry-erase marker on the most usable and accessible surface:

Surface of a teacher's desk with writing in orange marker: Mr. Friend is a Fucking Fag who needs to Fucking Die! Dicks are for chicks!

I somehow managed to teach that day. I don’t remember what I thought we were working on, but I went through the motions. That still amazes me. What now infuriates me is this: I maintained my policy of silence, distance, and separation. I didn’t explain what had happened, what it did to me, why I was so shaken by it, or why it happened in that community. The only unmistakable sign of trouble was the pile of disheveled papers I had collected on one side of the room during first-period plan; I told those who asked about it that my room had been vandalized, but I omitted the details about why.

My silence had persisted all the way until third period (a whole hour!), when I decided to use the overhead projector. Earlier that morning, I had removed all the threatening language from the projector’s surface so that I could use the machine as intended. I never thought to check the screen, which had stayed retracted into its housing. I pulled it down to use it, with a full class of students watching. Rather than a blank, white screen, I found this:

Projector screen with hand-written vandalism in thin-line marker: Kill the gays!! Dicks are For Chicks!

I immediately rolled the screen back up and used the whiteboard instead, apologizing for the glare. The glare. I acted as though the writing — the actual problem that was hurting me and disrupting my ability to function and feel safe — wasn’t there. Of all the “teachable moments” I’ve encountered in my career, this was probably the one moment that most needed to be taught. Yet it was the one moment I tried hardest to cover up because I was uncomfortable with being gay at my own school, with being who I was while at work. I wasn’t ready to stand up for myself because I believed speaking up risked more damage than remaining silent. I didn’t want to stand out as “the gay teacher”, but my attempts to silently hide drew just as much attention. It seems I needed that teachable moment more than my students did.

Well, more than most of them. One student, upon seeing the writing on the screen, started laughing. I gave him the fiercest look of death I could manage, but my voice wasn’t able to cooperate at that moment. I was angry, embarrassed, and choked up, effectively mute.

Another student took up my cause and told the laughing student that his actions were inappropriate, etc. I don’t recall exactly what she said or how the conversation proceeded, but I recall how much I immediately loved the student who spoke up, saying what I was physically unable to say. The one student who gave voice to the problem and who openly admitted that something was wrong. The student who drew attention to a problem while her teacher was too shocked, unwilling, and frankly terrified to draw any more attention to the issue. I admired her courage in speaking up on my behalf.

I’ve spent time — on Hybrid Pedagogy, on my personal blog, and in conference presentations — talking about the opportunity for and benefits of bringing the outside world inside the classroom walls using online technology. I believe a hybrid approach to education helps open the door to learning that matters in the world outside school. Looking back on that vandalism, I’ve started to see that the “outside world” also includes the personal. Pretending my personal life and my educational practice can be separated denies the validity and relevance of both. I am a gay man who teaches; I am a teacher who is gay. I cannot be only one of those things, and I cannot expect my students to interact with only one of them, either.

Those of us in this invisible minority have an obligation to speak out, most especially as teachers. I’m not talking about any “agenda” or political assertion. I’m talking about identification. We must make our existence less invisible and less silent. Not only will greater visibility help students who might be in less-accepting environments feel a connection with others, but the visibility will also speak directly to those in the majority, letting them know we exist and showing that we are not afraid to be heard.

I now believe the exact opposite of what I did when I started teaching in that high school. I want to draw attention to sexuality, to make it matter, to end the silence. My sexuality is not a liability, and it should not be a reason to sack me (though my local laws still offer no protection). Instead, my sexuality offers perspective and experience, both of which I can only give my students when they’re first aware I possess them. To teach as myself, I must let my students see who I am. I must use my voice and end the silence. We all must stop hiding, stop perpetuating the shame, and stop pretending sexuality is a non-issue. We all must find our voices.

So let me re-live that day. Let me stop my routine and talk to my students. Let me come out to my classes. Let me show that I can shake with combined anger and embarrassment. That I can shed tears from being overwhelmed and caught off-guard. Let me point to the vandalism and say that I live in a society that allowed such an act to happen, that allowed the perpetrators to go unidentified, and that trapped me into being silent. With this article, I am ending that silence and committing to use my own voice. I will use it to speak up on behalf of those caught without the ability to speak for themselves. I will use my voice to speak more loudly when others hope for silence. And rather than hoping the problem of discrimination will simply go away, I will give my voice to the problem and say that the problem is both very real and very destructive. Because no matter how loud the silence may have felt, using my voice makes me louder.

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19 Responses
  1. I could say many things here. That the only requirement for the triumph of evil is the silence of good people. That decency exists most when we display and bear witness to it in the teeth of difficulty, denial and hatred. I have all sorts of inspiring mottoes, all heartfelt and meaningful to me waiting to be said.

    Too many to say, and none equal to my sense of, and gratitude for your honest, open, raw and strong sharing.

    It is good thing to watch the store of strength and decency we have being added to. I can hear the clarity, strength and decency ringing cleanly out from the virtual page…

    I’m not saying this well….

    I’m glad to hear your true voice ring out. I am so, desperately sorry that it has had to say itself in such a despicable, small minded, and cowardly context. I am grateful for the strength with which you use it to illuminate the huge difference between those two things.

    1. Thanks for the supportive words (and the inspiring mottoes), Keith.

      Your comment that you’re “not saying this well” rang out to me. I don’t think I’m saying it well, either. While revising the piece, the editors and I discussed the asides I used—about “personal life” and “disorganization”—and I didn’t realize until afterward that they’re a part of the article because I, too, am not saying this well. I’m starting to find that voice I’ve not used. It’s rough and it’s imprecise, but I’m using it.

      Thanks for using yours here, regardless of how well you think you said things.

      1. Melissa Richard

        I think, Chris, that the fact you’re saying something at all is incredibly brave and inspiring. I forget who said this originally, but “use your voice, even if it shakes.” And the fact that you have, with this piece, is –as you say — a start.

        The personal is not just a “part” of us — I strongly believe that it cannot be separated from who we are as teachers, as professionals. I’ve often felt a bit self-conscious of that belief, that it makes me feel and seem “unprofessional,” as what is often touted as making a professional seems distinct or removed from who we are “after hours.” It’s not “after hours” — it’s who we are, all the time, and what we choose to hide (or show) shouldn’t be determined by social mores or pro protocol (or yes, even fear of very real occupational retaliation). But reading this today, for a moment, I don’t feel self-conscious about holding that belief at all. It’s important. You’ve shown that. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this.

    In my college classes, I usually find some way to come out casually. But, no matter how many time I do it, I always have the fear that something like your experience could happen to me. Thank you for reminding me of the vital importance of breaking that silence as often as I can.

  3. CP

    Masterfully written, which I admire, almost as much as the heart-space you’ve written from. Clearly you are a brilliant educator and I also admire the hell out of that. I wish for you all the support from your colleagues, students and their families and the job protection they can give where local laws utterly fail. Your students are fortunate to be in your classes. May the vandals be ruthlessly shamed into a massive shift in consciousness and behavior by their enlightened and responsible peers. You are clearly also very powerful that such a crushing event has transformed you and given you your voice back. *fist bump* Now I’m going to read all your stuff on tech. 🙂

  4. Chris thank you so much for your voice. I am deeply sorry that you had to experience this kind of violence, but I encourage you to keep speaking out. Your words are so powerful and I hope that we (educators, administrators, students, etc.) continue to add our voices in support.

  5. Amanda Cannon Jones

    Chris, this is more than an article; it’s a testimony. Thank you for this. It sounds like you did teach something more important thank English that day (gasp!) and learned, too – we always do!
    Your brilliant alums are a testament to your masterful teaching, and their affinity for you speaks to your humanity.
    Miss you, office mate. Well done!

  6. Lauren Scott

    I’m so grateful that I was fortunate enough to have you as a teacher. And while I was more or less unaware of how terrible and prejudiced some students at that school could be, you proved to be a picture of grace and knowledge in your classroom. To this day, you stand out in my mind as one of the most influential educators I’ve come to know. So thank you for that, and I’m quite glad that I’m able to watch you grow from your experience at that school. And, just so you know, I’m still on the path to becoming an educator, myself. =)

  7. Grace Nicholl

    I remember when this happened. I used to hang out in your room in the mornings, I think I always considered it to be a safe space for me. My girlfriend and I had attracted unwanted attention several times in the cafeteria, and we started to sit apart in the mornings to disperse the hostility. I remember walking in and seeing what they did to your room, because of your sexuality.

    I didn’t stay long, I remember going to the bathroom and crying. To me, this wasn’t just an attack on you, it was an attack on me, my girlfriend, my friends. It scared me that they would go this far to single you out, when you didn’t even advertise your sexuality. You were an authority figure, this stuff want supposed to happen to you. What would happen to me? Would the taunts escalate?

    I never joined the GSA because I was afraid my parents would find out. I was afraid because not even my teacher wasn’t safe. I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear you say that you will no longer be silent about who you are. If I had seen my favorite teacher stand up to this violence, if my favorite teacher had been out, maybe I wouldn’t have been so scared of myself in high school.

    Sorry for the extremely long comment, but that attack on you was personal for me too, and I’ve never really said anything about it. Thanks, Mr. Friend, for sharing this.

  8. Leah Wendt

    Thank you, Chris. This was quite beautiful. Silence is deadly and dangerous and full of the unknown. I am not ashamed, nor should be, and neither should you be – at any point or time or place. Bravo, bravo, bravo! I will be sharing your article everywhere I can. Thank you!

  9. This was a beautiful, touching read. It has been transformative for me in some way that I am still struggling to articulate. I had always believed no one should be treated badly because of their sexuality, but had not, I now realize, understood the importance of “coming out”. I had thought it was personal and irrelevant, to announce one’s sexuality. I now realize the error of this. To make some less extreme analogies, I would not want to hide the fact that I am a mother, for example. Why should I try to be careful about hiding that? (And normally, I don’t need to hide it because it is something that is respected, right? No one would vandalize me for saying it; though on a small scale in academia you can get attitude, but nothing of the magnitude you talk about of course). I would not like to hide the fact that I am Muslim (and I don’t, I cover my hair and have done so when I lived in the West). I started to think about how it would feel to try to hide an aspect of my identity out of fear. I now understand a little bit more why someone would want to “come out” with their sexuality. I have been thinking of this problem in the completely opposite way. The “default” is that we are who we are and should not feel the need to hide it. The “exception”, what is unnatural, is to try to hide it! Reading your students’ comments and knowing how they felt back then, and how they feel now… And how your article has affected them… You have made a courageous personal and pedagogical decision. Thank you for writing about it with so much emotion.

    1. Thanks, Maha. Your examples of motherhood and being Muslim are very relevant in their contrasts. Being a mother is often respected (as you said), expected, or at least accepted. Being Muslim can be less accepted in some places, but if you see other women who keep their hair covered, you see the outward sign that you are among others like you. In effect, the covering up becomes the coming out. But in cases of sexuality, which isn’t necessarily reflected outwardly, the coming-out process can be fraught with fear and risk.

      And that’s precisely how teachers who come out to their classes can help: Their students see, outwardly, that they can come out in that environment and feel safe doing so.

      1. Hey Chris, I like that statement, “the covering up is the coming out” and it made me realize Muslim men don’t have that “privilege”, nor women who are proud to be Muslim but don’t cover their hair.
        You’re right, of course, about homosexuality not being naturally physically evident (though sometimes people look for signs, don’t they?). I am thinking now of how some ppl talked about subtly or casually “coming out” rather than having a central conversation about it – what did you do (or do you plan to do) in real life beyond this article? I guess each person’s views on what works best for their context might change over time…
        Actually, back to the covering hair thing, when I lived in Norwich, England, I used to “subtly” cover my hair in winter by wearing a woolcap (so ppl didn’t guess I was Muslim as I was outdoors most of the time) but then during summer when I changed to a regular Muslim-looking headscarf i noticed people looking at me differently. At some point I made a conscious decision that my twitter photo would be a Muslim-looking one but that my gravatar would be more subtle… Thinking about that more, now…
        I think one similarity between “coming out” as homosexual or Muslim is that some people would not consider it bigotry as they feel (unfortunately) justified in their discrimination against certain groups for whatever reason in their head… It helps a lot to be a minority of some sort to empathize with others (though to be fair, each minority has their own issues – e..g black feminism vs white feminism)

  10. C. M. E.

    Quite a compelling narrative.

    I’m glad you’ve decided to share this story with others so that they might one day be as brave themselves.

  11. Myra Jones

    It’s hard on people who live now, when there is still so much ignorance and hatred. But I hope that things are getting better, and I admire the bravery of those who stand up to be counted.

  12. Rreze Xhaferi

    This was one of the most authentic article I have read in long time. It really touched me. Thank you Chris for sharing your story. 🙂

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