Given the importance of my coming out as a gay man in August 2014, it should not be surprising that it influenced my work as a high school teacher in various ways. It was not as if I returned to school in September and announced it to my colleagues in the first faculty meeting of the year or added it to the way in which I introduced myself to my incoming 10th and 12th graders that fall. That would have been quite strange, wouldn’t it have been? Rather, it was a subtle undertone to the ways in which I interacted with my students, my colleagues, how I presented myself (yes, it even began to influence how I dressed!). I would argue that it contributed to my self-confidence, since I was clear as to whom I was and I was enjoying myself hugely in this discovery. I believe that I became a more empathetic teacher, mentor, and advisor, particularly for those who had more difficulty fitting in and who needed an active listener who could better help them maneuver these challenging years. Perhaps at some level I related to some of their issues as a teenager. No, not to relive those years; rather as someone who was experiencing enormous change and growth myself.
As Glenn Bumper observed in his 2014 article in The Atlantic Magazine by Amanda Machado (The Plight of Being a Gay Teacher – The Atlantic) it is important for a gay teacher to be a role model for ones’ students so that they can both hear about other forms of “normal” and find themselves heard should they themselves feel excluded by the social and/or cultural norms imposed upon them. See also: Teacher: I Was Fired for Being Gay. Now It Can’t Happen to Anyone Else (Opinion) (edweek.org). Indeed it affected how I looked at the world and expanded my horizon of “normality” to which these students – many outsiders of the norm, but not necessarily for reasons of sexual identity – would and did help them navigate their space(s) in the world. No, I do not mean to write that I could not do so before I come out; and yet somehow it had been different.
Nor do I do mean that I now conducted myself as their friend – I, as “Dr. Diskant, which is how I was addressed – had too formal and distant a role – with my title, tie, and jacket every day (!) and yet these subtle signs changed something positively. Still there were signs of “new” me – colors that I wore, my hair style, the language that I used … it was an intriguing process and that colleagues and/or students who knew me well undoubtedly observed something different about me so that when I did choose to share about my coming out there was immediate understanding.
Fortunately, the environment at the O’Bryant was open, tolerant, and accepting. There had been for some time a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance or Genders Sexualities Alliance), in which support had been present for LGBTQ students, and through whose leadership I learned quickly of ways in which to support students. In some ways then I too was a learner and learned about GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) and a variety of ways to support students politically. Again, listening was a key path of our supportive journey. During these last three years I wonder whether this art of active listening was the key to explain my changes as a male teacher who was out. I happily put the sticker “Safe Room/Safe Place” on my classroom door that indicated that an LGBTQ student would feel supported.
As I reflect on these last three years, a few instances stand out as being important in my coming out as an educator. One of the first revolved around numerous interactions, during 2014-2015 that I had in my role as an advisor and mentor to a group of seniors, who I had known for a few years. In particular, I remember a nuanced and detailed conversation that I had with one of my best 12th graders – whom I had known already for two years – as a student in my 10th grade history class and an active member in the Model United Nations Club, to which I was the school advisor – when he was meeting with me and his guidance counselor, an out and married gay man, to discuss his college essay. Of course, neither of us wanted to sway him to write anything in particular. Rather, it was clear in the conversation that Mike (a pseudonym) needed support to be frank and open about his own coming out story – should he wish – and how that contributed to his interest in being a neuro physician. It was a fascinating open conversation – although neither adult – referred to our own sexual identity in the conversation.
At the end of the conversation, after Mike left the room, I shared with my colleague that I had recently come out and no, he was not surprised. During the next few months, I read and edited drafts of Mike’s well-written college essay, which focused on another theme and lacked immediacy and aplomb – still quite good. A few weeks later Mike and I were coincidently – or perhaps not (?) – online at the same moment – and he shared the latest version of his college essay with me. Wow, it blew me away … it was about his coming out after all. When I inquired why he changed topics, his reply was poignant, he had thought more about our conversation from September and he came to decide that that was the way to be himself. This story has an intriguing epilogue – in May Mike, along with his three closest peers, and I were guests at the Model United Nations Ball, organized at part of the United Nations Association of Greater Boston – somehow it was clear that he wanted to ask me something personal. I replied yes, something was different – and that over the summer I had come out – yes, it was great to admit it! It was a buzz among the fearless four! After they left, parenthetically I flirted happily with an attractive adult … And back at the O’Bryant in the coming days, it clearly became news! Somehow it was to my benefit, which was, of course, wonderful, because it provided me with an easy way to be out at school.
In essence then I was more “out” than not at the beginning of the following school year, which meant that I comfortably described that as part of identity – if during 2015-2016 I was asked about my weekend, I could then refer to time with my then partner. I also felt empowered in my conversations with a variety of colleagues – from the other LGBT faculty to a straight male colleague who was grappling with the correct ways to address a transgender student and the proper pronouns to use. It was such a liberating feeling! That fall I remember a conversation that I had overheard from some members of the Boys Soccer Team in which they referred to a boy as a “faggot”. With the support of the coach, a colleague in the ELA department, I told them how I, as a gay man, felt hearing that word and the significance of the insult. It was a great “teachable” moment and helped to give me a different status in the building and with 10th graders, as some of these soccer players were also my history students.
During these years, numerous professional opportunities further added to my perspective, coupled with my focus on history thinking skills (see for example Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Weinburg, eds., Knowing Teaching & Learning History, New York; New York University Press, 2000 ) from GLSEN (Homepage | GLSEN) to expand my understanding of the relationship of the personal and the professional in terms of ways of teaching, perspectives on helping students, and my self-confidence in doing so. There is little doubt that – altogether – my honesty with myself improved my ability to be a mentor in various ways. As the literature on teaching and curriculum indicates, it is the series of small ways that may make a large difference in terms of normalization, as well as the positive integration of curriculum changes and role modeling.
During 2016 – 2017 I happily embraced casual openness in countless conversations with students and colleagues. A small example in September at seminar with a group of my students when they complimented me on my choice of gourmet pizza, without missing a beat I answered that my (then) partner recommended it and I would tell him that they liked it. In such a way one’s sexual identity becomes a non-issue among my students and yet it is an important symbol, since straight teachers “share” signs of their identity without any or much reflection by wearing a wedding ring (yes, I know that they are not the only ones who do!), sharing comments and/or pictures of a spouse, and/or of children.
Interestingly, this year it was also tied to curriculum in both my AP courses. Topics in AP Government as curriculum change – example of laws and readings, particularly in the civil rights unit. In my AP research class, a student was researching about gay students and, while she chose the topic, the Socratic seminar that she organized (with my input in part) used scholarly readings and was held at the same intellectually rigorous level as all of the other ones in the class.
Still, I will now admit that curriculum changes to integrating LGBTQ history were not enough, when one thinks of all the possibilities that are available. There is little doubt that sexual identity is indeed an interesting and not uncomplicated part of the variables that one can teach, along with class, gender, and belief as social constructs. See for example: As More Schools Teach LGBTQ History, Teacher Resources Grow | Time, Lesson: LGBTQ History and Why It Matters | Facing History, Four States Now Require Schools to Teach LGBT History (edweek.org), and LGBTQ History | GLSEN Also see Robert Aldrich, Gay Lives (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012), Michael Bronski, A Queer History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011),
By the end of June 2017 when I was sharing my good bye remarks with my students my sexual identity was an accepted part of my identity. It was not relevant whether I stated it explicitly; it was part of me, as were the facts that I was a white, privileged Jewish older man with a doctorate. I hope that this increased openness that I had with my students in my last three years at the O’Bryant will have affected them positively as they mature and become hopefully curious, tolerant, open, and accepting adults..