Tolerance in the Classroom - Those Faggies
I am gay.
Those three words are probably enough to get many potential readers to switch immediately to less political, less awkward, or less gay reading.
Those three words can conjure potent emotions in people of all different beliefs and affiliations.
Those three words, spoken by me, resulted once in a couple of students sprinting out of my classroom.
Why would I share personal information like that in a classroom – especially a classroom in Baltimore City?
Was I reprimanded for being inappropriate?
What caused me to take such a stupid risk?
I, like many new teachers to Baltimore City schools, was shocked at the unexpected and casually-accepted student homophobia.
It was 2006, and many of us newbies had become accustomed to the temporary near-utopia that is the college culture. Our teacher training never addressed how to handle children who referred derogatorily to each other as “faggies.”
Administration let me know right away that no, there was not a cultural sensitivity trainer on the premises.
Most of us quickly assumed the world-weary guise of the experienced teachers: the slowly-shaking head. The bigotry seemed anachronistic and sad, but what could we really do about it? Baltimore wasn’t built in a day. These ignorant children were simply products of their environment, and that environment had a deeply-ingrained disdain for homosexuality.
I am gay.
In the midst of my world-weary, slow-head-shaking resignation, my brain struggled with a nagging thought: If a faggie exists in the classroom, does s/he make a sound?
Homosexuals wouldn’t exist in America if hatred of gays was all it took to ensure heterosexuality. That meant that there had to be gay students in my class. That meant that those gay students lived in a culture that considered them inferior and wrong. My slow-head-shaking did absolutely nothing to prevent some of my students from feeling like second-class citizens in my classroom, but what else could I do?
I am gay.
My favorite fictional character, Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, explains to his daughter that, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
Not too difficult to understand things from the perspective of the homophobic of the school; they had the wholehearted blessing of the cultural majority as backup.
I had to think about wearing the skin of that silent minority.
Wow…terrifying. It’s like being a sheep in wolf’s clothing - possible devouring by the pack with one slip of a lisp.
I taught an 11th grade class – how many had been subjected to hatred their entire school lives? How many didn’t make it that far, understandably? Hopefully the survivors were lucky enough not to be scarlet-lettered as effeminate boys or masculine girls.
I am gay.
So if it was possible that even one of my students is gay, how could I justify him/her facing that hatred alone? I like to think that I’d be willing to take a bullet to protect my students. Did I have the courage to attract bullets of metaphorical caliber?
I am gay.
That doesn’t mean I introduced myself to the class that way. Those three words have greater impact when delivered to people who are invested in me and my character. Building respectful relationships with students is job one. I revealed only the more innocuous personal details in the beginning.
I enjoy video games and cupcakes, too!
Mutual respect for all should be a common classroom theme from the first day’s classroom rules and procedures.
Eventually, at least some weeks into the school year, a couple of students broached the subject of homosexuality with something along the lines of “I couldn’t be in a class with faggies.” Other students laughed or nodded or otherwise expressed support of the popular opinion. Some students had no reaction at all. That’s when I told them…
I am gay.
I assured them that being part of my classroom meant sharing it with a so-called “faggie.” If they had a problem with faggies, then they had a problem with me. That meant making a decision on being part of the classroom.
The two who broached the subject bolted from the class semi-jokingly.
The rest rushed through the metaphorical floodgates with questions and comments.
Why are you telling us this inappropriate personal information? Have you ever considered your other teachers’ marriages and children to be inappropriate information? Are you offended by them wearing a wedding ring? Do you confront them about the pictures of their children on their desks? I don’t believe that I should have to hide that I share my life with people I love any more than they should.
What you do is gross, though! How do you even...you know… Are the details of your heterosexual teachers fair game for you? Neither are the details of my sexual life.
I don’t believe that you’re gay. Prove it. How can that ever be proved true or false? You think being married to the opposite sex and producing smiling children is proof of heterosexuality? You think gay people don’t fake relationships with the opposite sex just to fit in? There is no such proof.
To their credit, many of the students opened up and questioned the hatred and ignorance. Many related anecdotes about gay family members and friends. I love my gay auntie...your best friend may be gay...I think my fourth grade teacher...
I am gay.
I choose not to subscribe to the double standard that requires me to keep my gayness quiet while my straight peers are celebrated for their “acceptable” families.
I will not stay quiet and submissive as my peers, my fellow human beings, are labeled as inferiors.
If you have a problem with gays, then you have a problem with me.
If you have a problem with bisexuals, then you have a problem with me.
If you have a problem with kindness, equality, compassion, and respect, then you have a problem with this class.
If you have a problem with my students trying to live their lives without the constant hounding of bigotry and hatred, then you have a problem.
I am gay.
I am a teacher. I am privileged enough to have had a college education. I have the power to do more than defeatist head shaking. My fellow teachers have similar privilege and similar power.
Maybe we can, as a union, be gay?
I’m not saying that gay is a choice, because it’s-not-and-even-if-it-were-so-what, but I am saying that we can balance the scale that currently weighs heavily in favor of one sexuality over all others.
Can we imagine the perspective shift if hating gays meant hating every single teacher in the school?
We could share the burden of hatred and bigotry. We could help obliterate that line in the sand - our shared homosexuality could eventually erase all memory of such a line.
I know that I will stand with my most oppressed students and I will, despite my wife’s objections, proclaim proudly:
I am gay!