Before moving to New York, I taught 10th grade English in a small central Illinois town. For three years I pushed Shakespeare and Harper Lee on classes of mostly disinterested 15 and 16-year-olds. It was a difficult task, but what made it bearable, and what kept me coming back, was the small but dedicated group of kids I got to work with after hours in my role as Drama Club Sponsor. It was also in this capacity that I would experience one of the defining moments in my life as an Out Gay Man.
Despite having recently declared myself among the ranks of the Out and Proud, I found working at this small town school challenging. It was a conservative, rural community, and, real or perceived, I felt the oppressive weight of unspoken judgment and disapproval. So when it came to the question of revealing my sexuality, I decided on a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach, and I privately defended my silence with the rationales “It’s not a big deal, so it shouldn’t matter” and “It’s nobody’s business anyway.” As expected, there were assumptions, whisperings and rumors, most of which I was able to ignore since they happened relatively discreetly. “No matter,” I told myself, “they’re not asking, and I’m not telling.” That is, of course, until the day someone actually did ask.
It was before or after a rehearsal for this show or that one, and one of my most dedicated student thespians pulled me aside. Out of the blue, and with a gall that surprises me still today, he simply asked, “Are you gay?” And before I could could process it, before the question even registered with me, a response escaped my lips. I could hear the expletive-riddled denial with my ears; I could feel the blood flushing my cheeks, the tightening of my fists, the pounding of my heart; and I could see the surprise and regret on this student’s face. I hardly recognized myself; I was a veritable fountain of righteous indignation and anger. But at exactly the same moment, and infinitely more profoundly, I felt my heart sink and my stomach turn sour with the most grievous sense of shame I had ever felt. And the closet door slammed shut again, and it was dark and painful inside, a breeding ground for self-hatred.
Never have I been more ashamed or disappointed with myself. Moreover, I realized that as difficult and scary as it was for me to come out in the first place, I’d really had it pretty easy. Since coming to terms with my own sexuality, no one had ever directly questioned me the way this young man had. I had been lucky to have avoided such an overt test of my resolve. Everything had been done on my own terms – I told people I was gay when I was ready, not before; and by and large people had been understanding and supportive. So I called myself “Out,” and I called myself “Proud,” but as it turned out I had no real understanding of what those words meant. This moment had been a test of character, and I had failed. What kind of teacher was I? What kind of role-model? What kind of person?
But character is determined by the progression of actions we take, not by a single decision. Opportunities to learn and grow are omnipresent – even in moments of disappointment and shame. I am grateful that in time I recognized this opportunity and vowed never to deny my sexuality again. And I never have. I found appropriate ways to come out at school, and that student and I remain good friends today.
Ironic epilogue to this story: These days most people assume I’m straight, and I spend more time putting this assumption to rest than the inverse ever required of me. It’s my own constant reminder of who I am and who I want to be, a checkpoint along the road where I stop periodically to reevaluate: Am I Out? Yes. Am I Proud? Absolutely. Can I do better? Always.