Queer Life and Culture

I Have One Word for My Queer Students and Queer Former Teachers

By Stephanie Johnson

The world has changed a lot from when I was a teenager. At 36, an “elder millennial” if you will, I feel like I was at the front edge of where it was getting more acceptable to be more “out and proud” in school. Of course, a lot of that didn’t apply to my private Catholic high school (ask me some day about the poor girl who shaved her head and was forced to wear a wig until it grew out enough to be deemed “acceptable”…), but there were still groups of us who knew and were ready to deal with it.

We were all pushing forward, making ourselves known, knowing early who we were and knowing that if we didn’t stand up and say it, it would never be something that other people could do. We had adults around us who supported us, either covertly (such as at my private school) or more overtly like those teachers at the public school most of my friends went to.

To Those Who Teach with Love: We Love You

Looking back at some of my teachers, I realize just how much they actually gave me in terms support to be myself.

Mr. L who worked so hard to make it clear that everyone was welcome in his classroom, no matter what they were going through. Ms. O who was single, unmarried, and made it clear that she was single and unmarried, without ever outright saying why. Who made it clear to us that there were other ways to live life than the way Catholic education taught us: Get Married, Have Children. Ms. R who loved us for who we are and told us so, and was always there to listen if you needed her to, never judging and always supporting.

Some of these teachers, I have since found out are not straight. In some cases, it changed my perspective of them because I was able to look at their behavior in a new light and realize they were laying the groundwork for all of us to be more accepting, loving, open-minded people, people who could not accept others but themselves. I can look at the things Mr. L taught me and see that he was doing his best, in the way he was allowed, to show us that not everything we were being taught by the church was necessarily true. I think without that, even though I picked up so much of it subconsciously, I wouldn’t have been so comfortable in my skin. I’ve always known what I am (pansexual and polyamorous), but I’m not sure I’d have been able to be myself quite as thoroughly.

Their lessons carried me outside of school. Going to the mall or to the local Denny’s to hang out with my friends was easier because I’d absorbed the lessons my teachers were trying to give me and could stand more solidly in my skin. I could be comfortable kissing girls, kissing boys, kissing those who didn’t identify as either–though in 1999, I admittedly had no idea that was a thing because I was remarkably oblivious–because I’d heard and processed the messages that my teachers were giving me.

We, as a society, underestimate the impact of teachers in so many aspects of education that it’s not at all a surprise that we can miss their effect on students beyond the classroom. Teachers give extra time in visible ways when they run clubs and events, but we miss so much of the smaller, more subtle gifts teachers give to us.

The teachers who are helping with the GSA or other LGBTQAI+ clubs at school might have given students a safe place to be themselves. Young queer folx have a chance to let down their guard and get the support and care they might need. Sometimes an accepting teacher is all the support a student gets, and that’s something that can’t be traded for anything. If even one student finds the strength to stand and feel safe, then all the effort is worth it.

The Student Becomes the Teacher

Now, I watch in awe as my own child and the children I teach have an incredible amount of freedom of expression and self in schools and have the space and ability to just Be Themselves, capital letters intentional.

My child has joined the school’s LGBTQAI+ group, and is the most comfortable I’ve seen in a very long time. My students represent seven or eight different high schools in our area, and there are members of every LGBTQAI+ group each of those schools has.

Queer Expression is Beautiful

Watching the whole group of them, these teenagers that sometimes struggle to remember how to use a comma or how to figure out the best way to use context to figure out a word, be able to identify in whatever way they choose, feel safe enough to stand up in school in such a public way and say, “I am queer,” or  “I am a lesbian,” or “I am aromantic,” or “I am transgender,” in whatever form or fashion they need or want to… For someone who works with words all day, every day, it’s almost impossible to find the words for how I feel.

No, wait. I have a word.

Proud.

I am Proud

I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the strength they’ve found in themselves. I’m proud of the acceptance of their classmates. I’m proud of the teachers who have stepped up to help these students with their work and efforts, to support them in an admittedly scary and difficult time. I’m also proud of the parents who have taught their children that it’s okay to be themselves. I am proud of the adults working together to try and make things better, and I am proud of the students who are taking steps on the paths laid out for them, cleared as much as can be cleared by those of us who have come before— those who are standing nearby and watching their progress, fighting for them until they take over the battle.

Is it perfect? No, not even a little bit. There’s still so much bigotry and hatred and pain — both overt and subtle— families shunning, classmates mocking, queer gatekeeping, administrations turning a blind eye. It’s terrible. But in a lot of ways, that makes me even prouder of “my” kids. Not only my own child who’s worked hard to find balance, but all of my students who stand up in the face of that and say, “I am me,” whatever me is.

They are the future and as their teacher, I couldn’t be more proud.

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