I Am Not "Too Gay" to Teach: Reflections from a Future Black, Gay Teacher

by Brittany Dawson

My first kiss: We stood in the back parking lot of the mall. Donned in an apron slathered with chunky patches of dried flour and salt, I reeked of butter, pretzel dough, and curiosity. Working at a pretzel kiosk reaped its reward; I saw my prize waiting in front of my car, wearing a timid smile, long-sleeve checkered flannel, and dark washed jeans from American Eagle.

I gushed.

We clasped our hands together, cozied up under the glimmering moonlight. The night, a quintessential ingredient keeping our forbidden love a secret, blanketed our fears.

“Good night,” I whispered. I tilted my head and closed both eyes. I was ready.

Shaky hands gently nudged my head forward. Curled fingers, damp and warm, cupped my side, gripping the lopsided knot of the apron.

She kissed me, a quick peck on the lips. She wore a fragrance of peppermint and men’s cologne. Her eyes burrowed underneath my wall of trepidation.

She kissed me again. An electrifying jolt burst into a flurry of emotions. Overwhelmed, I smirked.

“I…love…you,” I stammered, floating on the wings of enamor. I felt her arms stiffen and lips clamp shut, averting my pleading gaze.

“What’s wrong?” I beckoned, fearing that the stench of a 9-hour work day proved to be too much.

She motioned sullenly to my right arm and squinted her soulful brown eyes. A mucus globule had landed on my elbow, now chipping away at my self-worth. An old man stood all of a few inches away and pointed a hairy finger at us.

“Get outta here, ya stinkin’ LESBOS!” spurted the old man, whose bulging belly and gruff voice pierced through our heavenly night. Too afraid to cry, too defeated to run, too deflated to question, I glared at his glassy eyes as he watched his spit slide down my arm, leaving a crusty trail of saliva.

“I said get outta here NOW, or I’ll call the cops!” he yelled, the venom in his voice carried enough clout to herd a pride of lions in one bark.

He stood perched in front of the hood of his vehicle until we unlatched from each other. At 17 years old, I was burned by the embers of shame. I learned the true meaning of fear and what it meant to be gay in the South.

* * *

As I finish my final year of college, it’s evident that pre-service education classes (particularly in the South) are in dire need of supplying diverse models for aspiring teachers to follow. From classes on educational psychology to instructional methods, we are warned to eliminate prejudices and to live closed lives in order to mitigate our public presence in case we run into a parent or student. But how can I, as an aspiring educator who identifies as LGBTQ, reach students when I am urged to conceal my identity? It is often said teaching is considered a conservative and traditional profession. If you envision your favorite teacher’s desk, I’m sure it was littered with family pictures (presumably of a man and a woman and their children), and other gems of heteronormativity. How can I be transparent, teach inclusivity, and inspire students to accept differences when my “difference” is treated as a defect or something to be eliminated?

At this point, the same discriminatory practices I am told to admonish are intricately embedded in the pedagogical framework used to guide pre-service educators, a grim and frustrating realization. In other words, I’m allowed to teach acceptance, but I am not allowed to be accepted. Based on this ill-advised suggestion, living behind a mask is the way to go. Camouflaging identities deprives teachers from the opportunity to showcase an authentic self.

I simply wish to be visible, not cloaked in a veil of shame.

I’ve been chided for wanting to embrace my sexual orientation in the classroom. These opinions conclude that in doing so, I will influence children down a path of moral corruption. After South Carolina legalized marriage equality in November, one disgruntled man confessed, “I don’t want my child bein’ taught by ‘no sinner,” echoing a common sentiment felt by staunch traditionalists who still mourn “the good ‘ol days.” When identifying as LGBTQ is considered dangerous or infectious to our youth, telling educators to teach from the closet in order to palliate America’s inability to confront change paints a clear message to students that they should also feel ashamed of their own identities.

There is an overwhelming misunderstanding that as a Black gay woman, my rights deserve to be trumped by those who are considered the cultural and social norm: White, heterosexual, god-fearing folk who meet the status quo. I feel frustrated and deeply saddened that who I love impacts what kind of teacher I am allowed to become. Fear mongering is used to wheedle LGBTQ folk from these traditional positions. By acknowledging that “gay rights is a civil rights issue,” I’m either slammed with Bible verses or given a diluted speech on the unimportance of the freedom to marry and employment protection. At its worst, I’ve been given a litany of phone numbers for Gay Conversion Therapy programs.

Truthfully, I am terrified. Teaching from the closet means pictures of my future partner or wife will stay locked away in the same closet we aim to eradicate. It entails stilted conversations with parents and faculty; ambiguous pronouns and puffery language whenever I may bring up anecdotes from my personal life; and not to mention the psychologically traumatic performance that will be impossible to maintain. If I choose to subscribe to these practices, my students will never have the chance to engage with a charismatic, altruistic individual who can serve as a role model and guide for them to embrace who they really are.

If we continue to spread homophobic guidelines for LGBTQ teachers to follow, imagine how this hurts our students. I don’t want to project the fear of my 17-year-old self to my students. I hope to be the teacher I wish I had in middle school, after an instructor moved me to the back of the class because my “gay talk” was distracting. I hope to be the teacher who advocates for all students.

I hope to be seen for who I truly am as a woman, educator, and human being.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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