Teacher Strengthens Bond With Students By Coming Out. “I Can’t Imagine Doing That Work Any Other Way.”

by Ryan Hunter Greenlee

My name is Ryan Hunter Greenlee and I’m from Chicago, Illinois.

So when I was in high school, I decided it was time to come out. And through a little trepidation, I went through the motions with my friends and my family. It was really stressful but all things considered, like what people go through, it was quite a beautiful experience for me.

Some years later after college, I had my first job back in Chicago. And I was working at the organization on the south side as a mentor for high school youth. The program centered around students with various difficulties in school but they also were involved with gangs, had gang affiliation, were in and out of the school or criminal justice disciplinary systems, were known to maybe have short tempers and to act according to their whim and this intimidated me.

I became suddenly aware of myself and self-conscious in a way that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. Anxieties I had before coming out reappeared. I allowed myself to think myself into a rut and decided that I would avoid any questions or dismiss any conversation that would point to a queer identity.

Part-way through the year, I started to get assigned students who were queer and out in the high school. My coworkers knew I was queer and thought it would be the best match being the only queer mentor the program. And immediately, I was up front with the students. I saw these students sticking together. I saw them creating a family at ages before I even came out myself. And immediately, the absurdity of being a mentor to anybody but being in the closet and not facing the world, like my students were, was just glaringly clear to me and I knew something had to change. So my out students, my trans students, inspired me to be truthful and to stop avoiding myself and to be honest with the rest of my students, my straight students.

And so I didn’t choose any one particular moment. I do enjoy drama but I didn’t want to spectacle. So I decided that I would just stop passively resisting. One day, I was sitting and our office with a student and out of nowhere they asked if I had a girlfriend. And I told them no. I told them why was because I had a boyfriend. And the look on their face was priceless, their eyes widened. It kind of seemed like they were glitching out a bit, but it also seemed a little obligatory, like they had to go through these motions. I allowed it and I even chuckled at it.

I asked, “Does change anything?” or “I thought you knew,” kind of poking back at them.

They insisted that they didn’t but they also then and there said, “This is fine. I just have to deal with it.”

I have another story about coming out. It was actually with a student’s mother. I’d become close with the family and I would, on weekends, help her grocery shop because I had a car. And she could use some extra hands carrying the groceries. So in the car, the mother kind of got a little quiet can then asked me if I had a girlfriend. And I said, no, I have a boyfriend. She kinda made this reaction like, “Ohhh.”

I asked her, “Are you surprised?” and she said, “No.” A few days later, I speak with her son, my student.

He says, “Ryan. I’ve got to talk to you. I’m mad at you.”

I said, “Oh, no.” I thought my worst fears were coming true. I thought this is it.

And he said, “I found out from my mom that you were gay. Why didn’t you tell me first?”

I smiled and I apologized and I said, “I don’t know what I was thinking, but, you know, now everyone knows.” And I said, “And you should’ve been there. You should’ve helped with with the groceries. Like, you should have.” And we laughed and we’re still friends some six years later.

I started noticing from all of my students that I started to get more phone calls. The nature of the job was comprehensive – it was during school after school, weekends. It was to be present in our students’ lives in a significant way. After I came out, after students knew, I found I would just get calls sometimes asking for specific things. Like help with transportation or applying for a job. Just things that they were stressed with. Or to have an ear. And this was from the students that I thought may never accept me or at worst would judge me. But it wasn’t the case and I can’t imagine doing that work any other way.

Becoming self-aware, becoming a confident person, isn’t something that just happens in a moment, in a coming out. It’s a lifelong process for me and it’s still happening.

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