A local teacher sent me a link to a fascinating Huffington Post essay by a California teacher about how she told her middle and high school classes that she was a lesbian and the fallout from administrators, even in the San Francisco area.
The teacher who shared the link noted:
I sincerely hope that Georgia principals would not forbid such an important, relevant discussion in our schools, especially considering how many suicides have been associated with homosexuality and bullying lately. That being said, it does bring up an important ethical question for teachers. When it comes to lifestyle — religion, political affiliation, sexuality — how much should a teacher reveal? Is it unethical to avoid discussion on these matters?
It comes back to a fundamental debate in education. If schools are businesses, who are the customers? Parents (who may not want their children exposed to differing views and opinions), or the society as a whole who demands at least the opportunity to debate such matters (thus requiring exposure)?
My children have had several gay and lesbian teachers. I live in a community where there doesn’t appear to be any repercussions to the teachers. (Teachers may feel differently.) However, I haven’t heard of gay and lesbian teachers focusing on their relationships in the classroom setting — any more than straight teachers bring up their personal relationships to students.
For the most part, I have found teachers limit discussions of their personal lives and their families. I have the same question as the teacher who sent the link: How much should teachers share with students about personal areas of their lives?
I have a friend who never told her high school students that her younger brother, a college student with clinical depression, committed suicide. She simply explained that she was flying home for a family funeral and left it at that. In retrospect, she wishes she had told her students as it may have helped those struggling with depression themselves.
Here is an excerpt from the Huffington essay by Jody Sokolower, which begins with the experience of a middle schooler asking her if she was married. (Take a look at the entire essay if you have time.)
“Well,” I explained in what I hoped was a calm voice, “I have been with the same partner for a very long time, but we can’t get married because we’re lesbians. My partner’s name is Karen, and we have a daughter. She’s 9.” Immediately, everyone had questions and comments.
“Are you for real?” “How could you have a daughter?” “How do you know you’re a lesbian?” “That’s gross.”
“Right now we’re working on Africa,” I said. “But I want to answer your questions. How about this? You think about appropriate questions, and tomorrow we’ll save some time to discuss this. I’ll bring in pictures of my family to show you.”
Twenty minutes later, as we walked back across the yard to our portable, my afternoon class came running toward me. “Is it true you’re a lesbian? Will you talk to us, too?” I repeated my request that they think about appropriate questions and agreed.
That night I collected a few pictures of myself with my partner and daughter, cooking and hanging out at the playground, and one of our extended family. I also thought about how to explain this in a way that would be appropriate for middle schoolers.
I decided to say I knew I was different when I was in middle school and high school, but I didn’t know what was wrong with me. When I was young, no one talked about being lesbian or gay — the whole subject was silenced. Later, I was lucky to be in college at the beginning of the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement, so when I realized I was a lesbian, I had lots of support. I met Karen when we were in our early 20s, and we have been together ever since. When I first told my parents I was a lesbian, they were really upset, and that made me feel terrible. But eventually they realized that it is just part of who I am and that Karen is a wonderful person. I’m glad that now it is a little easier to come out than it was when I was young, but it still takes a lot of courage.
I also set clear parameters in my mind about what kind of questions I wouldn’t answer: nothing about sex, and nothing that felt deliberately disrespectful. And I found wording in the social studies standards that I could use to back up my decision to do this. The next morning there was a note in my box to go see the vice principal. “I hear you’re planning to tell your class about your sex life and show pictures,” he said. “I forbid you to do that.”
“I’m not talking about my sex life,” I told him. “I’m talking with my students about what a lesbian family is. I promised them I would explain and answer their questions if they’re appropriate, and I’m going to do that.”
That day I spent about half an hour in each class telling my brief story, passing around the pictures, and answering questions. Several kids told me that their church says homosexuality is wrong; I simply acknowledged that I know many churches have that perspective. One of the kids asked a question about lesbian sex — not a disrespectful question, but a question. I said it was a good question for a sex education class but not something I could discuss. Everyone else had relevant and engaged questions or comments.
The next day I received a letter from the principal, telling me that she was putting a formal complaint in my file. I also received emails from several teachers offering support and encouragement (including two from teachers who told me they were gay but asking me to keep their secret). There were no complaints from parents. I contacted my union representative, who sent a letter to the principal and to my file supporting me.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog