"What are you doing for Thanksgiving?" asked Priya at the end of physics class. "David and I are going to my parents' house," I replied. "Who's David?" she asked. "Er ... um ... my partner." With that mundane exchange I unexpectedly came out to my students in 1994.
Let's be honest. The thought of openly gay teachers makes some of us uncomfortable. The younger the students, the more uncomfortable we become.
The discomfort has two strands that must be confronted. The first is expressed through remarks such as: "I don't tell students that I'm straight. Why must you tell students that you're gay?" This sentiment, though heartfelt, is specious.
Heterosexual teachers disclose their identity to students in myriad ways. They wear wedding rings. They display photos of their spouses and children. They bring their significant others to the football game or Homecoming dance. This should be encouraged. Effective schools intentionally build community, so it's natural to include teachers' families as part of school culture.
None of this is controversial unless the teacher has a same-sex partner. Then a seemingly normal disclosure gets labeled a political statement. Sharing one's sexual orientation is neither about politics nor sex; it's about family. And every teacher, gay or straight, deserves the right to speak about his family at school.
The second strand of discomfort comes from the mistaken belief that impressionable heterosexual youth will be converted to homosexuals by the presence of a gay teacher. This strand is more visceral and harder to combat, but combat it we must.
There is no scientific evidence that a child's sexual identity is mutable or affected by the sexual orientation of others. If it were, none of us would be gay because the world around us is overwhelmingly straight. Great teachers can influence their students' love of learning, their self-esteem and perhaps even their political beliefs; they cannot, however, affect their students' sexual identity. We can no longer let this spurious argument drive our nation's educational policy.
The world is changing quickly. A local elementary principal told me he has two transgender students in his school. Middle school colleagues share stories of seventh graders identifying themselves as gay. Every high school student in America can name a classmate who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. These are at-risk kids who need our help; they have higher dropout rates, higher rates of being bullied and higher rates of suicide. Having openly gay teachers reduces these risks. Maintaining the fiction that all teachers are straight is an option our students can no longer afford.
Openly gay teachers give kids hope. Since I came out, many students have been positively affected. Take gay kids like L., a girl whose parents struggled to accept her, or R., a quiet boy who was cutting himself. Both are now successful college students and will admit that having a positive role model made a difference in their lives.
Straight kids benefit too. There's B., a quiet girl who has two dads, and J., a young man whose mother started dating a female partner. But my favorite example is T., a male athlete in my chemistry class. His mom told me T.'s older brother had recently come out and T. had not taken it well. But after a few months in my class, T. now accepted his brother. With tears in her eyes and a quavering voice she said, "Thank you for giving me back my family."
When I speak to educators about gay youth, they will proudly point to their district's diversity policies or anti-bullying programs. These are all well and good, but kids don't read policies. Kids observe realities on the ground. And the reality for most students is that from kindergarten through 12th grade they never see an openly gay adult in their school. This absence gives the implicit message that being gay is so horrible we dare not speak its name, even in the institution that helps kids navigate every other issue in their lives.
Educators understand the importance of diversity in the school house. We feel comfortable saying that students would benefit from having more male teachers in our elementary schools. We feel comfortable saying students would benefit from having more African-American and Latino teachers in our urban schools.
The time has come to feel comfortable saying students would benefit from having more openly gay teachers. This paradigm shift will cost nothing, save lives and create a more tolerant world in the process.
Rich Ognibene, a chemistry and physics teacher, is a member of the Fairport Educators Association.