Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day, and here is my coming out story as a lesbian teacher.
A month into my first year of teaching seventh-graders in Oakland, Calif., we were in the school library, outlining Africa on poster paper. My students chatted as they worked.
“Are you married, Ms. Sokolower?” one of them asked me.
My stomach instantly tied itself in a knot. But I knew I didn’t want to teach from the closet.
“Well,” I explained in what I hoped was a calm voice, “I have been with the same partner for a very long time, but we can’t get married because we’re lesbians. My partner’s name is Karen, and we have a daughter. She’s nine.”
Immediately, everyone had questions and comments. “How could you have a daughter?” “How do you know you’re a lesbian?” “That’s gross.” I said, “Right now, we’re working on Africa. But I want to answer your questions. How about this? You think about appropriate questions, and tomorrow we’ll save some time to discuss this.”
I thought about how to explain this in a way that would be appropriate for middle schoolers. And I set clear parameters in my mind about what kind of questions I wouldn’t answer: nothing about sex, and nothing that felt deliberately disrespectful.
The next morning, there was a note in my box to go see the vice principal. “I hear you’re planning to tell your class about your sex life,” he said. “I forbid you to do that.” “I’m not talking about my sex life,” I told him. “I’m talking with my students about what a lesbian family is. I promised them I would explain and answer their questions if they’re appropriate, and I’m going to do that.”
So I told them the truth. I told them I knew I was different when I was in middle school and high school, but I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I told them I was lucky to be in college at the beginning of the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement, and so when I realized I was a lesbian I had lots of support. And I told them I met Karen when we were in our early 20s, and we have been together ever since.
The next day, I received a letter from the principal, telling me that she was putting a formal complaint in my file. I also received e-mails from several teachers offering support and encouragement (including two from teachers who told me they were gay but asked me to keep their secret).
I got no complaints from parents. In the spring, I received a notice that the district was not rehiring me. In response, the other teachers at the school raised such a clamor with the principal at a staff meeting that she told them it was a clerical error and renewed my contract.
I’m glad that now it is a little easier to come out than it was when I was young, but it still takes a lot of courage. And here is some advice: Don’t do it until you’re ready, and make sure you have a support system at your workplace.
The overwhelming reason to come out as a teacher is to make school a safer place for youth who know, think or fear they are lesbian, gay or bisexual. One young lesbian told me I saved her from suicide; she was brought up in an abusive and homophobic family, and knowing that I had a loving family, a career and a positive self-image made her life feel worth living. In so many ways, silence is the enemy. And there is nothing quite as strong as a living example to counteract stereotypes. Happy Coming Out Day.
Jody Sokolower is policy and production editor of Rethinking Schools magazine. This was adapted from a longer Rethinking Schools article. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read more pieces from The Progressive Media Project by clicking here.