Season 3 Episode 9:
Queer Educators

Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne.

Alex: And I’m Alex Burg. And you are listening to

Phil: The I’m from Driftwood Podcast.

Alex: If you just can’t get enough of I’m From Driftwood, go check out its YouTube channel. The stories have tens of millions of views, and over 100,000 subscribers, and a new story is uploaded every week. You can also browse every story it’s ever published since it launched in 2009. Speaking of stories, let’s get to today’s episode.

Phil: Today, we’re talking about queer educators and our first story is from Matt.

Matthew: One day, a week or so after the holidays, I had asked my group of 5th grade students in my music class how they had spent their winter break. And kids went down the row saying what types of gifts they had and which relatives they had seen. At the end, a student had asked me, “Mr. Hay, what did you do?” And so I had answered in the best of my ability, without revealing too much, “Well, I went to my in-laws and I spent some time in north New Jersey.”

A student of mine asked me very pointedly, “What does in-laws mean?” And so I explained that if you have in-laws, that means that you’re married and that it’s the family of the person that you’re married to. And so she asked me, “What is the name of your wife?” I told her that I have a spouse, and then I tried to move on, which I do many times. But she was feeling very insistent this particular day, on figuring out what the name of my wife was. So we went back and forth, and back and forth, “What’s your wife’s name?” “I don’t have a wife. I have a spouse.” “You said spouse was the same thing as a wife.” Eventually, I lost patience and I said, “He is my spouse and he is not my wife.”

There was a silence that hung in the room for a minute. The kids sort of looked at each other confused. I let them know that if they had any questions, I’d be happy to answer those questions, but right now I’d like to focus on music. After are several more interruptions, I just had to stop the class. I had to stop the class and explain to them, “If you’re talking about me, that’s not showing kindness. At this school, we practice kindness, and so I don’t want to hear anything else about it. But if you have questions for me, ask me after class.”

After class, the student who had been the one who had instigated this whole thing was walking by, avoiding eye contact. And I said to her point blank, “Is there anything you need to ask me?” And she looked like she wanted to ask something specific, probably, “Are you gay?” and didn’t. A couple of weeks went by, and there was a lot of buzz in the school amongst the students and amongst the teachers telling me what their students were talking about, which was, “Mr. Hay is gay. Mr. Hay has a husband.”As someone who’s been out for more than half my life, I haven’t dealt with feelings of being in the closet and feelings of not being able to be myself for a really long time. And a lot of those types of feelings had filled me again, this late in my life as an out gay person.

Teaching is all about establishing a relationship with kids, so it was really important to me that I was accepted by my students. So I guess, there was a lot of sadness that I had felt after that class. So I had reached out and decided to make it public and got a lot of confidence from other people in the building, got support from my principal. I’m lucky enough to teach in a state where there are protections for gay people, and I’m really lucky to be in that situation, so I knew it would be okay, no matter what the parent-response or student-response ended up being.

Time went by. I felt like I could be myself a little bit more, slowly over time. There was no reason to feel like I had to be somebody else. If it was okay with some kids, then it was going to be out there anyway, so I may as well own it and show how comfortable I was with it. As a gift I had this… It’s a gift that’s like what you would put on your desk that has your name on it, but it says, “What would Beyonce do?” And I thought that it was the appropriate time to add that to my desk. I started adding pictures of my husband around the room. And when that started to happen, the conversations in music class started to happen. Not during music, but before or class or after class, students would come up and say, “Mr. Hay, who is that? Is that your friend?” “That’s not my friend. That’s my husband.” “Oh, that’s your husband. He’s bald,” or, “Oh, that’s your husband. You guys went to Paris.” or whatever.

The student I was speaking about before in 5th grade, who was the one that had instigated the whole thing, she did finally have the confidence to come over to me. She came over to my music stand and said, “Mr. Hay, do you have a wife?” And I said, “No. “She said, “Does that mean you have a husband?” And I said, “Yes. Do you want to see a picture of him?” And I showed her a picture of him. And we had a small conversation about it, and she invited a whole bunch of her friends over to also look at his picture and it was totally fine, totally normal.

I had heard a story from a 3rd grade teacher about when they had returned from music class and had gone back to their homeroom. There was a discussion that happened after they had realized that Mr. Hay was gay. And one student in particular, had heard that I was gay, and during this discussion between them about, “Is Mr. Hay normal? Is it normal for him to be gay? Is that all right?” He stood up for me in that moment by telling them it is normal. “Actually my mother who separated from my father, dates women and she’s normal so, Mr. Hay is normal too.” And I think that, that’s something he might not have had the confidence to share, had I not come out to that class or had I not come out to the building in general.

I think it’s important to be out to students because they need role models in their life that are gay, that carry themselves comfortably, that live normal and happy lives with people that they love. And it shows them that it’s okay to be gay. It’s a very formative time in their life in general, so knowing people at that age who are queer and out, and happy about it, is really important.

Alex: What a moment to just bring you back… as an adult who is out for a while, to be brought back to having literal school children, all of a sudden, be so wrapped up in your sexual orientation and buzzing about it. When I was hearing his story, it made my skin crawl because I could totally see why that would really bring you back to that time and make you have all these weird feelings of what it was like as a kid, and having to be a closeted kid and totally take you back. It was interesting because this incited such conversation among the students, to the point where the students were almost obsessed and Matt would hear secondhand that the students were talking about him in their other classes and that this was really such a subject in the school. And I like that he was sort of accepting of the conversation and could appreciate that this was a jumping off conversation for these kids.

One of his big points was that he didn’t really even reprimand the students. He got the picture. He basically set up these opportunities for more inquiry into what was going on and opportunities for him to talk to his students. So Matt, you are beyond patient and generous with these students. What was interesting too, was about the one student who was really pressing him about, “Your spouse, your spouse, your spouse…” He kind of described her as almost not fully wanting to go there. She wanted to keep on pushing forward with, “Well, what about your spouse?” But she wouldn’t just ask him, “Hey, are you gay?”

Phil: Right.

Alex: She didn’t just want to ask him that question, and I thought that was interesting. It made me wonder, did she understand on some level, that that was maybe not the best question to ask?

Phil: Yeah. He says that he thought it was important for kids to see gay individuals that are comfortable with themselves and living confidently, so they understand there’s nothing wrong with being gay. And so whether or not that means for one of those kids who themselves thought they were gay, or just for kids who will come in contact with other gay people. Just the understanding of there is nothing wrong here.

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: Literally, it’s almost like, there’s nothing to see here. It is what it is. It’s totally fine. And I feel like he figured that if he was going to come out and do this, that he should do it in the best possible way, in a way where it wasn’t a problem for him. So it then it became not a problem for them. But that was the way he approached it. I think that can happen sometimes when you’re coming out, in whatever way you’re coming out. It’s like until you can settle, until you can find some steady ground in it, other people can’t and they are feeding off the energy, and they don’t know what they’re doing and they get afraid. It’s like, okay, there’s not a problem here. Everything’s literally fine.

I think it’s interesting to see him go from all the buzz in the school, and the kid questioning him to one of the kids actually standing up for him and him feeling comfortable enough to put pictures of his partner, his Beyonce plaque, “What would Beyonce do?” And it’s just so nice because he gets to come and bring all of who he is to his students. And he talked about being a teacher, he said was about the relationships. I think there must be something about being able to come into a situation where you can be fully yourself. And what does that do for the relationships that you are fostering there? What element of that helps those relationships and strengthens the bond in some way? It’s actually really lovely.

Alex: Yeah. That is really beautiful. It reminds me of also, having to go back to that mindset of being a kid, and the relationship that you would have with your teachers and that also, teachers always have this mystique. When you would learn that little piece of what their lives are like outside…

Phil: Were you wondering? I think I felt the same way with my teachers. I’m like what do they do? Where do they live?

Alex: Yeah. And I can totally see… I went to a very progressive grade school and we definitely had teachers of all different sexual orientations. We definitely had teachers who were openly gay, but I also just remember that veil of mystique would exist around all of our teachers and just who they were outside of school. But one thing is, I think because it was a very open, progressive culture that it wasn’t as salacious because it was just like, here’s who they are and here’s what’s going on.

Phil: Because it was progressive, it’s a little less [crosstalk].

Alex: Yeah. They weren’t the only… It sounded like he was the only gay teacher in that context, in that entire school. There’s a real contrast between his story and then the other story that we heard, Alexa, who’s a teacher in Mississippi and just the line that they both had to tow. He’s able to put up the quote about Beyonce. He’s able to put a picture of his husband on his desk. If you cross into a different state line, none of that can happen. You’re really at risk of losing your job. And so this situation, having that feeling of go back to what his own experience might have been like in grade school, when you have all these kids running around, talking about you and your relationship, that could have even been more complicated and multifaceted had he been in a location where he wouldn’t have been able to be overt with his personal life. And it just sounds like it would be so difficult to navigate or having to navigate it at a distance, which brings us to Alexa’s story.

Alexa: I recently came to Mississippi four months ago, to teach. I’m teaching middle school art so, I teach 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. It’s been eight weeks now. And it was interesting being a young person, because I’m obviously very young, and coming from New York City, and then asserting this kind of power and being in this place where you are not really connected to the culture. I am a colored person, but don’t racially identify with… They still don’t know what I am. And trying to… In this state, it’s kind of very black and white and the in between is strange. And for students, it’s hard for them to gauge that.

It’s my second week of school. I’m still figuring out how to navigate this new realm that I’m in, this new place, new position. And I have to walk all the students in a line to the bathroom so, there’s some waiting time. And as other students are using the bathroom, these two students for break out in a fight, kind of. Not a fight, but just like a tiff between the two. And they’re like, “You’re gay, you’re gay, you’re gay.” And I was just like, how do I address this, knowing that I can get fired for being gay in Mississippi, which is like a huge thing. And then on top of that, knowing that there’s this, like, religious thing, how do I then say anything about it?

But I knew that I had to say something, something needed to be said. So I was like, “We’re not going to speak about being gay in a negative way because it’s not negative and we’re not going to use that word in that kind of way. We’re not going to use that language.” And this one kid kind of straightened up, looks forward and he’s like, “Okay, I’m not going to do it.” And then this other student blurts out, “Well, no, it’s a sin. Being gay is a sin. It’s wrong.” And I didn’t know what to say, at that point. And I just knew that I couldn’t push too much, especially since my second week. I’m not trying to call like huge waves, either. And I was just kind of like, “Well we’re not using that word in a negative way.” And kind of just shut it down there.

He just straightened up and we ended up going back to the classroom. Time passes on and I still hear it every now again, in the hallway. And the first time I saw, maybe, a small light was this one kid decided to say it in my classroom. The word comes up again and these two boys start saying “You’re gay, you’re gay.” And all I did was give a look and this one student says, “We’re not using that type of language.” And I was like, that’s amazing. And I’m planting a seed and something’s happening. There’s going to be change, it’s just going to take some time.

I think it’s important to always respect where people come from and understand that everybody has a different background, has different beliefs. And so the only way to really create any type of change is to meet them where they are. Meet them with what they know and try to, not change the way that they think but, change the framing of what they’ve seen, especially when you’re dealing with young students. By not reprimanding him in a kind of way or saying, you’re wrong. Just saying, “That’s not the word to use. We’re not using that word in a negative way. And that word isn’t negative.” And hopefully students will feel a lot more comfortable. Any students that are maybe struggling with sexual identity, that they can see that they can come to me, I’m an ally. I’m someone that they can speak to.

Phil: What was amazing about this story was listening to her, watch the seed be planted.

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: I think that was incredible. It’s just like the odds in many ways, were against her in a lot of ways, but she still was able to plant the seed. And I love the advice that she gives at the end of the story. It talked about like, I didn’t want to reprimand these boys. I didn’t want to make them wrong. That’s the thing, she knew that making them wrong was not going to help anything, but she wanted to meet them where they were at.

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: And I think that just speaks a lot of how to handle something that is that difficult. If you’re trying to bring someone over to your side of the street, that’s a haul. You’ve got an uphill battle. But if you can find common ground, you can find a bridge, some way to have a discussion, which is, I think kind of what she did, I think it goes a long way.

Alex: Yeah. I think just everything you’re saying totally resonates with me about this story in that idea of being a model of behavior. It’s not like she was giving them a long lecture about how they needed to be. She just, so plain and simple, was just like, we don’t, “We don’t do that here. We don’t talk like that.” And she also mentioned that one of the reasons she had to be so subtle is because she’s in Mississippi where you can get fired for being LGBTQ. And so she couldn’t actually say, hey, listen, I identify as queer and here’s what’s going on. And so she had to be really, really, really tactful about it. And I think in a way, that was obviously effective because she saw that her student internalized that and then when they were in their own social setting, kind of went with that.

I found that to be so strategic in a way, because especially… When I think about the news, when I think about the patchwork of anti-LGBTQ legislation that’s happening around the country, when I think of the very polarized perspectives that are happening right now with everything that’s in the news, sometimes it can be really hard to teach people. And I felt like it was one way of kind of chipping away at just being like, “We’re not going to do that here.”

Phil: Right.

Alex: And the message was heard. Again, to your point of that kind of meeting someone halfway. And then also their kids. Kids are so malleable. Again, they absorb what they’re hearing around them. They absorb the culture of their household. They absorb the values of their homes. And so I think that, especially with children, reprimanding would not be the right thing to do because they don’t always know yet, at that point. I know as we’ve spoken about our own exposure to LGBTQ issues, sometimes it takes longer. Sometimes it takes a lot of learning. I appreciated that she really wanted to model the behavior in that way. And also in such a way that is very understandable for kids.

On the flip side of modeling behavior, something that I thought about for both of these stories is the phrase possibility model, especially for Matt. For Matt, now that he is really being open with his students about his husband, about his identity, about his personality, about who he is. I just feel like that does create a sense of possibility for other students who will now can point to that teacher, or could even relate to that teacher, or could even go to him if they are struggling or being bullied or having issues with their family. He just becomes another resource for them in that school. Also, Alexa was modeling behavior and then I think, Matt was also stepping into that role as a possibility model for his students.

Phil: Actually, when you think about what Alexa did, Alexa also was doing that in a different way, because at the end of the story, she talks about, “I want them to think I’m an ally.” So what if there were kids? Even not coming out herself, but just setting the tone and saying, “We don’t do that.” It opens the door. What if one of those kids just decides, wait, this is a safe place. This person has now made this a safe place where I can come and say, I am gay and I need a little support with that. They might seek her out for that.

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: I want to talk a little bit about the language that she used. I think there’s something so powerful about the way she said that, the way she said, “We don’t use that word. We don’t talk like that.” There’s something so powerful about that because there’s something behind it that says… It doesn’t say you’re wrong, don’t do that. Like we talked about, not reprimanding. It’s like, I am setting a tone and we’re all better than that.

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: So it’s lifting them up to be like, do you want to be not better than that? You can make that choice but I think you’d rather be better than that. There was something about the phrasing that she used, that it makes them decide, wait, actually I want to be on this side of it.

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: You know what I mean? It’s…  it was really powerful.

Alex: There’s something about it that is both tough, but warm at the same time.

Phil: Right. I think that’s what I mean. There was a strength in it but it was also loving.

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: I know you’re better than that. Come on. You don’t want to do that. It’s that kind of thing. It’s not like, how could you say such a thing? You know what I mean? It’s a very different way of approaching it.

Alex: It’s also just very matter of fact in the moment, just to be like, knock it off right now, but in a kinder way.

Phil: Yeah.

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: Yeah. It’s interesting, I have friends who have kids and I’ve had conversations with them about the way they, not reprimand but, explain something that they want a child to know. I had this one friend who was an incredible parent who said something to me once about the way she says things will determine what happens. And she knows that if she takes the energy out of something that is really bad, that she gets hurt more. Instead of like adding energy to it and getting hyped up about it, the way that she brings it down a level, it’s like they can hear it more, which is so interesting because it makes an impact in a very different way.

Alex: Yeah. I can think of being in school and having teachers talk about their politics and stuff, but I think just so tactful to, like, catch students in the moment and-

Phil: No, that’s when you do it. I think that’s when it really has the impact.

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: I think that these stories obviously, I think they’re similar in that you have two teachers who are queer people and I think you see the nervousness in both of them. I can’t imagine what it must be like for Alexa to come from New York, where it’s just like, we don’t deal with that here. And then you go there and it’s just like, you’re back on lockdown, in some ways. It’s like going back in the closet. It’s like, what is that even like?

Alex: Yeah. You really have to, I guess, even negotiate who you are at school and at your workplace versus who you are. And then you have to witness these kids say this stuff that can be really harmful and upsetting to you and then go home and live your life.

Phil: Right. Right. I think it’s interesting because I do think what I get from these two stories, and I mentioned this with Matt’s, it’s this idea of when you have to leave a portion of who you are, when you go into an environment like this, your professional environment. It’s like, what does it do for the relationships that you can forge there and the experience that you have there? I think that we’re in a time right now where people don’t want so much separation between their work and their personal lives. They want to bring a little more of who they are to their work, especially if they’re working in their passion.

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: And I think this is a good example of how difficult it is to continue to compartmentalize. Being at work, and being this person, and you have to basically be in the closet. And then you go home and you’re like, I’m a gay person. I can’t imagine. That’s really difficult.

Alex: Yeah, so difficult. And to have to make those deliberate choices. And then also just do your job on top of that.

Phil: Right.

Alex: Matt was a music teacher. On top of that, he’s just having to teach his normal curriculum and prepare. I feel like teachers are also some of the hardest working people that I know.

Phil: Yes. They are.

Alex: And so on top of negotiating these very complicated social situations with your students and your own identity, then you are at home grading papers, and planning lessons and stuff. It is so much.

Phil: Right. This is what I mean about that Alexa story. I feel like there’s so much that she was trying to navigate for this to be another thing. And for it to happen the second week, that’s a lot to deal with for one person. But I think she handled admirably and I am impressed with how well she really took that on.

Alex: Absolutely.

Phil: The I’m From Driftwood podcast is hosted by Phil, aka Corinne.

Alex: And Alex Berg. And is produced by Andy Egan-Thorpe. It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood, the LGBTQAI+ Story Archive.

Phil: Its mission is to send a life saving message to queer and trans people everywhere. You are not alone.

Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s founder and executive director is Nathan Manske. Its program director is Damien Mittlefehldt.

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Phil: This program is supported in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

Alex: In partnership with the City Council.

Phil: Additional funding is provided by the Humanities New York SHARP grant with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Alex: Thanks for listening, y’all.

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