Q&A: Coming Out in the Classroom
Should a teacher come out to his students?
Q: I teach public high school in an area of about 120,000 people. My students are becoming more and more aware of the LGBT civil rights issues in our country. I’ve considered coming out to them. My partner and I have been together for 10 years, and I’d like my students to see that they know somebody who is in a long-term relationship with somebody of the same sex. What do you think? ~Greg
A: Greg, this is a complicated issue. Coming out to students can be very rewarding, especially if they do not know another LGBT person in an influential position. Being out is not only freeing, but can also effect students very positively, especially those who fall within the gay population. However, as I’m sure that you’ve noticed, there are a number of school teachers who have come out to students and have lost their jobs. Granted, those instructors taught in private schools. However, don’t think that you’re safe by teaching in a public school (and I gather that you realize this since you’re writing). You will need to consider a number of things.
To begin with, if you are not aware of local or state laws, you will want to research if you are protected from firing under the law. There are currently 29 states that do not protect people from discrimination in the work place based on sexual orientation. Now, if you are in a state with such protections, you have more to consider before you come out to your students.
You’ll want to consider the area where you live as well as your school. If you are protected under the law, don’t think that you are safe. There are still ways around laws meant to protect us. You need to consider your tenure at your present job and whether your performance has been considered to be more than satisfactory. You want to have a strong record.
If you belong to a teacher’s union, you’ll want to speak with top members to certify that you will have support if you do run into issues. It’s disappointing that we still have to consider these things, but even in 2014, we are still a persecuted people.
You’ll want to consider if coming out will put you and your partner in jeopardy. I am hoping that you feel safe in coming out, which is why you are contemplating doing so.
Finally, consider why you want to come out. I have been incredibly fortunate in my current appointment that I am able to not only teach LGBT literature, but also able to be out with the full support of my department. However, I am also at a public university. People can be weird and overly protective when students are under the age of 18.
You mentioned that you would like your students to be aware that they know a gay man in a committed relationship. They will have questions. You will need to consider how to establish boundaries on what your students can or cannot ask. If you are friendly with any of the parents in your district, you might ask them how they would feel about the topic. This might help to gage your decision. I do hope that my advice has helped to bring some clarity. Please let me know how you decide.
Susan K. Thomas
A lecturer in English at the University of Kansas where she spreads the good gay word through LGBT literature and first year composition courses. She is currently researching the impact of HIV/AIDS on the LGBT community in Kansas. She has two cats, Hannah and Hamlet (Ham).