“Do you consider yourself part of the LGBTQ community?”
The text caught me off guard. Of course. Then I realized: Why would he know — I never said anything.
I’d shared a link to an article about queer culture witha former English students (let’s call him Jay). He’d responded with an applause emoji — and the question.
Jay is out and proud as a Catholic teenager in a small, conservative Spanish town. His joie de vivre made every class a delight. I admired the hell out of him, but never said anything about being bi.
I’ll just be supportive, I thought.
So I taught poems by Mary Oliver and CP Cavafy, brought Attitude magazine to class along with Vogue and Wanderlust, and expressed due reverence for the fierceness of Queen Bey and Lady Gaga. That’s cool, right?
Jay’s question got under my skin because, really, he shouldn’t have had to ask.
“Definitely,” I responded. “Wasn’t quite sure about bringing it up in class.”
The more I’ve thought about it (and it’s been a lot) the poorer an excuse that seems.
I didn’t want to distract from class. My personal life isn’t important. Blah blah.
Yet I had no qualms talking about my husband, or dating men. I just elided the fact I also date women. That’s not being “appropriate”, it’s cowardice.
Taking it easy
Truth is, being straight is easy. Despite short hair and a penchant for Doc Martens I am a cis woman married to a cis man. That is so socially acceptable it obscures anything ambiguous or complicated. It brings the perpetual temptation to not mention anything that would threaten my hetero privilege.
Once, a woman I was seeing was verbally attacked over her holiday plans. My date said she would feel uncomfortable going to Russia. Instead of sympathizing this woman railed at my friend for trying to “flaunt her lifestyle”. Basically, she thought if my girl didn’t fake straightness for the benefit of Russian bigots she deserved to be gay bashed.
This conversation, which took place at a party in Ibiza, shook me. If people are like that on an island renowned for anything-goes hedonism, I don’t want to know what the rest of the world is like. So, it was/is, easier to don the invisibility cloak of straightness.
What makes an ally?
Self-identifying as queer and a queer ally to myself means jack if I play it straight to the world at large. My silence amplifies jerks who think love is “flaunting your lifestyle”.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud of introducing my students to Cavafy and Oliver, of watching Gaga videos with them and discussing gay representation in mainstream media. But it wasn’t enough.
If I were 100% straight, it might be. As a (married) bi woman, I have a responsibility.
Cleaning out my closet
Being married is part of what stopped me from saying anything. If I were single, or dating, saying “I’m bi” probably wouldn’t raise too many awkward questions.
But I could imagine…
Wait, aren’t you married? Does your husband know? Is he bi? Do you date other people? Does that mean…?
My students are sharp — a thousand times more woke and with it than I was at their age (or a decade later). They could have asked questions that I don’t have answers for.
That unnerved me. Which is precisely why I should have opened up.
A real education
Being a good teacher means not pretending to know all the answers. I’m comfortable not knowing a grammar construct, or the meaning of a word, so why so awkward about admitting I haven’t solved the mysteries of love?
I’ve asked myself over and over, Should I have come out to my students? The answer is, insistently, yes.
Not just because Jay deserved to know I consider myself part of the LGBTQ community, as he gracefully put it, but because they all deserve to know that love and attraction are fluid and multi-faceted. They deserve to know that you can try things, change your mind, fall in love with one person and still be attracted to others. They deserve to know that you never have to stop exploring, questioning, loving. They deserve to know that marriage doesn’t have to be a house in the ‘burbs and 2.4 kids (though that’s available).
Like I said, they’re sharp. Chances are they already know (or suspect) much of this. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make it okay for me to sit back like, you’re on your own.
Be there for each other
We all need allies. Every single day. And in our increasingly mean-tempered world, unity and kindness are the life-rings we have to throw to each other.
That means owning who we are, in all its delicious complexity, so others (especially, if we’re teachers, our students) have space to claim their own delicious, complicated selves.