The first time I had an openly gay co-worker was in 1986. I was a senior in high school, and I got a job at a one-hour photo shop downtown. (Google it if you don't know what that is, young'uns.) Alan was probably in his 40's, living with a 20-something Filipino man. He was friendly with his ex-wife, although she had allegedly told him it would have been easier if he'd left her for another woman. Some years later I heard through the grapevine that he'd died of AIDS. His story is perhaps not very remarkable for a gay white man born in the 1940s and 50s.
I have, of course, known many GLBQT people since then. I obviously knew some before then too, I just wasn't aware of it. It's hard to remember how very closeted people were, not all that long ago. But here's the thing:
I have been employed steadily since that time, and I still haven't had another out GLBQT co-worker.
In over 30 years.
I work in education, you see, and that offensive and ridiculous association between homosexuality and pedophilia keeps everyone afraid.
One of my colleagues at my first US teaching job (1998-2008) hosted the annual end-of-year party at the home she shared with her female "roommate." It wasn't a secret, but neither was it ever discussed, or mentioned in front of students. Another colleague in the same era had a reputation as a heart-breaker and partier. He socialized with many of our colleagues, was friends with them. But he never told anyone he was gay. I only found out because he ended up rooming with a friend of mine, and even then, she had to reassure him ahead of time that a) I wouldn't mind and b) I wouldn't gossip.
In my current district, I've had one co-worker who was fully out to her colleagues, but employed a sort of don't-ask don't-tell policy with her students. After several years, she decided to post a picture of her girlfriend near her desk, and to not deny her sexuality if a student asked her flat-out. The next year she moved to a more urban school district, and while she struggled with various aspects of a new job, she reported her sense of relief at being fully, matter-of-factly out. But in our small town district, she doesn't know if she would have ever been comfortable with it.
This is appalling. Obviously, the fact that so many GLBQT educators feel a need to hide an important element of who they are is upsetting. I can't imagine going to work every day and basically pretending my husband doesn't exist. But as a teacher and parent, I'm also horrified to think of all the GLBQT students who are missing out on SEEING THEMSELVES, on seeing successful adults who share an identity with them. Then there are all the straight kids who would benefit from getting to know and respect adults who don't identify as heterosexual.
The onus, obviously, is not on GLBQT teachers to out themselves for the benefit of their students. The responsibility lies with colleagues, administration, school districts, and communities to make it safe for teachers to simply be who they are.
I make a point of bringing books into my classroom library that center the experience of all types of people. I want my students to find themselves in literature. But don't we all also deserve to see who we could become? Until (and, of course, even after) schools become a safer place for GLBQT adults, here are some YA books that feature amazing grown-ups who just happen to not be straight.
The Inexplicable Logic of My Life Benjamin Alire Saenz wrote beautifully about two gay boys in the 1980s in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. In this book, the main character is straight, but both his dad and one of his good friends are not. Sal's dad is one of the great parents in literature, like Atticus Finch without the racist sequel. He has so much to teach his son (and his son's friends) about life and love and how to be human.
The Upside of Unrequited Becky Albertalli's second book (why do people always say "sophomore" for artists' second published work? It's not a four year institution. If they write 8 books, is the ninth one their PhD book?) Again, this book has a straight main character with GLBQT parents and supporting characters. Mona's lesbian moms are completely adorable, and the background recognition of changes in marriage equality is just lovely.
The War that Saved My Life This one is trickier to hail as an example of positive adult role models who are GLBQT, because Susan's lesbianism is only implied (pretty sure it counts as canonical though). But it is also set in the middle of WWII, and the fact that the neighbors all know she is still mourning the death of her special friend, and don't seem to gossip about her or shun her makes it as open as it could be in those days. And her ability to mother two abused children who are foisted upon her, despite a certain innate prickliness, is lovely.
I am disappointed with how quickly I ran out of books that fit this category. Please share other examples in the comments!
(Linking up with the Discussion Challenge hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight.)