Coming Out to Students

- by Deborah Schwartz

This chapter explores the liberatory power of coming out, but also its risks.  It may be of most interest to therapists and educators, as we grapple with decisions about self-disclosure in general, and regarding social group memberships that are associated with privilege and oppression in particular.  Although the chapter focuses on disclosure of sexual orientation, the concepts it explores are equally applicable across a variety of memberships, particularly those that may not be immediately visible to others such as hidden disabilities, religion, class, etc.  Also, while the coming out dilemma can feel especially tricky in hierarchical power relationships (therapist with client, teacher with students, etc.) this piece may also appeal to anyone who is faced with the choice to disclose or not.  

The chapter was authored by a dear high school friend of mine.  Interestingly, we did not disclose our sexual orientations to one another until years after high school - me because I was not out to myself yet, and Deborah because she was at the beginning of her identity development as a lesbian and was not out to her peers.  Our reconnection in adulthood, including our connection as queer identified Jewish women, has been a blessing.  This chapter will appear in the book Our Stories Ourselves: the Embodyment of Women's Literacy which will be available for purchase at www.infoagepub.com.  It is preprinted here with permission.

THEN

When I taught adult basic education at the Archdale Family Literacy Project in Roslindale, Massachusetts, I kept a journal. More precisely, we—the ten women students and myself— all kept journals. Our medium was stacks and stacks of green steno-pads. In them, we tried to tell the truth about our lives, though the students started noticing gaps in my story. They challenged me not to hide myself from them. Following are several edited entries from my own journal, which tell the story of coming out to my students. Most are from my experience with this class, but I also included two entries from two other classes I taught concurrently.

March 3

They are writing frantically in their journals. S writes about driving the rats out of her apartment. C writes about playing her music as loudly as she likes. L writes about her grandmother— about living with her in the mountains and drinking her coffee so black that it stings her eyes before she swallows.

When J reads, she interrupts herself to tell us that she’s getting evicted because her oldest son Tom came home with some guy named Eddie who lit a joint in the hall then walked into her apartment with the lit joint and now the housing authority has the right to evict them.

C responds, “Even in this lousy project, you still have some rights.” She is on her feet: “Do you know how often they’ve threatened to evict me? Just for playing my music after church on Sunday afternoon?”

C is smart and community-minded. She has set up this protocol of letting the neighbors know when she’s going to be playing loud music. Half the time, they say it’s fine and half of those times she invites them over because “it’s no fun to dance alone,” and the other half of the time, she shares chicken with them and then they change their minds, and half of the time they end up watching TV together.  “All those halves don’t add up,” B notices.

“They add up,” responds C. “Believe me, they add up.” Everyone laughs. The classroom is a world of words and stories and noise and quiet while we’re writing.  

We have authority over our lives for this brief time. The crocus doesn’t just come up in the spring, but has the purple-colored chutzpah to bloom through the hard, cold earth. These women are like that. They give me bravery, but what do I give them? Room, that’s all.  

April 23

“Read what you wrote, Deborah. You always make us read what we wrote,” J notices that I skip passages when it’s my turn to read. I remind her that its ok to skip passages, or to not even read at all.

“But Deborah, you never tell us anything about your life, or at least anything good,” which I know is a code word for anything interesting.

“Well nothing all that interesting happens in my life,” I counter.

“Are you kidding?” replies C. “You come in here some mornings and you look like a train hit you. You and your double latte! Then some days you come in looking like a shining star. You have a life too, just cause you’re a teacher doesn’t mean you can hide behind that. Jesus, you know what color each of our bedroom walls is painted. We don’t know anything about you. Nothing that counts anyway. You take a risk, Missy, and  read!” That’s what C says.

So I read without censorship. I read about how hard it is pretending to my family that I am not who I am and that my partner is not my partner and that the commitment ring that I wear is just another ring. Then there is a silence. C and L and B and A and J are there listening to me so intently. The way I try to listen to them when they read their truths.

I say, “Oh God, I am so sorry. I have been lying to you about having a boyfriend, and…”

“It’s ok, honey, sometimes you have to lie, but here you don’t,” C says to me. “Keep reading.”

When I’m done, B says, “Girl, you’re a lesbian.” That makes us all laugh.

Then A says, “My sister’s cousin GG is a fag and we love him. He does all our hair.”

It goes on like this. They want to know about sex and I tell them I’m too uncomfortable to talk about that. But I can give them some resources. They want to know who sleeps on the couch, and I tell them we try not to go to bed angry. They want to meet Nancy. They want to call her at work and invite her to our end of the year party, which I remind them isn’t until May.

Later, they draw a huge invitation to Nancy. Here’s what it says on the front cover: YOU ARE INVITED TO OUR GRADUATION PARTY. On the inside it: “Thank you for putting up with Deborah. We love her and now we love you.”

May 26

Nancy came to the party last night. She played with the kids. J wanted to sit next to her and later came over to me and said she thought she was shy. C’s teenage girls were staring at us at one point, but later they kissed us both goodbye. Nancy loved meeting the women and eating the heaps of food they piled on her plate. J’s speech about being the first one in her family to ever get the GED made us all weepy, but when B put on “I’m coming out,” saying that she knew we would like this “old people’s music,” and persuaded Nancy to dance with her, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

NOW

Fifteen years after writing the above entries, I have more cause to reflect on being a lesbian teacher who years ago made a vow to embody all aspects of myself in the classroom. In addition to my work in adult literacy, I am now two semesters into teaching Freshman Writing and Creative Writing as adjunct faculty at a small, prestigious catholic university in Massachusetts.

Fall Semester, 2011

We are in week seven of the flash-by 15-week semester, during my first ever semester teaching at this well regarded, sports focused institution. I’ve designed the syllabus so that the most difficult writing assignment and in some ways, the most politically charged material takes over the class for the next three weeks. The students have been reading the essays of James Baldwin, Gloria Anzaldua, Katherine Arnold and Gregory Mantsios. They have been writing, thinking and talking about race, class, sexual orientation, culture, gender, power and identity, let alone building strong arguments that get supported with evidence and expert opinion. To experience primary research and facilitate their practice collecting and organizing data of various kinds, each student has chosen an identity category such as “race,” “gender”, “class,” “sexual orientation,” or “sexual identity,” and from there recorded, categorized, analyzed and evaluated comments that they have heard in their surroundings over the past 24-hour. In a class that is usually quite demure, understated and polite, there is that kinesthetic buzz and I know that the students want to talk.

There is a long and difficult conversation about the “N” word--for me at least because two of the white men in the class adhere to the notion of intentionality without considering context and their own privilege in relationship to the word. The one Black student in the class shares that the word has never lost its emotional meaning for him and that when you’ve had the word used against you, to put you in your place, to remind you that you are still in someone’s eyes, in the system’s eyes, just what the word conjures, it is no longer neutral. He shares a story with us: the word was carved into his desk when he first moved to a new grammar school, and now it is carved into his mind. We all see the image, the word, this beautiful young man and his soft voice recounting the story, and still the men prevail in their argument. So maybe we don’t all see the beautiful, young man who I happen to know quite well for all the hours he has spent in my office talking about his exciting and difficult first semester away from his mother and family, speaking eloquently and with sorrow in his voice about wanting to fit in but not at the cost of losing himself. I pause and thank him for sharing this story. The silence and poignancy of the silence is broken when one of the white students continues to argue the neutrality of the word. Words are not neutral because they have history and context and can be used to abuse power. Still, he is talking, telling us that when he hears his white friends use it, it is meant in the same way that some one might use the word “Bro.”

 

Who are these young people? Why have I been silenced? And others in the class, why am I not protecting them like I usually do, having the feistiness and fire of the lefty Jewish lesbian that I am and have been taught to be? Is it my fear of how I will loose authority and rapport? The quiet gets thicker and then one young woman from the side of the class, a student who writes beautifully and never, ever speaks in class begins with these words: “Words hurt.”

She continues, “I was home this weekend in New Hampshire and my best friend from high school and a couple of other friends were also home. My best friend goes to Yale and he’s gay and has been out to me for years. We all hang out and my other friends are always—‘that’s gay, this is gay ‘and after we all hung out on Saturday night, my friend drove me home and we sat in the car in my parents driveway and he cried about the young man who committed suicide last weekend at Rutgers because he was bullied as a gay man. My friend was struggling with whether he should come out to our other friends and tell them that those words hurt. He wondered if they would take him seriously and would they still be his friends. And I didn’t know what to tell him, and we both cried, and when I went in, my parents were up waiting for me. I told them the story and then my mother starts crying and my father asks why BC doesn’t have a policy that protects gay people. And now I’m crying again.”

And she is. She is crying a little bit and talking with her hands and talking through her tears and I have tears too and so do others in the class, and as a group of people we are moved by her story and her honesty and its implications.

I thank her and tell her, that the story at Rutgers really affected me too. “I’m gay and this has not been an easy conversation, and this is not the easiest environment.” That’s all I say.  And then out of nowhere there’s a fire alarm and we’re all running out of the building with our belongings and our unprocessed feelings.

In front of the building most of my class is waiting for me and we giggle at the fireman taking a photo on his cell phone of a student’s laptop in flames, the cause of the alarm. I want to find the two students who shared their stories, but both are gone.

Another student woman says “S” is so brave. She made me cry.”

“Me too and I’m so glad I decided to come out. Things are so much easier now, in the class for me, but I’m worried about S and I’m worried about D given that we didn’t address race.”

And I am. So back at my office, I send “S” an email. “You are brave. We are so lucky to have you in the class. Are you ok?”

She writes, “Yes, I’m fine. It made it easier once you came out.”  

I write back, “Bet you didn’t know you had the power to set off fire alarms. See you on Thursday.”

I know I’ll see D within an hour during my office hours. When he shows up, I hug him and thank him and he tells me that he’s fine and that he was proud of the way the conversation turned out. I tell him that I would like to revisit the conversation during the next class, if he’s comfortable with it, that I would like people to reflect on the role they played in the conversation—were they an “instigator” a “community builder” a “bystander,” what kind of role they played and what their intention was within the conversation, and then I share with him that I’m not happy about my facilitation skills and that I would like to share that with the class as well.

He nods and tells me that he just spoke to his mother and that she too is very proud of him.

The next class everyone writes down the role that they think they played in the conversation. They don’t hand this in. I just want us all to think and to feel.

D and S become the unspoken heroes of the class. The cool kids, the athletes, all of them place D and S in the center of classroom conversation and discourse. The class does a lot of laughing and I can’t believe we made it through. D and S produce some of the best papers, I’ve ever read. The one hostile young man continues to be hostile. I work with all my might to grade his papers fairly. Another young women researches the Names Project and produces an oral history research project where she has incorporated her mother’s story of losing the mother’s brother, my student’s uncle to AIDS and quilting him a square.

When we read the short story, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” at the end of the semester, a story that exemplifies the power of writing and speaking the truth, a story meant to model a writing exercise that they will perform in preparation for their portfolio cover letter, the young woman who has researched the Names Project knows about Harvey Milk from her research. She talks me into showing the opening of the movie with the same name during class. They all love Sean Penn; they all love Harvey Milk. As is customary, I invite the freshman writing class to my house for dinner where they eat lasagna, meet Nancy and the dog and finish watching the movie.

Spring Semester, 2011

This semester feels different to me. I can’t quite break through the ice of tiredness and stress that chills my freshman writing class. Perhaps, it’s simply my tiredness. We’ve just finished the assignment that invites students to document and analyze language that is race, gender, class or sexuality based. C begins with her energetic comment: “I get it. Like in a big way. Everything is gendered. I have notes and notes of pages of how everything gets described and explained according to gender.”

We talk about gender at length. How the women in the class present “as women,” and the men present ‘as men.” The men are mostly quiet—disinterested? Listening? Thinking? Shutdown? I just can’t read them. I ask how people would react if one of the men came in with his nails done. One of the quieter men says: “It would be fine as long as we know that the man who painted his nails was gay.” He doesn’t say it maliciously but I’m intrigued what this says about how narrowly defined gender constructs are and how socially acceptable norms of “femininity” are subscribed solely to heterosexual women and to gay men. I say that, or something there about. They look confused. I talk to them about shaving my head and wearing men’s clothing when I was their age as an act of rebellion. “Rebellion of what?” asks one of the men. “Do you have any pictures,” asks one of the women. “Rebellion of being ‘a woman” and all the power and lack thereof that was associated with it." And yes, I’ll bring in a picture,” I smile, but I don’t come out.

After class two of the young women follow me to my office talking about gender and power. They tell me about their friend who has just transitioned from female to male. I come out to them. They seem surprised, but not shocked. “You don’t look like a lesbian,” says one. “I would be careful about telling some of the guys in the class that,” says the other.”

 

Why embrace all aspects of oneself as a teacher? What does it mean to embrace all aspects of oneself in any context? Self is mutable. I know I am. When I taught at the Archdale 15 years ago, I was a young shorthaired punk rocker. Now my hair has grown out. I occasionally paint my nails and once in a blue blue moon wear heals—but only when I feel like it and I don’t always shave my legs. Every act of gender/sexual identity presentation, which constitutes most every act of expression in this culture, is conscious when I teach at Boston College. That is not the makings for feeling free. Yet I believe it is our birthright to be able to embody the multiple, sometimes-contradictory parts of ones self, even if that self works better as metaphor or change. Simply put, I believe that in my exploration and embodiment of freedom, there are others who can and will do the same. And visa versa. As one of us moves toward liberation, through gravity and movement making, we are all inspired in that direction.

In addition to the advantage of being taught by a whole human being, comfortable with who she is and isn’t, there is the equally important aspect of learning as a transaction, a relationship where knowledge and again that permeable self is both explored and constructed. This building of community has something to do with learning as a relational transaction. This doesn’t mean that students need to know everything about my life, and nor I there’s. But if the most common aspects of who I am, how I live are intolerable or shut-off from my students because of fear—theirs and or mine I can not fully teach them and be open to the ways they will inevitably teach me.

 

Finally, I am in a position where I can court that level of workplace freedom. I’ve made choices so that I could—in terms of where I teach and where I live that have to do with both sacrifice, privilege and a solid understanding of the contexts of rights that were won on the backs of those who came before me, contexts of rights that don’t yet belong to all gay, lesbian, bi and trans educators, that don’t belong to more than half the world’s population. Also, it gets mixed up. How much of a phenomenon am I as a Jew, a poet, a yoga teacher, someone who grew up to working-class immigrants who had their feet firmly placed in the middle-class when I arrived, and now moves somewhat gracefully through upper-middle class circles? My wife, nicknamed “Sully “ like all her brothers, sweet and boy-like, Irish-American to the core, I wonder sometimes, if though she couldn’t pass for a second as anything but a lesbian, if she would feel more at home here in this mostly Irish-American catholic university? Probably not, but there really is no separating the parts that are less than the whole and equally important to it. Jew. Lesbian. Poet. Red-head (now at middle-age from a bottle), middle age, woman who grew up between Orthodox Jews and raging Communist ones.

 

But this semester has me wondering about the other side of that “taking freedom” the cost of it. I am thinking about the words of that young man on my evaluation that said I was a crummy teacher that pushed political views on the class. His evaluation was an outlier. His language was so mean-spirited it was cartoonist and it stood alongside all the other student evaluations that glowed. It became a reflection on him, rather than on my teaching or me. But what if this semester, there are a few or even more than a few of those same kinds of evaluations? What will that mean to my career, let alone my sense of self as teacher? Am I already motivated by fear and a vigilance regarding the perception of myself as a “good” teacher?

Ultimately personal dynamics, those relationships that get built in the community of thinkers and writers, those relationships that I teach to and for, that I speak of and believe full heartedly in for their power to heal and to construct new kinds of discourses and possibilities at the most and at the least provide a catalyst for deep personal affinity and camaraderie, are on their own, not enough. In fact they can be a bit dangerous in their camouflage suit of institutional acceptance and equality. This semester, I’ve slowly started coming out to students when they mention their family and ask about mine, or when they specifically talk about gay and trans friends. But will I invite the whole class over to meet Sully and our precocious and wonderful dog, Jack? Will the spirit of inclusion and wholeness overwhelm these strong sentiments of fear? I may feel free as I bring all my parts to the classroom, but does it mean I am? I love teaching these students as I did the women at Archdale. People remind me that I’m lucky I have a full-time adjunct position (talk about oxymorons) in this economy. I can’t believe I got to read Ashbery and Dickinson and Lorde and Komunyakka with my students this semester and ask them to please, please look at that tree differently. Which they did! Perhaps it’s time for me to seek out the LGBT union on campus.  Perhaps it’s time for me to let go of receiving perfect student evaluations and the fear of other staff members’ disapproval. Really, anything can happen and when have I ever really been protected? Perhaps it’s time for all of us to uphold policies and practices that support LGBT staff, teachers and students so that all of us within the community can move closer to the freedom that is our birthright.