Excerpted from "One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Teachers Speak Out About What’s Gotten Better…and What Hasn’t" Edited by Kevin Jennings (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Having just finished my first year as a high-school teacher, barely a year after graduating from college, I am constantly stunned by the ways in which I feel like I am a high-school student again.
Something about the physical environment of a high school campus makes me revert to my teenage self in amusing ways. Occasionally, I need to be reminded that I do not have to ask for permission to go to the restroom.
I once caught myself thinking absentmindedly, “Wow, I’m so excited to go to college.”
I sometimes enter the school cafeteria and freeze as I look out at the sea of tables as I think, Where do I sit? until I recall that I am an adult and that my placement in the lunchroom has little bearing on the state of the universe.
One of the most important differences, however, between my student self and my teacher self is that the last time I was in high school I was still in the closet. Now that I am back, albeit in an entirely different role, the changes I see in my own life and in the lives of the people around me make me realize how far I have come in understanding and accepting my identity and how much youth culture has changed in its acceptance of LGBTQ people.
I used to believe that one of the advantages of being a young teacher is the ability to empathize more easily with students — after all, I was a student not too long ago — and I have certainly found that my age has had many benefits in my first couple of years as a teacher.
But I have found too that, perhaps because I am gay, I have repressed a great deal of my experience in high school, probably because it was a time when I felt limited in my ability to be myself.
I grew up in a suburb of Seattle — a fairly progressive part of the country — and attended a high school I loved and for which I still feel great affection and gratitude. I knew that I had some allies among the teachers at my school (one of my favorite English teachers told us on the first day of school that he did not want to hear the word gay used as a negative adjective in his class because he had many friends who identified as gay).
At the same time, I was very used to hearing the words gay and fag thrown around the hallways outside class — sometimes directed toward me, though I had never officially come out. One of my best friends was gay and had come out as a freshman, but I knew that his coming-out experience had been a struggle, so I determined that it would be best if I waited until college to come out, which is what I eventually did.
College proved to be a hugely supportive place where I met other newly out LGBTQ people, participated in LGBTQ student life organizations, and studied queer theory, history and issues in education. I had entered college already knowing that I wanted to be an English teacher — I love language and stories — but I discovered while in college that I also wanted to become a positive presence for LGBTQ students who may be having struggles similar to those I experienced as a high-school student.
These hopes stayed with me when I began applying to teaching jobs as a senior. From my very first contact with the school where I now work, I was fortunate not to have to wonder whether I would be fully accepted as a gay person. Early in the interview process, I learned that students studied Annie Proulx’s "Brokeback Mountain" in one of the English electives, that the Gay-Straight Alliance once hosted a “Queer Eye”–themed assembly in which two student-nominated faculty members received makeovers, and that the openly gay drama teacher (who sports an electric-blue pedicure every fall) was one of the most beloved members of the community.
After I was hired, I learned that there are several other out faculty members in my school — some of whom have children who attend the school as well. These discoveries have had a profoundly comforting effect on me as a new teacher — both new to the school and new to the profession. It is not lost on me that schools historically have not been welcoming to people who identify as LGBTQ. Even today — in schools just a few minutes drive from where I work — this continues to be so. Yet the school where I now work allows for a degree of visibility and openness that did not feel possible when I was a high-school student just six years ago.
A significant part of my ability to be myself at work comes not only from the courage and openness of my colleagues but also from that of my students. One of my favorite things about my school is the senior speech program, a tradition in which every graduating senior addresses the school in a five-minute speech on a topic of the student’s choice.
On a gorgeous Friday morning in the fall, early on in my first year, students crowded the bleachers of the packed gymnasium to listen to a student give a speech in which she confidently and beautifully told the story of discovering and coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian. As I looked around the gym during the speech, I was struck to see that there was absolutely no disruption from any students — no whispering, no snickering, no jeering — just full, rapt attention.
Toward the end of her speech, this student explained that she chose to tell her story in the hope that someone in the audience going through a similar experience would know that they are not alone and that “it gets better.” The second she finished her speech, everyone in the gymnasium — students, teachers, parents, administrators — leaped to their feet to applaud this student.
As I stood and clapped along with them, I felt elated and astounded that both the speech and the reaction it elicited could be possible in a school in America today. When I was in high school, I knew some openly gay students, but I could not imagine one of them discussing their identity in front of the entire school — or for the school community to affirm and embrace them so publicly without hesitation.
My own official coming out to students did not take place in front of the entire school; it was totally unplanned. Since I started teaching, I had wanted to be a visible ally and potential resource, which is why I would attend GSA meetings, but I had not had an occasion to come out formally. As was the case when I was a high-school student, I imagine many students had already guessed or assumed I was gay, but I had not actually said anything explicitly.
In February, my school runs a blood drive that students actively and energetically publicize at a table outside the cafeteria. During that time, I would walk briskly past the table and avoid eye contact so as not to have to explain to students why I would not be participating, even though I supported their work.
But one afternoon I was in my classroom a few minutes before the start of my sophomore American literature class as students started walking in, and one of the enthusiastic blood-drive promoters asked, “Mr. de Sa e Silva, are you going to participate in the blood drive?”
“No. I can’t.”
“Because gay men are not allowed to donate blood,” I answered softly, not sure how students would react. I quickly grabbed my water bottle and took a drink to hide the fact that I was shaking slightly.
To my relief, my students were indignant. “What? That’s a rule? That’s crazy!” I smiled to myself at their reaction, which was much more about restrictions around blood donation than it was about me.
And then we started having our discussion on "The Great Gatsby" — with no awkwardness, no disrespect.
I have found that being able to discuss all aspects of identity not only has allowed greater comfort in my school but also has enriched — and created more authentic — classroom discussions. Since joining my school community, I have been able to have conversations with students about heteronormativity, gender as a social construct, and the ways in which our language is changing to become more inclusive of people who identify as trans.
I am always impressed by how openly and respectfully students — many of whom are only 15 years old — are able to have these discussions. (For one especially memorable lesson, I asked one of my classes of sophomores if anyone had heard the word "heteronormative," and one of my students was able to provide an eloquent and comprehensive definition for the rest of the class.) Seeing young people act with such maturity and empathy gives me hope for the state of things in the future.
So, while my old high-school self manifests itself in various ways in my new life as a teacher, there are notable ways in which it does not. I no longer shrink in my seat and stare fixedly at my desk when someone says the word "gay" in class. I do not change the pitch of my voice to a more masculine-sounding register or avoid speaking altogether. Rather than being focused on hiding things about myself to avoid harassment, my energy and attention are better spent on teaching students.
And it heartens me to remember that there is at least one school in the world where students and teachers can be fully themselves — and that I have the privilege of calling this school home.
Philip de Sa e Silva teaches English at St. Paul Academy and Summit School in St. Paul. His essay originally appeared in "One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Teachers Speak Out About What’s Gotten Better…and What Hasn’t" (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.