What Educators Do When a Student Asks, ‘Are You Gay?’

Even at progressive schools, gay teachers are usually advised to deny their sexual identity. That must change.

At no time during my childhood or adolescent years did a teacher ever come out to me as gay — not even once. As an openly gay educator, I am just as disappointed about that fact today as I was three decades ago, when I was an effeminate young boy questioning my sexuality.

On the other hand, my teachers shared a never-ending supply of advice with me in regards to being poor (education is the key to prosperity), a Jehovah’s Witness (society doesn’t understand your family’s religious beliefs), and a Black male (never to backtalk a uniformed police officer). Yet while I can clearly recall several educators who seemed to contradict what it meant to be straight, no one professed to being a gay adult — either to me or any of my classmates. Even worse, school culture consistently conveyed to me that I was never even allowed to ask a teacher, “Are you gay?”

At Marin Country Day School, where I am an educator, never once have I hesitated to come out to a student. However, at a previous school where I taught, administrators announced at school meetings, “If you are gay or lesbian, at no time are you to come out to students.” And when I was a recruitment officer — publicly charged with both identifying and admitting families with LGBTQ parents — many straight parents asked me, “Why are we focusing so much on gay sex?”

Today, we live in a society where attitudes are evolving around what it means to be gay: Many heterosexual adults are supportive of marriage equality, adoption among same-sex couples is measurably increasing, and more employers have taken steps to make the workplace more inclusive for LGBTQ employees. However, even the most progressive educational administrators and parents are often uncomfortable with the idea of a K-12 teacher being openly gay in the classroom.

Unlike straight teachers, LGBTQ teachers must consider the risks of sharing their sexual orientation with colleagues, parents, and students.

Many teachers ask themselves, as I once did, “Will I forever be known only as the gay teacher?” and “What happens if my being gay raises unwarranted suspicions about interactions with students of the same gender?”

In 2014, Gary J. Gates of UCLA’s Williams Institute estimated that “the percentage of adults who identified as LGB or LGBT varied across surveys from between 2.2 percent and 4.0 percent, implying that between 5.2 million and 9.5 million individuals aged 18 and older are LGBT.”

Chances are, of the roughly 50.4 million school-age children currently engaged in early childhood, primary, and secondary education in the United States, most will interact with an LGBTQ adult at least once. Whether through family friends, after-school and weekend activities, or in the classroom, school children will inevitably ask themselves, “How do you know if someone is gay?” or “Which of my teachers is gay?” How a gay teacher responds will shape a student’s perception and understanding of the emotional attraction between two adults of the same sex.

But a gay teacher’s fears about disclosing her orientation to a student or choosing to remain closeted are understandable.

A Nov. 18 report in The New York Times, headlined “Trump Victory Alarms Gay and Transgender Groups,” describes the frantic calls received by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBT rights organization, in the aftermath of the election.

“Some callers wondered if they should speed up wedding plans so they could be married before the inauguration, in case a President Trump tries to overturn gay marriage,” an HRC spokesman told the paper. “Others worried that the military would reinstate ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ the ban on openly gay and lesbian service members that ended in 2011.”

Although they may be lauded for their performance in the classroom, even in the most progressive of schools, gay teachers are usually still advised to deny their sexual identity if a student or parent asks, “Are you gay?”

Schools are often slow at keeping up with social change, and many administrators operate under the assumption that a less empathetic parent, or group of parents, will raise concern that an openly gay teacher is out to her students. That reality often leaves LGBTQ teachers distressed, and can unintentionally send the message to all students that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is unnatural. When Trump comes after Obamacare, puts up the border wall, and re-energizes stop-and-frisk, gay men and women must not return to the closet. Now more than ever, we need to push back and stand proud.

The first time a student asked me directly, “Are you gay?”, I hesitated to answer. While I had already prepared a response for this very moment, I quickly realized three things. One, that this would be the first of many times I would have to come out. (It is not like you come out once, and then everyone knows.) Two, coming out is stressful. (It is stressful for the person being asked, and I imagine it is also stressful for the person asking.) And three, how I respond to questions about my sexuality will shape how a young person understands what it means to be gay.

After what felt like an insanely long and awkward pause, I eventually gave the student my prepared response: “Would it matter if I were gay?”

While I have never been fond of responding to a question with a question, this exception always seems warranted to me. What it does for me is to create a brief moment to consider the student’s motivation for asking the question: Has the student heard something about gay people, either positive or negative, that I have contradicted? Does the student want to ask a question that only a gay person could truthfully answer? Is the student questioning his own orientation?

It also gives me a chance to weigh how to best respond. The “Are you gay?” question, and my subsequent response, play out differently depending on whether the student asking is a third grader or an 11th grader. In the end, my goal is always to show that being gay is as normal as being left-handed, hoping for rainy days, or having a preference for strawberry milk rather than chocolate milk. Over the years, regardless of the student’s gender, ethnicity, age, or religious affiliation, each time I have responded with “Yes, I am gay,” my students have replied, “OK, cool.”

In a June 1 piece for The Huffington Post, “Coming Out to the Classroom, A Teacher’s Story,” blogger and classroom teacher Paul Emerich France makes the best case for why teachers should come out to students.

“Mr. France, the teacher they knew and loved, was gay,” he wrote. “This new fact helped them see me, regardless of my sexuality. It taught them that sexuality is only one piece of an identity. Instead of equating the word ‘gay’ with ‘weird’ or a joke between friends, they equated it with someone they first knew as their teacher: an avid reader, writer, problem-solver, and musician.”

My hope is that every gay woman and man, educators especially, will reflect on their own first few times of coming out to family, friends, or new acquaintances, and remember what gave them strength. Those teachers still weighing whether or not to come out should remember that they are not alone — with every affirmation of our LGBTQ identities, we are reminded that each of us matters.

In December 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed “homosexuality” from the psychological disorders listed in the second edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. December 1973 also happens to be the month and year that I was born. When I first learned the historic significance of my birthdate, I took it as a sign that I should devote my career to further normalizing being gay.

I serve those within my school community as a proud, openly gay man.

Yes, we live — and teach — in a world where it is neither prudent nor wise for a teacher to initiate a conversation with students about sexual orientation. But when a student asks, we must be confident enough to answer: “Yes, I am gay!”

Vincent W. Rowe Jr. is the director of equity, affinity, and diversity at Marin Country Day School. He has worked in education for more than two decades.

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