The ‘selectively gay’ teacher conundrum

My wife and I were chatting last night, as we often do about everything ranging from human rights issues to how pretty our dogs are (just in case you didn’t know – this takes up a good 70% of our conversations on average). My wife is currently working on a project that is looking into her experiences as an openly gay PE teacher and this got us thinking about some of the questions that we often ask ourselves relating to our sexuality and its impact or interpretation by others. Questions that we feel you wouldn’t ask yourself if you identified as a cisgender, heterosexual individual, and in particular the question of whether or not being openly gay unintentionally makes us ‘role models’ for LGBT+ students…

Our discussion reminded me of a really interesting article by Bennie Kara entitled ‘Don’t Tuck in your Labels’. In this article Kara talks about all of the labels and categories that she identifies with and has become comfortable using. Kara discusses the importance of speaking our truths without fear and being our authentic selves with our students and the world around us. 

I found this really interesting as an openly gay woman myself, as at times I still find myself tucking in my labels or, more crudely, selectively expressing my ‘gayness’. When I married my wife I found that I was forced to confront my sexuality in ways I hadn’t necessarily done so before. I felt a shift in which it became unacceptable to let people assume (or not correct the assumption) that we were friends, or even sisters(!). I’d hidden behind this for a while, and even felt that this was a bit of a safety blanket, especially when we were travelling in places that were not considered LGBT+ friendly. It feels embarrassing to say this, but at times I have been grateful that as gay, cisgender females we can be relatively ‘inoffensive’ and easily mistaken as friends. 

At times this has made my life easier. But it has also made me sad that I was accepting of my relationship not being viewed or valued with the same weight as heterosexual relationships. Somehow I became complicit in the devaluing of my relationship and the love that I had for my then girlfriend, and now wife. As a result of these feelings, I would question my worthiness or eligibility as a role model for young people who may also be questioning their identity or sexuality. 

I had to learn to let my labels ‘hang out’ and be ok with it, for myself and my sense of self worth.

An interesting conundrum that I have come across since working in education is being seen as an LGBT+ role model. I am incredibly grateful to be able to openly live and work with my wife, and I hope that in simply doing this we have the opportunity to model what gay relationships can be – which is ultimately just the same as any other relationship. I also hope that due to the fact that me and my wife genuinely like each other (most of the time!) and laugh easily in each others company, and with our students, we can model what a healthy relationship (gay or otherwise) looks like. However, it can also sometimes mean that when students are struggling with their sexuality or ‘coming out’, that we are often called upon to put on our rainbow capes and swoop in to save the day.

The problem is that sometimes I have worried about how my ‘gayness’ is interpreted by others. What if I’m seen to actively encourage someone to become gay; what if families think I’m ‘promoting homosexuality’ to their children? As ridiculous as that might sound, we know that in times when people feel threatened, they can lash out and target differences, especially the ones deemed to be ‘dangerous’. Truth be told, when I’ve been in the position of helping a student work through figuring out their sexuality, I automatically revert to tucking my labels back in, just a little, so they are not on full display. Be gay, but not TOO gay. Be a socially acceptable version of gay. Adapt to fit into the society you find yourself in. Keep yourself safe. 

At times it can feel like when you watch that sitcom where one of the characters is nervous because they are about to meet their in-laws for the first time. They’re looking for reassurance that their partner’s parents are going to love them, and are encouraged to just be themselves… followed by a hesitation and joke that maybe they shouldn’t be themselves… or at least be a little less of themselves… it’s safer that way. 

This is what it can feel like in different environments as a gay woman. Be who you are… but maybe just a little less gay… or at least less visibly gay. It’s better that way, right? You don’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable. 

The truth is that ‘toning’ down your sexuality, which is not a personality quirk but an important part of who you are, can often feel dishonest and frankly, wrong.

I guess my closing thoughts (for fear of turning this article into a drone) is that in my experience, even those people who may be ‘openly’ gay are often still fighting internal struggles with how and when they present this part of themselves. The world is only just starting to open up (at least in a more significant and visible way) and we all internalise what we have grown up with, and what the world around us tells us is the dominant narrative. This is the baggage that we will continue to carry, and may repeatedly have to take out and unpack. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. Rather than always pretending to be ‘ok’ with being gay when I talk to my students, I would rather be honest. 

I can struggle with my ‘gayness’ and still be comfortable (even proud!) of being gay. To dismiss these feelings only does my students a disservice, and worse, conveys the message that there is something shameful in the internal struggle they may also be experiencing. 

There is the space to hold both ideas, for me and for them.

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