Despite fears of stigma, prejudice and job insecurity, these five educators came out to their students in ways both bold and quiet
It gets better — especially when students are in your corner.
June marks Pride Month. But coming out as an LGBTQ teacher is no small feat, even in 2018: It’s still legal in 28 states to fire workers for being gay, after all, and the Justice Department asserted in July that federal civil rights law didn’t protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Fifty-three percent of LGBT workers hide who they are at work, while 35% feel compelled to lie about their personal lives at work, a 2014 Human Rights Campaign report found.
Despite fears of stigma, prejudice and job insecurity, these five educators came out to their students in ways both bold and quiet. All found varying degrees of acceptance. Here’s how — and why — they chose to be out in the classroom:
“A positive whisper network”
Maryanne Kiley, 38, had no intention of coming out when she began teaching at a Los Angeles high school. “I was a first-year teacher; I didn’t have a ton of status; I didn’t have tenure,” she told Moneyish. “I just wanted to lay low and not make my time as a teacher be about me.” But when one of her students in October 2002 opened up afterschool about his sexuality, she felt it was time.
“(He) started telling me how badly he felt about himself, and how terrible he thought it was that he was gay, and how he didn’t think he should even exist,” said Kiley, who now works on new site expansion for Wildflower Schools. “I ended up sitting with him for two hours.” In an era before the “It Gets Better” project, Kiley imparted a similar message — “telling him how his life can change, and how there are a lot more gay people who have happy, flourishing lives than he knows.” In that moment, she said, “it seemed like his personal health and humanity was more important than whatever happened if it got back to my principal or to other teachers at the school.”
A couple of days later, Kiley said, she arrived at work to find a student shuffling her feet outside the classroom. “She came out to me (as lesbian), and then later that week during lunch, another student came into my classroom … and read me a poem about how he was gay,” she said. “I’m pretty sure that the first student I told did not keep that a secret … But I think it was sort of a positive whisper network, that there were other teachers at the school that would be supportive and loving.”
“I think it’s helpful to know that there are people who are like you who have survived into adulthood and are thriving. Being gay for young people can feel like an existential crisis; like you literally shouldn’t exist,” Kiley said. While part of her wants every gay teacher to be out, she added, “it’s just so hard depending on your school and your school district … People have to make this very difficult calculus of whether they’re going to be there for their students tomorrow and the next day and the next day and be a quiet, supportive, closeted ally, or whether they are going to take this sort of personal and professional risk.”
In sixth-period physics the day before Thanksgiving break 1994, Fairport, N.Y., high school teacher Rich Ognibene queried about his students’ holiday plans. One student returned the question. “David and I are going to visit my family,” Ognibene recalled responding. “Who’s David?” the student asked. “The man that I’m dating right now,” the teacher replied.
“And there it happened,” Ognibene, 54, told Moneyish. Coming out as gay in the mid-’90s was something of a “political act” due to fear of parental backlash, lack of job protections and longstanding myths linking homosexuality to pedophilia, he noted — but administrators over the years were “fantastic” as he came out to each new cohort, and his classes remained popular. Ognibene, who still teaches chemistry and physics at Fairport High School, has led the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance for the past 20 years.
Teaching remains “a very closeted profession,” Ognibene said. It’s “all very normal” at schools to announce marriages over the P.A. system, pitch in money for teachers’ baby showers, and bring spouses to homecoming games, he added. “The only time that it’s considered unusual is when someone has the audacity to announce their spouse is the same gender.”
Over his quarter-century as an educator, Ognibene said, LGBTQ students have told him it helped to have an openly gay teacher “who was ‘successful,’ had a job, had a house, had a relationship … It gave them a vision of what life could be.” As for straight kids who would inevitably encounter LGBTQ people in their own lives, he said, “it helped prepare them for that.” “(LGBTQ students) often feel really alone until they connect with someone else like them,” Ognibene said. “I wish more administrators would intentionally create an environment like I have at work, where gay teachers are welcomed and encouraged to live authentic lives.” This would not only help LGBTQ kids emotionally and academically, he argued, it would save lives.
Ognibene recently helped a former student brainstorm how to come out to his family. “I shared with him my coming-out story with my family,” he said. “He left the room, and I felt like things have gotten so much better in the 30 years that I’ve been in this profession — that I could offer that little piece of advice to a person and make their lives a little bit better, and make them feel a little bit better about themselves; a little less alone.”
“They just shrug and accept it”
Erin Sewell, a 42-year-old public school teacher from Hamilton, Ontario, had never met a teacher who didn’t occasionally mention their spouse — and it bothered her that she didn’t feel comfortable mentioning her own. “So I decided to do it,” she told Moneyish. “I checked with my union first and they said, ‘Yes, absolutely, go ahead — there’s nothing anyone can do to you.’”
And so in the fall of 2015, Sewell, a mom of two who amicably split from her husband in 2012 after coming out, waited for an organic point to mention her partner to her third-grade class. After she mentioned “Dr. Gibbs” — her partner is a veterinarian — a student asked who that was. “I said, ‘Oh, she’s my wife.’ I don’t (expect) primary children to understand the idea of ‘partner,’ so I just used ‘wife,’” she said. “I got a little bit of pushback from my kids, like, ‘You’re a woman; you’re supposed to have a husband’ … It was just straight-up curiosity.”
She offered a simplified explanation: “You know how grownups have boyfriends and girlfriends and husbands and wives? Well, a gay person is a man who wants to have a boyfriend or a husband, and a woman who wants to have a girlfriend or a wife.” Aside from one student’s family later suggesting to the principal that Sewell keep her “personal life at home,” she said, response was mostly positive.
“I think most of the time kids hear it from me, and they see that I’m a normal person and that I like them and I give them a hug when they want one … and I’m really enthusiastic about every book I read,” she said. “And I have a wife. OK. Unless they’re hearing something different at home, they just shrug and accept it.”
Sewell wants kids to know “that they get to live a normal life no matter who they love, and that who you love is separate from what kind of person you are.” “That I’m not a good person or a bad person because I love a woman,” she added. “I am a good person or a bad person — in this case, a good person — and also, I love a woman.”
“It was exhilarating”
Danielle Stern, 38, of Norfolk, Va., was teaching cross-cultural communication at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2008 when she came out as queer to a large lecture class — tying the process by which she’d come out to her mother to the course material about LGBTQ culture. “(It was) not only the first time that I came out to any students, but the first time I came out in a public setting to people I didn’t know,” she said. “It was exhilarating. I felt authentic and true to myself in a way that I hadn’t felt before.” At the end of class, during office hours and even in a run-in at Blockbuster, students approached Stern with positive feedback. One said he was “really thankful that I shared that experience, and that it was nice to get to know more about my background.”
Stern moved to Virginia in July 2008 to teach at Christopher Newport University, where she earned tenure in 2013. At the Newport News liberal arts school, she said, her coming-out process was “much more strategic” and quiet: Unacquainted with “the constraints of the culture of Virginia” and worried about a lack of state-level LGBTQ protections at the time, Stern said, she took longer to feel comfortable. But for anyone who cared to know, the facts were there: Stern filled her public Twitter feed with links about LGBTQ advocacy, mentioned her personal life to individual students who came out to her or seemed like they might, and drew upon her own queer experience in research.
The 2016 election results — as well as “policies that have been tweeted about or threatened” since President Trump’s inauguration — spurred Stern, upon returning from sabbatical, to encourage her students to understand the LGBTQ community’s “struggles of how we got to this point.” “Reading the works of other scholars and writers and thinkers on the margins of race and sexuality inspired me, when I came back to the classroom in the fall, to be a little bit more direct and maybe little bit less quiet in the coming-out process,” she said. “Because it matters now more than ever.”
“It’s been the most freeing, wonderful feeling”
John Arrowsmith, 36, came out as transgender when he was 18. But because most people don’t know he is trans by looking at him — his chest reconstruction surgery and years of testosterone supplements make his history outwardly hard to detect — he had the privilege of keeping it to himself when he started teaching nearly a decade ago at a Seattle elementary school. “I wanted the opportunity to … be a teacher just like anyone else when I started my career, and to not be ‘the trans teacher,’” he told Moneyish. The political climate around transgender issues was different 10 years ago, he added.
Over time, Arrowsmith — who, against all odds, says his roommate is related to Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler — cemented his reputation at the school. “I began to feel more and more comfortable with the idea of opening up,” he said. “I felt less and less like I would be rejected or judged.” On National Coming Out Day 2016, he got a standing ovation after telling his coworkers during a staff meeting. Last fall, he mustered the courage to tell everyone else — notifying the school’s “very supportive” principal, who arranged for him to meet with a district HR employee, and informing his new class’s parents during a parent-teacher night of what he would tell their kids. (“They were all very positive in their reception.”)
The following Monday, Arrowsmith wove his coming-out truth into a lesson, connecting it to a book they’d read about the only woman on a men’s baseball team. “(I) talked for 20 or 30 minutes about my truth and just kind of what that means, answering their questions,” he said, “explaining that yep, when I was in second grade, I was a girl — but as I got older, I realized that that didn’t feel right for me on the inside … I decided to take steps to become a boy.” He even brought in his second-grade yearbook to show them what he’d looked like at their age. The kids nodded, asked questions, and moved on with business as usual, he said. “Not a single one of them said something judgmental or negative.”
“It’s been the most freeing, wonderful feeling,” Arrowsmith said, “that everything just seems the same, except I have the knowledge of knowing that I don’t have this dark cloud of a secret that’s hanging over me.” He also realizes his revelation is not solely about himself: “If me being out helps someone else feel safer, whether it’s a student or a parent or some new member of the staff that comes in, then I’ve done a good thing.”
This article was originally published Nov. 9, 2017, and has been updated.
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