Every fall for the past three years I’ve taught a small seminar course, Issues and Debates in Life Development, a course that could otherwise be titled, the Best of Psychology and Sociology 101, to first-semester freshmen at the University of Texas. The first half of the course covers psychological concepts such as attachment theory and relationships, while the second half covers forms of social oppression such as racism, classism, ableism, sexism, and heterosexism.
I don’t often write about my work as a teacher, in part because I teach only four hours per week, and because teaching at the college level carries so few of the major stressors a K-12 public school teacher faces. For starters, I have only 15 or so students in each class, and after 14 years of practice, college students know how to quietly enter a classroom, can excuse themselves for a bathroom break, and (usually) read all the directions before starting an assignment.
I also don’t have to worry much about the repercussions of my course content. If students hate my class, they have a month to drop it. If tuition-paying parents disagree with the angle of my selected curriculum, they can work that out with their kids. And if either party takes issue with being taught by a gay instructor, I am more or less protected, as University of Texas policy prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, despite living in a state that itself fails to provide me with such protections.
Though I am legally protected, and am a graduate student in a field that regards homosexuality as a healthy facet of diversity and adamantly disagrees with reparative therapy of any kind, I still wavered all semester about whether to come out to my students. I came out to my first crop of freshmen two years ago during a unit on heterosexism and homophobia. It had gone well and, shortly thereafter, one of my students came out for the first time ever to our class.
Questions I asked myself this fall included: Is coming out to them necessary? Is the identity of an instructor they’ll know for only 14 weeks relevant? Is it even appropriate, or does it over-step boundaries? Was that last question indicative of my own internalized homophobia, and if so, what do I do with that? Who does coming out serve? Could it save a life? Is there self-serving motive here?
I also worried about the regular stuff: Would my students still respect me? Would they see me any differently? Would they stare at me and think about my dating life? Were they doing that anyway? And, perhaps at the root of it all, would they still like me?
Teaching this class was a total joy, but this decision made me anxious as hell for months.
Throughout the semester, I kept an eye out for evidence, from reflection papers and class discussions, to make my case for or against coming out to my students. When a student came out to us as pansexual and another wrote a loving paper about her gay brother, I felt inspired and compelled to share. On the other hand, in a reflection paper requiring students to write a letter to a child about fostering healthy romantic relationships, a student told his future son that it would not be acceptable if he “chose to be gay.” In moments like this, I wasn’t sure I had the guts.
Struggling with this decision can take a toll on any teacher’s mental health, but here I was, in a university environment where my job was legally protected, teaching from a text with an entire chapter devoted to homophobia, and I was still an anxious mess. It humbles me to consider the experience of those of you who are in states and school districts in which you are not legally protected should you come out to your school community; those of you who may not have the choice to hide your sexual identities; and those of you whose spouses are unwelcome at your school’s holiday party.
I ultimately decided to come out to my students because I was tired of thinking about it (dammit!), and because I knew that if someone had done the same for my 18-year-old closeted, shame-laden, terrified self, it would have made a difference I can hardly fathom.
Coming out to my 11:00 class ended up being a pseudo-casual aside during an introduction of the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So. There was little, if any, noticeable reaction, and while I was relieved to finally have it over and done with, I wasn’t quite ready for a repeat performance in my 12:30 class.
During a group presentation in the final week of the semester, three students from my 12:30 class engaged the class in an activity illustrating the range of heartwarming to heartbreaking responses individuals might face when they come out to loved ones. The activity was powerful, it made me grateful for my own coming out experience, and I felt moved to share this with my students.
One of my quietest students, the same student who had written months prior that it would not be acceptable if his hypothetical son chose to be gay, raised his hand: “Ms. Reiser,” he said, “I just want you to know that this doesn’t change anything. We will still learn just as much from you. We will still do just as well on the final exam now that we know.”
As I began to crumple into tears, another student followed: “Ms. Reiser, telling us must have taken a lot of strength, and I don’t think everyone has that.” In the essay portion of his final exam, this student would go on to write the following:
“Learning about heterosexism had an impact on me because it made me recall times earlier in my life when I was homophobic. I believed homosexuality was an abomination. Then a group did the activity in which a classmate’s life was torn to shreds when they came out. To recall that I was a part of the destruction of a few people’s lives in middle school haunts me and encourages me to be an ally to the LGBTQIA community. I want the community to understand that not identifying as heterosexual is okay. I also want the community to know that they have someone to support them and make sure that they don’t feel hopeless. The LGBTQIA community has a friend in me, and they can count on me like 1, 2, 3.”
Coming out, whether it is your first or 101st time doing so, is a “self”-centered process. Any time we share an aspect of self, when we dare to allow our self to be seen, we sit in a vulnerable space and run the risk of experiencing rejection, ridicule, apathy, and a host of other crappy reactions. But we also run the risk of being seen and heard and understood and accepted and ultimately loved—as I was by so many of my students last semester.