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Last quarter when I was lecturing on issues sexual minorities face I had a student ask why gay people felt the need to flaunt their sexuality. We don’t have straight-pride parades, she reasoned, so what’s the deal? I responded, as politely as I could muster, that actually straight people flaunt their sexuality all the time: wedding bands, casually mentioning significant others, and the like. “And you do it without even thinking about it,” I concluded. This prompted another student to ask, well, how often do you think about it? “Every single time,” I responded immediately. I am always assessing if it’s a safe environment to talk about a (current or previous) significant other, if I can make a comment assuming everyone knows I’m gay or if that’s going to raise questions from some, if I can show physical affection like hand holding. Every single time.
While I recognized that this second student was attempting to trap me with his question, I also saw a golden opportunity in my response. Here was a chance to do two things. In personalizing the material I was able to show many (straight) students a glimpse of the everyday challenges sexual minorities face and, hopefully, foster a bit more empathy for those of us who don’t fit the heteronormative ideal. Simultaneously, my answer was a chance to implicitly affirm the experiences of LGBT students in the class: you are not alone.
I teach at a small school in a rural, conservative part of the Deep South. When I started here I had to make some serious decisions of just how out I would be in the classroom. I realized that personally I simply wasn’t going to be able to manage re-closeting myself, but I also didn’t want to make coming out to my students some sort of exercise in self-aggrandizement or personal therapy. (I also had to give some thought to how my colleagues and administrators might respond, of course, but that’s a consideration for another post, and also connected to a manuscript I’m working on with my friend and colleague Kristy_Watkins.) I also had an intuitive hunch that this was just the right thing to do. But why? What made it right?
I eventually was able to articulate three clear reasons for coming out to my students. The first was very class-specific. I teach in sociology and I have found that students often appreciate and can connect to personal experiences shared by an instructor, particularly when those personal experiences are grounded in the course material. While personal experience is never the final authority in a field like sociology, it can be a useful illustrative tool, especially in helping students to grasp the real-world experience of sometimes abstract concepts and trends. Since I further theme my Intro class around race, class, gender, and sexuality – and ask my students to articulate their own identities along these lines – it seemed only fair to share equally.
My next two reasons I think apply across the university, regardless of academic discipline or content of the courses taught. One of the roles of a university is to foster receptivity to diversity. We often think of diversity in somewhat reductionist terms, usually meaning it as a code-phrase for race (or specifically non-Whites) and sometimes meaning gender, too (translated as: look, there are women in the academy). While I think recognizing racial and gender diversity is incredibly important (particularly when we can do so in ways that recognize the nuance of our racial and gendered experiences), I also think it’s important to consider the less-obvious ways in which diversity occurs. Knowing that their instructors are a diverse crowd (in terms of sexuality, politics, background, ability, etc.) is valuable for students, many of whom (particularly in more isolated areas, like mine) may have never been given the opportunity or space in which to talk openly or learn about LGBT people or issues.
Third, and related to fostering an awareness of diversity, I see part of my role as an educator as offering support and empowerment to students, particularly marginalized students. Our LGBT students are in many ways a marginalized population; self-disclosure is a way of offering encouragement to these students by providing a successful role model who is in some way “like them”. It also shows these students that here is a faculty member who may offer support or other resources to help ensure their own success. This is a vitally important message. And I have had students who have told me (sometimes in person, sometimes in written comments) how much they appreciated my willingness to be so boldly out and by extension affirm their own process of identity development.
Being out with my students has opened up some profound conversations, both in and out of the classroom. But perhaps more importantly, I have learned that telling them my rationale for coming out to them – which, at least in Intro, I do on the same day I lecture about sexual minorities – carries at least as much weight as the coming out act itself. While students heard this information with varying degrees of both acknowledgement and interest, some wondered what relevance such disclosure held. One time, after explaining these reasons to the class, I had a student flat out tell me (and the rest of the class) that everything made a lot more sense now: he had been wondering what relevance my sexuality had with anything, but after my explanation he thought coming out made a lot of sense. I don’t know that all students make such a connection, but it seems reasonable to expect that many do.
I suspect there are many other LGBT instructors who may want to come out to their students, but aren’t sure about the best way to do so or how to respond if students (or others) challenge them. Regardless of field or course topic, there are two reasons that easily apply to all of us: being out in the classroom helps foster in our students a receptivity to and respect for diversity and goes a long way toward offering support to our marginalized (particularly sexual minority) students. Acknowledging our identity as gay (or lesbian, bisexual, or trans*) instructors, whether we teach in sociology, engineering, business, music, or somewhere else, puts a real face on an often invisible minority and pushes back at the boundaries of privilege and inequality. Kristy and I would love to hear from other LGBT colleagues about your experiences being out (or not) in the classroom; please feel free to drop us a line [shawn.trivette at gmail.com] with your stories.