Telling people you're gay is a difficult step to make. Not everyone wants to make it. Some people feel they don't need to make it. I did. I wanted to continue living my life authentically because I inherently and intrinsically believe that I and all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are no different than our heterosexual and onegendered counterparts. We are all people. We all deserve full acceptance.
When I came out to my students I told them, “You may not think you know any gay people, but there are kids in your class who are gay. They might not tell anyone, but they know. And when you go into high school or college or the workplace when you're an adult, you will know gay people.” It is possible, however, that these sixth graders already know someone who is gay. Maybe it's a middle school friend, maybe it's their older brother or sister in high school or college; maybe it's their uncle and his partner; maybe it's their own mom or dad, divorced and come out as lesbian or gay; maybe it's their two dads or two moms.
Because we are as far as we are in the gay movement, kids today are more aware of and accepting of gay people than the previous generation, and certainly more than my generation. Growing up, I knew of no other gay person in real life or on TV and movies. I thought I was the only boy who was attracted to boys. I didn't even have a name for this attraction until I was sixteen and a priest came out in the St. Cloud, Minnesota Catholic diocese. The mixture of news reporting and letters to the editor featured in the St. Cloud Daily Times informed me about this thing called gay. Until then, growing up in a rural town of seven hundred and forty nine people and attending a conservative Catholic church in the seventies and eighties, I heard, read, saw, and knew nothing about gay people. Unfortunately, the majority of responses was that of homophobic people sharing their views on homosexuality. Fortunately, for me and other gay people, the gay priest wrote often to the editor about sexuality and spirituality as compatible entities and about gay people deserving the same respect and rights as straight people. His wise words shaped my view of what it meant to be gay, and although I struggled with my own sexuality for another six years, I came out when I was a senior in college.
The Sunday before my first day back at school after telling my students I was gay—after our four day Thanksgiving break—I drove to school to prepare for the week. On my way there, NPR started a broadcast of Krista Tippet's show “On Being”. I listened to it in my car and continued listening to it online at my desk. The guest she interviewed was Brene Brown who spoke about her scientific research in the field of vulnerability and courage. She explained that “if courage is a value that we hold as important then vulnerability is the only way in and through. It starts by an openness to seeing ourselves and seeing how we protect ourselves from vulnerability.”
It was exactly why I was scared to come out to my middle school students. I didn't know how they would respond. I felt I was in a potentially homophobic environment from students' parents and students themselves. Over ten years I've heard the slurs the kids directed to each other in the classroom and halls: That's gay. You're gay. He's gay. And what gay meant in this context was weird, perverted, sick, gross, wrong. I always told the students not to use gay in the way they were because it was offensive, but I never told them that it was especially offensive to me because I'm gay. The known comfort of them not knowing was greater than the unknown discomfort of them knowing. Telling them forced me to confront that possibility. I've had many people comment to me online and in real life that what I did was courageous. I understand why it is courageous, and yet, it's unfortunate in our society that acknowledging who you are and who you love is regarded as an act of courage.
Brene Brown later stated in her interview that “most of us are brave and afraid at the same time.” It's true. You can't take any risk or make any significant change without being uncertain about the consequences. But in order to live the lives we wish to live we must set aside that uncertainly and step courageously into the unknown, trusting that with our best interests at heart we will succeed.
To some extent the students who clapped for me were as courageous as I was. To clap showed support, acceptance, and open-mindedness. To clap showed they believed that a gay man, their teacher, should be able to come out to his students without the fear of homophobic reactions. To clap showed they had decided to stand up, our school's anti-bullying campaign emblazoned on hundreds of red t-shirts in blue letters.
Maybe these particular children, in addition to the documentary, were the reason I could come out to them. They seem unlike any other group of students I've taught They're more aware of and respecting of cultural diversity. They're growing up with an African American president. They're growing up with a president and a political party that advocate desegregation of marriage, the last great vestige of discrimination in our country. They're growing up with gay teens on Glee and gay adults on Will & Grace and gay brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, godfathers, godmothers, moms, and dads in real life.
There's a Zen saying: after the ecstasy, the laundry. It means that after you are enlightened (in my mind becoming aware of, accepting of , and appreciative of the present moment and the transitory and interconnected nature of life), you still do all the ordinary stuff of life like washing the dishes, folding the clothes, paying the bills, and spending your day at work. Only now you do them differently. You are awakened from a slumber of not being aware. You do them with acceptance and appreciation. You do them mindfully.
In a way it was like that for me after coming out to the my students. On Monday I went back to work. It was different: I was out. And yet, it wasn't different. I still had to teach. The studious students were still studious; the disruptive students were still disruptive. They didn't treat me differently. I didn't treat them differently. I was aware that many of them knew I'm gay and I was appreciative of that change. I wasn't hiding a part of myself anymore. I was challenging and changing students' perceptions of gay people. For many of them it really didn't matter. That's the reality of children today.
The only conversation I've had with students about my being gay took place this past week, about seven weeks after I told my advisory class. It was about forty five minutes after school. There weren't any other students in the common area as I walked from one teacher's classroom to mine except two girls staying after school for academic and behavior support. One of them, a spunky biracial girl with curly black hair pulled back in a long pony tail said, “Mr. Eich, can we ask you something?”
I immediately knew what they were going to ask me. “Sure,” I said.
“Some kids are saying something about you and laughing when they say it,” she said, “They're saying you're gay.”
My first emotional and cognitive reaction was that I didn't like that the kids were laughing about my being gay. This was one of the reasons I didn't want to tell them I was gay. This was the risk I took when I did tell them. But then, I thought, for some of them, knowing someone is gay, nonetheless one of their teachers, is an uncomfortable reality. Laughing could be meanness and small mindedness, the seeds of teasing or bulling, and laughing could be their way of dealing with their dissonance regarding affectional and sexual orientation. A second later, I composed myself and moved on. Yes, it hurt, but I'm stronger than the laughter of middle school children who are yet to be accepting of gay people.
I told the girl, “I am gay. I told my advisory class the day we watched the documentary about the boy who got bullied for being gay. Do you remember when we watched that? Right before Thanksgiving?”
“Yes,” the other girl said, a white girl with long blonde hair.
“I've been out for almost twenty years to my family and friends. All of the teachers here at the school know I'm gay. So I finally decided to come out to my students. If kids are asking, you can tell them. Just be appropriate and respectful and mature about it, okay?”
“Okay,” the biracial girl. “We don't care. We were just wondering.”
With that, we said our goodbyes and the two girls went back into the classroom.
Perhaps this conversation, like the entire experience of coming out to my students, is another sign that with this new generation of children, the days of don't ask, don't tell are over and acknowledgment and acceptance of gay people is truly the new normal. I hold hope that it is.