by: Jason Wyman
I came out at 18 while I was in the seminary to be a priest. It wasn’t the most supportive place to come out. It was one of the most crucial places to come out. I came out through a strategic action: I organized a field trip to a live performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the seminarians. Consider it revenge for the multiple mornings of “faggot” being whispered at me during morning prayer. It was a loud, boisterous coming out, one that alienated a lot of people, one I would do all over again.
Ever since that performance of Rocky Horror, I continue to come out. Coming out is action. It is something that can never be passive. Sure, it can be whispered behind backs like schoolyard gossip, but no one truly knows until you say the words: “I’m queer” or “I’m gay” or “I’m ______.” Until those words are uttered from your mouth, you live in a closet.
Closets are not bad. Mine holds a lot of black and concert t-shirts. It also holds some really ratty looking wigs — of which I should have taken better care. It also serves its purpose when safety dictates its need. For me, I have found comfort in my closet at times, especially since on the cover of things I (now) present as a “gay male.” Sometimes, it is easier to just say, “Yup, that’s me!” instead of delving into the deeper identity of “queer.” It also served me well when I was in a relationship with a woman. I was “not quite straight” to her Chinese family, which made family gatherings and holidays much easier.
The one place I have never been in the closet, however, is in my role as educator. Well, that isn’t quite true. I was in the closet briefly when advised by a teacher at a public middle school in San Francisco at which I worked. He told me that it would be easier to work with the parents and students if they didn’t know about my sexual orientation. My mentor believed they were not ready for out faculty, and they were especially not ready for an out queer man. At almost twenty years my senior, I believed him.
That period was one of the worst few months of my life. In fact, it was ever more depressing than the seminary. I always watched what I said worried that someone would be able to read between the lines and figure things out. I constantly was saying, “No. No. I’m not gay” when directly confronted with the question, which was technically true but still masked by a lie. After about three months of trying on the closet, I swung the door wide open and didn’t look back. I received such support from other staff that I wondered why I didn’t do it earlier.
I believe coming out while in a role as an educator, whether it is with youth or adults, is a crucial component for our struggle for civil rights, understanding and compassion. For me, ot is also an essential piece of being queer, which is how I identify. Queer is more than just a sexual orientation: it is a way of life. It is about bucking the status quo of hierarchy. It is loving fearlessly, compassionately mirroring and transforming radically.
As queer educators, we must change the predominant paradigm of educational peda/andragogy. We need to make learning personal and intimate. We need to change the dynamics of “learner as vessel” to “learner as educator.” It is the pedagogy of the oppressed. It is the praxis of youth development. It is how we will empower the 99% to, as Gandhi put it, “be the change we wish to see in the world.”
Too often, we, as educators, become comfortable in our role in front of the room. We, consciously and unconsciously, like being the center of attention and holding knowledge and skills of which others seek. It is a powerful role that shapes people. That is why it is even more critical that we come out, that we actively change the relationships within the room through personal stories and revelations of self.
I remember thinking that the middle school youth I was working with in San Francisco would not understand “queer.” I didn’t even completely understand my own identity. Instead of waiting for my personal comfort to magically appear, I decided one afternoon when asked by a bunch of nervously giggling 7th grade young women, “Are you gay?” to respond with “No. I am queer.”
This simple response opened a dialogue. They wanted to know what I meant. I simply replied, “I love both men and women. And I also know that sometimes a boy can be born into a woman’s body and vice versa.” This dumbstruck the five or so young women who had trapped me in the stairwell. They looked at each other and then replied, “Ok. Whatever that is.” And they walked away. Liberated from the confines of “gay,” I smiled and continued down the stairs to my office.
Those young women later came back to me individually and wanted to know more. They became curious about gender, even more than about sexuality. They asked questions of which I was able to respond with compassion and knowledge. I didn’t dumb down my language, and I didn’t respond with sordid tales of sex. Rather I spoke of identity, love and self-determination. They all understood because they all could relate to being placed in boxes by someone else, and they didn’t like how that felt.
Those young women are now all doing social justice work on some level, whether it be working in after-school programs, pursuing careers in environmental economics or being artists. While I know I am not the only reason for that course within their lives, I do know that conversation, openness and compassion played a significant role in shaping that path.
The path of an out educator is not one that is smooth or safe. It comes with risk of attack. It comes with the possibility of retribution, retaliation, and repugnant comments. I certainly have had my fair share of incredibly difficult conversations with irate parents. Youth have screamed “FAGGOT!” at me from across cafeterias. And I have been threatened termination by an employer who wanted me to remain in the closet.
But these instances only strengthened my resolve in living an out life. For how else will the world change? How else will we ever truly claim our equality as an LGBTQ community (in all of its diverse messiness)? How else can we proclaim that we’re here, that we’re queer, that the world needs to get used to it?
I was inspired to write this post thanks to the bravery of Rachael Tiffe’s “Maybe This Time: Coming Out To My Students.” While she may not have come out to her students in the classroom, her article takes a bold step forward. I applaud her bravery. And hopefully together our posts will inspire a new generation to make education personal.
Jason Wyman is a life-long educator, writer, learner and performer. He finds spaces between things and then creates supports between them. He has helped professionalize youth development, created original theater, developed learning models based on peer exchange and shared expertise, written fables inspired by the darkness of fairy tales and fostered community rooted in social justice, creativity, and laughter. He lives in San Francisco with his beautiful husband and precocious cat. You can read more at www.14blackpoppies.com.