“So, how did it go?” my principal asked, excited to hear the results of our recent lessons, intended to be more inclusive of the LGBT community within our curriculum.
“It was fine,” I said, somewhat indignantly. My team of teachers responded more positively, reflecting on the benefits of the lesson. Alas, I couldn’t help but think about the perpetual disservice we were continuing. Sure, it was a step in the right direction–including the LGBT community in our curriculum, that is–but this step was almost like a baby’s first step: tentative, clouded with innocent ignorance, absent of intention or true understanding of purpose. And why did I feel this way?
Because, for the first time for many of these children, we had formally discussed gay people in the context of sex ed.
“I’m not really sure this was the best context to introduce this in,” I replied, the only member of the LGBT community in the room, the only individual in the room who could understand the implications of this, the only individual pushing back on the glaring flaws in my principal’s logic.
My principal scoffed, clearly feeling unappreciated for her stumbling step in the right direction. In hindsight, I could have phrased it differently; I could have taken a more empathic approach to helping her see the error in her ways. But alas, my frustration got the best of me, my emotional intelligence not developed enough to approach the topic more tactfully.
When I look back, that moment helped me realize that the culture of sexuality in schools rooted itself so much more deeply than I had previously thought. Originally, I thought my principal and some of the other adults in my school district truly empathized with the gay community, and if circumstances had been different, or if the community had been different (despite the outpouring of parent support when we originally wanted to talk about gay marriage in the classroom earlier in the year), that they would not hesitate, for an instant, to make this incredibly important community much more visible to our children.
Instead, what I realized was that the adults within this district were just as uninformed about gay people as the children were, and this showed itself at the mere mentioning of introducing the LGBT community in the context of sex ed; it was representative of the heteronormative bias and sexual connotation in which many heteronormative adults place the homosexual, transexual, or otherwise queer community.
To them, our queer identities are about sex first, and identity second.
In fact, in my journey in understanding my own identity and sexuality, I’ve seen this within myself, too. And perhaps it’s why it makes me so angry. After all, they say the things that anger us the most about others are pieces of ourselves that we likewise see in them. In a way, coming to terms with sexuality is what defines the coming out process, at least that’s how it played out for me. By telling my friends and family I was gay, I was inviting them into my sexuality, revealing personal details that I didn’t want people like my mother or my grandfather thinking about.
But what we don’t realize is that sexuality is a part of our everyday lives. Sexuality is a critical piece of identity, one that affects our decision-making and molds our motivations, but one that has been also silenced and repressed by heteronormative culture, for fear of being taboo or destroying innocence. In reality, it constantly pushes and pulls on parts of our consciousness, defining key pieces of all humans’ developing personalities, even for kids as young as (or younger than) nine or ten years old.
In Jen Gilbert’s book, “Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education,” she delves deeply into our society’s seemingly allergic reaction to discussing sexuality in school. In fact, she uncovers quite a powerful idea: that we don’t shy away from talking about sexuality for our children’s sakes; instead, subconsciously–or maybe even consciously–we shy away from this because of our own uncomfortable feelings, for the queer feelings that reside in all of us, to which we respond inhospitably. Gilbert reflects on this after showing a video to her undergraduate class, featuring some explicitly sexual content:
“While I had seen the film before, somehow I did not anticipate the shock of this scene. Of course, horror becomes something less horrible if you can anticipate it. This became, for me, the queer moment in the film: my own queerness was returned to me in [this] horrific image.”
What’s especially powerful about this is that it reveals a universal truth, one that I believe exists for many individuals. It’s not our own sexuality that makes us feel queer, necessarily, as long as we contain it within the context of our private lives; it’s the fact that someone else may recognize us as a sexual being. As a gay teacher, I’m constantly conscious of this. Because the heteronormative interpretation of homosexuality equates a gay relationship as sexual first and love-oriented second, the “shock” of not only the individual scenes in my life where I reveal my homosexuality, but sometimes, even the series of scenes that creates the film of my existence, has the ability to create a lifetime of feeling queer, of feeling like an outsider.
And I don’t think this is the same for my heterosexual counterparts. In fact, just as the vigorous debates around the same-sex marriage discussion were floating around in the preceding November of that same year, months before the discussion about our sex education lessons, one of my dearest friends, who just happened to be an educator across the hall from me, was getting married. We decorated her room with mounds of white streamers (okay, it was toilet paper), and had a celebratory breakfast, complete with sparkling grape juice in champagne flutes. The decorations alone invited the children into the celebration, but the message was not that their beloved teacher was entering into a committed sexual relationship with her partner; the message was that she was entering into a committed, loving partnership with a man, that she just so happened to be sexually attracted to. No one discussed the latter. I’m not sure I would have wanted them to, either.
Juxtapose this scene, now, with the scene of me, the gay teacher, discussing LGBT families for the first time, contextualized in a week of uncomfortable lessons on erections, intercourse, and periods, to a group of children who, prior to this point, had not been forced to confront some of the uncomfortable truths that accompany growing up. And now, as a result, their first formal introduction to the LGBT community was also an uncomfortable one, implicitly associated with the aforementioned topics, and first and foremost, about sex before it was about love.
Am I suggesting that we hide from sexuality when it comes to discussing adult relationships? No. But what I am suggesting is that we afford the same courtesies to LGBT individuals in relationships that we do to heterosexual relationships, that we consider the depths of these emotional connections before distilling them down to ephemeral moments of sexuality.
I wish I could say this story ended well, but it didn’t. Just a day later, I was questioned about the books I had chosen for my classroom, and specifically ordered to clear any future book purchases with her. My principal’s trust in me had diminished, not only because I had attempted to bring the topic into the classroom just months before without permission, but because I had pointed out the incongruous parts of her argument.
Months later, I resigned. And I’m happy to say I’ve never questioned that decision.
But I at least wonder what would have happened if hadn’t. Would I have been able to make a substantial change? And if so, how long would it have taken? Regardless, I don’t stop imagining a world where homosexuality can be seen first for its rich culture, historical legacy, and unique contributions to society, and sexuality as merely a piece of the collective, embodied identity that we’ll continue to develop.