I penned this piece almost a year ago. It speaks to the the difficulties of being gay and a teacher. Teachers are by definitions supposed to be role models and reconciling society’s attitudes towards homosexuality and imparting good character traits upon the students in my classroom has proven not an easy task. Please read it with an open mind.
Do you know this story?
On February 12, 2008, fifteen-year old Lawrence “Larry” Fobes King was shot twice in the head and killed by a classmate. Larry was gay. The incident occurred in a computer lab at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California, in front of classmates all working on a project. The shooter, fourteen-year old Brian McInerney, is currently being tried for the homicide as an adult.
Reportedly, Larry had recently asked McInerney to “be his Valentine”, resulting in the teasing of McInerney by some of his peers. King had been openly gay since the age of ten, when he was in third grade, increasingly unafraid to be himself. His flamboyant persona and a tendency to wear women’s accessories and makeup to school made him a target of bullying, which began in the third grade and ended with his death. With McInerney having refused to speak of the incident, a motive for the crime is still under investigation, but the case is being treated as a hate crime. He now faces fifty years plus of jail time.
For the gay community, this is the first high-profile case of a gay centered hate crime since the murder of Matthew Shepherd ten years before. The memory of Lawrence King and his story was memorialized on today’s thirteenth annual “Day of Silence”. “A Day of Silence” is an organization that seeks to “make schools safer for all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, encourage schools to implement proven solutions to address anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment, and to provide a positive educational experience for all students (http://www.dayofsilence.org/content/truth.html )”.
Participants in this special day are silent during the entire school day, taking part in a student-led protest of the bullying and harassment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students. The movement, organized by GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network), has grown to 8,000 schools across the nation for last year’s event, which was dedicated to the memory of Larry. This year’s experience is expected to be even larger.
The school where I teach has a “Gay/Straight Alliance” club, and is a participating school in the “Day of Silence”. In my mailbox this morning was a rainbow-colored ribbon, given to all teachers to wear acknowledging the event. Being a gay teacher, and still “in the closet” at work, this yearly practice has always proved a challenge for me.
I teach ESL, that is, I teach the non-English speaking students how to speak, understand, read and write English. As learning a new language is not a quick and easy thing, my students are often in my class for four to six years. We become a lot more familiar with each other than the average teacher-student relationship, kind of like a family. So one can only imagine how difficult it might be for me to keep my private life completely out of the equation concerning my interactions with my highly inquisitive students.
“Mr. Myers, when are you getting married?”
Mr. Myers, how come you don’t have kids?”
“Mr. Myers, why don’t you have a girlfriend?”
In my line of teaching, most of my students are Latin American, and as such carry with them a religious cultural background, generally speaking. Their views towards homosexuality are much like that of many who follow a religious faith, believing that it is wrong and against the natural order of God’s intentions. They’ve been taught their whole lives that being gay is wrong, and much of society feeds into this notion. This condition feeds my insecurity towards being honest and upfront with my students.
I’m openly gay with my family, my friends, and my readers, yet at the ripe old age of 44 I’m still afraid to be true to myself in my workplace. I walk a very thin line when it comes to teaching, for fear of the continual anti-gay bias that exists out there among students, parents, and even fellow teachers.
Maybe it’s because I’m gay that I hate discrimination towards any group of people. I’m not saying that I don’t have prejudices of my own, but I firmly believe in judging people for who they are, not what they are. I tell my kids all the time, “There are good and bad people of all sorts. There are good and decent African Americans and dishonest, not so good African Americans, good Hispanics and bad ones, kind Americans and not so kind Americans, etc. Just because one person fits a stereotype, it doesn’t mean that all people of that group fit the stereotype.”
Every year, on the “Day of Silence”, I wear the rainbow ribbon. And every year, at least a few students ask me about it, almost always leading to a short explanation of the event and moving on. This year, however, I’m feeling more and more like a hypocrite lately, living a lie when it comes to young people to whom I perceive myself as a role model. What kind of role model lies to the people I’m trying to guide not only through school, but through life (an ESL teacher’s job is much more than that of teaching)? I felt I had to address this issue and get some minds working.
Quite often, between periods, and sometimes even during class I hear the word “faggot” (In both English and Spanish!), the knots in my stomach tightening every time I hear it. I always make mention of it to the students in my classroom, imparting to them how hateful a word it is. But still I keep hearing it. George Bush once said, “You gotta keep repeating things sometimes in order for it to sink in.” (In a way, it’s the one thing positive I personally can reflect upon the man.) So I took this advice and decided to hit the subject of the “Day of Silence” head on in my classes today, and I’m proud of myself that I did.
As each class of students poured into my room, I made a note of the rainbow ribbon. I asked them if they knew what today was? Most of them did, and the word “faggot” was mentioned at least one time. Limped wrists were held out, and some answered in high pitched voices. These actions sent the adrenaline rushing through me as I went into my lesson.
Next I went into the story of Lawrence King. I was in my best teacher mode, speaking with passion and honesty. My students listened intently, stricken by the reality of what had happened by my masterful acting skills.
I asked the only black girl in the class if she had the ability to make herself white. No, she said. She was born with the African features she had. I asked a Guatemalan kid if he could change himself to a Mexican or an American. No, he was born in Guatemala and had the features and language of a Guatemalan.
I explained how I had a sister who was different than the rest of my siblings. How we all knew from childhood that she was somehow different than the rest of us. But her problems weren’t physical. They weren’t obvious to our eyes. Today, she’s thirty seven, and those problems are still there. She was born with a problem we don’t understand because we can’t see it with our own eyes like we can see a cast over a broken arm or a bandage over a wound. So in society and within our own family she was ostracized because of it, but that’s just not right.
Being gay is something you’re born with, whether science has proved it yet or not. I know because I’m gay. I can recall vivid memories from early childhood that I can now say pointed to me turning out the way I have. Haven’t we all seen children who we’ve secretly thought might turn out gay when they become older? I can personally think of a few, at least, in my world, and some so far have turned out to be correct.
For some reason, it’s seems okay to bash on gays. We’re the only group left to hate, for the most part. To me, any type of hatred is seeded in a lack of experience with the hated on the part of the hater. The only way to cure that ill would be for the haters to gain experience with their targeted group of hated. In doing so, they would develop insight into the fact that that one little thing that makes gay people different from them is just that: a difference of some sort, like the difference in skin pigmentation or bone structure in other ‘minority’ groups. Hopefully, I’ve made inroads with at least some of my students today. I’m not sure if or when I’ll ever be completely honest with them about who I am, but I definitely bridged a gap.