I’m Matthew Hay. I’m from Annapolis, Maryland.
One day, a week or so after the holidays, I had asked my group of fifth grade students in my music class how they had spent their winter break. Kids went down the row saying what types of gifts they had and which relatives they’d seen.
At the end, a student had asked me, “Mr. Hay, what did you do?”
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 northern New Jersey.”
A student of mine asked me very pointedly, “What does ‘in-laws’ mean?” I explained that if you have in-laws, that means that you’re married and it’s the family of the person you’re married to.
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, back and forth.
“What’s your wife’s name?”
“I don’t have a wife, I have a spouse.”
“What’s your wife – you said spouse. Well, that’s 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 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. So I don’t want to hear anything else about it, but if you have any 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.
I said to her, point-blank, “Is there anything you need to ask me?” It 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. I 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, sort of 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.
When that started to happen, the conversations in music class started to happen. Not during music, but before 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 fifth 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?”
I said, “No.”
She said, “Does that mean you have a husband?”
I said, “Yes. Do you want to see a picture of him?” And I showed her a picture of him. We had a small conversation about it and she invited a whole bunch of her friends over to also look at his picture. It was totally fine, totally normal.
I had heard a story from a third grade teacher about how when they had returned from music class and had gone back to their homeroom, there was a discussion that happened after they realized that Mr. Hay was gay.
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 it all right?” He stood up for me in that moment by telling them, “It is normal. Actually, my mother, who is separated from my father, dates women. She’s normal, so Mr. Hay’s normal, too.” I think 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 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.