“I hate gay people.”
“Mr. M, would you ever be friends with a gay person? I wouldn’t!”
“Yeah…that’s messed up.”
The calm, young voices rang out during my homeroom period. A writing brainstorm about Barack Obama had brought up my ninth graders’ strong feelings towards the president’s stance on marriage equality.
In the time between the first hateful statement and my response, every education-related diversity conversation I’ve had flashed before my eyes. I could recall dozens of deep discussions about cultural competency, working with low-income communities, and finding ways to contact home when family members don’t speak English.
But when it came to responding to this—a direct statement of hate towards my sexual orientation—the till came up empty. Authentic advice on dealing with being gay in the classroom has been, for me, few and far between.
So, in that instant, my fight-or-flight response was activated: I was presented with two fundamentally uncomfortable paths for the year.
Option one was to give my students the good old diversity-spiel try with responses like “We don’t talk like that,” and “Hate is not a value of our school.” This would allow me to proceed through the year seemingly detached from the issue, yet hurt and distanced from my students.
Option two was to come out in the ultimate “teaching moment” and risk giving my students limitless ammunition against me.
I chose option two.
“So, are you guys my friends?” I asked.
“Yes, of course!” my students cheered.
“Well, I’m gay.”
There was silence, then the “Ohhhhh!” synonymous with someone getting Punk’d.
I find myself lingering in an awkward place: Few can tell me if this was a good choice; if I’ve harmed my relationship with students or if this will ultimately bring us closer together.
It leaves me wondering why, in an educational environment that’s more diverse than ever before—and in a time when sexual orientation is covered daily in newspapers, on Facebook, and even in prime-time TV—there’s a shroud of secrecy around what it means to be an out, gay teacher.
For now, for me, it means that some of my kids don’t want to give me a handshake or a fist bump in the morning anymore—they want to avoid physical contact. It also means hearing snickers and words in Somali and Oromo as kids walk past in the hallways and having to wonder if they’re saying something about me.
For now, my decision feels like the better of two incredibly uncomfortable options. When I was a gay high-school student in an unsupportive community, I would have done anything to have a positive LGBT role model within high-fiving distance.
The goal for my coming out was not fully conceptualized during my impromptu outing to my students. Now that I’ve thought more about it, my biggest hope is for my kids to realize that the gay Mr. Mishleau is the same wildly imperfect, cookie-loving, grammar fanatic they’ve gotten to know, and that being a gay dude is one of many parts that make up who I am.