Updated September 5th, 1999
First, one hell of a major disclaimer... What follows is purely my own take on my own situation. This is not intended as advice, the "voice of a generation," or any other such nonsense. Then why write it? you may justifiably ask. Several reasons, actually. One is the time-honored reason of speaking up for its own sake. Even in 1999 America, one is presumed hetero until proved otherwise. Another reason - as a culture we tend to be dualistic. Male or female; gay or straight; black or white; liberal or conservative. Life is not computer code, people. We have more choices than 1 or 0. My experience is far from a binary one. That having been said...
Chapter 2 : Coming Out to One's Students
Well there's always a place for the Angry Young Man,
Alison Bechdel wrote, "In my career as a lesbian cartoonist, I've come to hold a position of rather awesome responsibility… But it's all a sham! I'm a fraud, a fake, a phony!! A closet closet case!! Sure, I'm out when it's convenient… But in the real world, I'm chickenshit." ("True Confession," The Indelible Alison Bechdel ) I have to admit that it was a relief to hear that from someone of her stature. While I'm not at quite that level of visibility, I feel some of that same hypocrisy. I teach.
While I'm working on my master's degree, I teach writing classes - rhetoric, argumentation, analysis, pick-a-position-and-defend-it type stuff. It's something I deeply believe in, and I've been working on becoming a college-level teacher since the late '80s. So, naturally, one of the first worries I had when I figured out my orientation was, "What effect is this going to have on my teaching?" The initial response was not promising. "Stay in the closet," I was told. "It's not as liberal in the teaching biz as everyone pretends. You have to be real careful." I heard the stories about out graduate assistants getting harrassed into leaving. I tried as best I could to field the inevitable questions - "Why does it matter? Why do you have to make a big deal out of your personal life? It's not like your sexuality has any place in the classroom…"
Well, yes and no. Personal bias is still a hotly debated issue in the halls of the Academy, and while I won't even pretend to go into the whole debate here, the gist of it is that some folks feel a teacher needs to be distant and objective; some feel that "objectivity" is an illusion, and that teachers should be as open about where they're coming from as possible; some shoot for various courses between these poles. I don't know that it will ever be settled; all any teacher can do is figure it out for him- or herself. So there's that debate, plus the various other pressures that come to bear - driving in to teach and having a "Your silence will not protect you" bumper sticker on the car ahead is what they call in the Academy a real Teaching Moment, let me tell you.
On my end, I don't believe in whapping students in the face with my biases. These are first-year students, for the most part. They're having enough trouble with college. Like it or not, teachers have a very large intimidation factor, and students can and will try to scope a teacher's biases in order to gain any fraction of advantage when grade-time rolls around. In an English class built around analysis and debate, it's enough of a challenge trying to get honest responses out of them without trying to correct for brown-nosing on top of that. (Or, on the other end, a defeatist attitude of the form, "Well, Teach will never like anything I write, 'cause I'm Republican/Christian/A dog person, so why bother trying?")
On the other hand, one of the stated goals of the class is to try and get the students to look at other points of view, to challenge some of their assumptions, to have them look critically at the world at large. Isn't sexual identity one of those big areas of assumption?
Like I said, I don't know that this is really a resolvable issue. It just needs to get dealt with, over and over, every semester. So far, in the three semesters I've taught since beginning to come out, I haven't yet come out to my students. So, like Alison Bechdel, I feel like a bit of a fraud at times. I content myself with challenging my students with things like online discussions where they're all assigned gender-neutral aliases, or moderating in-class debates on controversial issues. I think the message still gets through that way, and it doesn't directly put the matches and the gasoline in the same place.
Next : Coming Out to One's Colleagues and Profs, or Why James Bond Would Never Have Survived Departmental Politics