The Ins and (Coming) Outs of Being Gay in the Classroom

June 23, 2013, 9:10 am

safe-zoneToday’s guest post is on a topic that many queer people taking first jobs, or new jobs, in the fall are thinking about: should I come out? How should I come out? Does it matter to my students — and will I be viewed as unprofessional if I bring my personal life or views into the classroom?

Lauren Kientz Anderson is a visiting assistant professor in Africana Studies and History at Luther College in Decorah, IA. She received her Ph.D. in African American History from Michigan State University in 2010. Her book, “A Spirit of Cooperation and Conflict: Black Women and the Politics of Protest and Accommodation in the Interwar Era,” is currently under review.

I have a friend who is a non-traditional undergrad at a big state school. She has walked into rooms the first day of class and instantly pegged her teachers as gay—“Prof Bling” (her nickname for him) and the Queer Theory instructor were not hard to identify. Another friend, who is a theater professor at a big state school and is pretty “femme,” talks eagerly about her partner of 15 years to all who are willing to listen as a way of coming out. I don’t teach queer theory, nor do I have a partner, nor do I instantly read as gay (except to a few people with very good “gaydar”).

I am also relatively recently out, and still don’t talk about it easily in professional situations, although personally and in LGBT settings I speak readily and eagerly about my understanding of gay life. I came out to myself during my last year of grad school, communicated awkwardly about it during my post-doc and am now pretty comfy in my skin. However, I did not come out to the few classes I taught as a post-doc. Currently, I teach as a visiting professor at a small liberal arts college with a Christian heritage and a church affiliation.

After being hired as a visiting professor at Luther College, I eagerly searched their website for any information about LGBT community on campus. I found a few things. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA) is a welcoming church. The college has a Diversity Center and an undergrad LGBT organization. But I was unsure about being in a small town and at a small school, even if the state in question was an early adopter of gay marriage. So during new faculty orientation I asked the director of the Diversity Center whether it was a good idea to come out to my class or not.

Someone who became a friend laughed at my audacity, since by asking the question I had just come out to a room of people I did not know. I had been nervous about it. I was unused to being audaciously gay, and I had never experienced the “rainbow effect” of coming out (i.e. that public joy communicated in an array of rainbow gear.) I experienced much personal joy and relief at finally figuring myself out, but I was too worried about maintaining a relationship with my family to be assertive about my new identity.

The director of the Diversity Center was a bit evasive in her answer, but what I understood is that I should do what made me comfortable. I thought long and hard about that. Was I comfortable having undergrads automatically think about my sex life? A straight person can mention having a spouse and that doesn’t mean that undergrads automatically think about her in bed with someone. But a gay identity conjures up sexual images for many people, rather than implying marriage or partnership (though this is obviously changing with the predominance of “marriage” following the word “gay” in our political conversation).

I was also concerned because it was in potential conflict with my beliefs about the proper role of a teacher. The mentorship I received from my parents, in college and in graduate school argued against “coming out” in class about political or religious beliefs, or anything that distracted from teaching itself. Subconsciously, this turned into the idea that professors should try to be, if not some kind of neutral blank slates, at least devil’s advocates who can push all students to think more deeply about their own beliefs without trying to convert them to any particular idea.

I am not certain that this was what my mentors were trying to teach me, but this is how I understood the process of my own education. I came to college as an evangelical, proselytizing Christian and having my professors treat me kindly, asking me deep questions but not trying to prevent me from airing my opinions.

Perhaps because of these questions, by my senior year in college I was seriously rethinking the beliefs with which I had been raised. When a scholarship review committee asked me in horror if I had proselytized on the “mission” trip I went on to Guatemala after my freshman year (we had not, but more because the leader did not consider us culturally astute enough, not because the group was against evangelism) I backpedaled as quickly as I could. But that question confirmed for me that there was no place in academia for the kind of Christianity with which I grew up.

Now I was confronted with a very different kind of question. But was it? On the one hand, I didn’t want to put an undergrad through the same kind of terror that that the question about evangelism had put me through. At the same time I truly believe in the values of diversity and “tolerance” (a problematic word to be sure, but one that opens students and faculty up to transformation.)

The idea of “tolerance” was denigrated in the kind of conservative Christianity I grew up, as if somehow it undermined the Christian worldview. What they didn’t say, and what I had to learn, was that this negative interpretation of tolerance necessarily privileges a straight, white view of Christianity. Could having their first openly gay professor help some of my students in the same way that having my first black professor had opened my eyes to a new way of thinking, and ultimately a career in African American history? Could having a gay professor help a questioning student not have to go through the same kind of torment about his/her sexuality that I had?

Could I be the kind of mentor for a gay student that I did not have?

I finally decided that I would come out to my students. I was so nervous when I did; that spot between my breast and my belly where my fear lives was tight with anxiety. I wished there was an easy* way to do it—to simply say I was married to my beautiful wife, to march in with a gender non-conforming self-presentation, but neither of these things would be me. So I had them do a getting to know you exercise around the question: “Tell us something about yourself we wouldn’t know by just looking at you.” When it was my turn, I said breathlessly, in some haste, but trying to maintain my professorial air, “I’m gay.”

And that was the end of it. No student ever asked me about it. I placed an LGBT “safe zone” sticker in my office window. It never came up again in conversation, although when gay issues were brought up by students I felt more freedom to discuss them.

And yet…the next semester…I didn’t do it again. I didn’t set up a question at the beginning that easily translated into my coming out. I felt safer easing back into my “I have no private life” professorial persona.

I can never be a blank slate in my classrooms. I “come out” as white every time I enter a classroom, but especially when I enter my African American history classes. I also come out as having gone through a serious process of reconceptualization about race every time I push my students to think more deeply about the shallow perceptions of race with which they come to class. I feel anxious each time I have to gently or forthrightly confront students about their stereotypes of the world, but I feel more comfortable doing it from my safe space of years of academic study of African American History.

For me, academic research feels more real in the classroom than my knowledge of life as a gay person. And perhaps I am also still that kid whose family all turned away in embarrassment when sexual things (you know, like kissing or animals giving birth, ‘cause heaven forbid we watch something more sexy) appeared on tv. As my mom would say, in her post-hippy Christian kind of way, “It’s just all so earthy!”

I have been left with so many questions. What do you think about the role of a professor’s personal life in the classroom? Do people who can “pass” as some kind of normative category (white straight woman, in my case) have an obligation to explicitly state that they are not that thing you are expecting them to be? Dan Savage, the sex advice columnist and author, argues that we have a duty to come out so that people will stop saying they don’t know any gay folk—but what does that look like in a professor’s life? Is it enough to come out once and let the gossip mill do the rest of the work, or should one come out every semester?


*I know neither of these is in fact easy. Indeed, my semi-ability to pass is probably considered much easier by most people.


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