Thursday, January 25, 2018

MIrrors, but also Aspirations

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.

Never.

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.)

14 comments:

  1. I am so surprised to hear this, because you live in such a progressive place. I remember my daughter in 2nd great knowing her teacher, who was a man, was getting married, to another man. Those are great books on your list though. Albertalli is an go-to for me.

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    1. I was shocked to realize this myself. Like many places, there's an urban-rural divide though. I grew up in and live in Portland and the immediate suburbs, but I've always worked in smaller towns outside of the city.

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  2. I'm blessed to work for a credit union with great values, one of which is "bring your whole self to work" (in other words, inclusion and representation everywhere). It's constant work, creating and continuing to support a work culture in which people feel safe enough to do that- sexual orientation, gender orientation, marital status, physical fitness, disability, even just hobbies that may not be considered age-appropriate or career-level-appropriate. But creating an atmosphere where people can be themselves and be inclusive of others is shown, via science, to increase creativity, collaboration, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. I keep thinking I know a book or two to add to your list, but darned if I can't think of them (and also, a book in which both parents are gay and get about 3 words of dialogue and zero development doesn't count, in my mind, as any kind of representation).
    Oh! Lola and the Boy Next Door. I hated the titular character, but her dads were fun.
    Here's a whole Goodreads list to that purpose, but I'm sad to say I've only read two of the books on this list: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/44442.Books_for_Teens_with_LGBT_Parents

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    1. I think that in a weird way, corporate jobs are better at this than education. There's the whole "role model for children" thing, as well as the whole, "You work for the community" thing. Thanks so much for the list--I'll check it out.

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  3. I grew up in a very conservative Christian place, so I’m not surprised that none of my teachers were openly gay. They would’ve got so much hate. The openly gay kids got tormented constantly.

    Oh, funny story. In high school, my best friend and some of his friends from his old school snuck into an over-21 gay bar in Denver. They met our math teacher in there. I guess it was a really awkward meeting. My friend told me about the teacher, but we didn’t tell anyone else. The other kids didn’t go to our school, so I don’t think the teacher ever got outed.

    I wonder if it’s different in college? I had several LGBT professors. When we did the getting-to-know-you stuff on the first day of class, they talked about their families.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

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    1. Yeah, I think college level is very different. You're responsible to the institution, not the community, and you're not working with "children."

      I bet that math teacher was horrified.

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  4. There were many female teachers that I knew to be gay from the gossip through the school, but I didn't treat them any differently than my straight teachers. I have never had a male gay teacher and I don't think there has ever been one in any of the schools I've attended. I'm an education major and there is only one gay male that I know of in the field, but I do know there is a transgender student who is also pursuing the field. I think there may be more incivility in the upcoming years as more diverse students decide not to be afraid to enter the education field.

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    1. I really hope so. The three teachers I talked about are all about ten years apart in age, with the youngest one being the most willing to be out. Well, "willing" isn't the right word. I'd say she was unwilling to hide herself, whereas the older teachers thought that was just what you do.

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  5. What a great post - it is making me think about so many things (as are the comments....and I don't often read other people's comments). Random thoughts:
    1. I agree with AJ that I think it is far more common for instructors to be out in college (but I have no evidence of that fact).
    2. I work in an elementary school, and over the years I've known several fellow gay educators, none of whom were out. They were all afraid of the community response and the repercussions for their career. I work in an upper middle class suburban district.....I wonder how much the socioeconomic dynamics of an area play into the comfort with which an educator feels in coming out?
    3. I wanted to be able to list a bunch of other books for you, because you are so right that kids need to see images of successful adults who are out. But...1 - my memory for the specifics of books really stinks and 2- I don't think there are many out there.
    4. I love the idea of bring your whole self to work!

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    1. I agree that these comments are terrific. I don't always respond to each individually, but there's a lot of meat here! Isn't it awful that teachers have to worry about their career like that? Thinking about Beth W's comment above, education shouldn't be able to get away with that crap. It sure wouldn't fly in the corporate world, because it's ILLEGAL.

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  6. It is sad that there is still a stigma in schools. I work as a nurse and there really isn't a stigma because no one cares about sexual orientation, people only care about your skills as a nurse. I actually have a had a few co-workers that are lesbian. When I worked in food service most of my co-workers were gay or openly bisexual. I am openly bi-sexual but, like I said, it doesn't matter where I work.
    I can't think of any books with openly LGBTQ adult characters, but I know quite a few coming out books for LGBTQ YA. I think things are moving in the right direction, I just wish it would go faster.
    Thanks for sharing this important topic. It needed to be said.

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    1. They sure as hell shouldn't care with teachers either, right? It has nothing to do with your ability as an educator. I agree that it is going the right way, but too slowly.

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  7. Wow, Wendy, this post is SO powerful. Thank you for sharing it- I wish I'd read it before I posted my monthly recap because I would have included it. I still may edit my post. Anyway. I worked for a short time at a Catholic college. I am not Catholic myself, but I did go to Catholic high school, where in hindsight, there was definitely an alarming lack of LGBTQ folks (who were out- of course, later I'd learn many of them had come out, but that's a story for another time). By the time I was working at this college though, it was the mid-00s, and you'd think some things would have changed. My boss was gay, and she was *terrified* to come out. She desperately wanted to, but had a bad experience in the past where she was asked to basically hide her sexual orientation. She eventually did come out, and it was fine, thank goodness, but just the fact that it had to be like that was really awful.

    I live in a mostly progressive state (Pennsylvania) but in a more small-town part, so people can still be real pieces of garbage to each other. I worry about my kids a lot- I always try to make it clear that they can date whoever, or no one at all, etc., but it is hard to think about those societal ramifications- especially with the current state of our country.

    I think you are so right about books playing a big part- I read a book recently where one dude had two moms and it was less than no big deal, and I LOVED how it was handled. It is making me batty because I cannot think of which book this was hah. If I can think of it I will come back!

    Awesome post Wendy, thank you so much for sharing it!

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  8. It's really sad that there is a stigma against LGBTQ people working with children---an incredibly harmful bias that many people can't shake. It's amazing how much the world is changing and yet how much we're still standing still in many ways.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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