I remember being very, very tired my entire senior year of high school. Most nights, I had an extremely hard time falling asleep because I couldn’t get my mind to quiet down. Instead, I perseverated on the answer to a question that I wasn’t able to dodge: Am I gay?
I was raised in a fairly conservative household, whose rules, traditions, and ways of being were largely set by my mother. Even though she had died six years earlier, her presence still guided almost everything we did, and it was the remnants of her faith and her political ideology that kept me up entirely too late over and over and over again. My town was (and is, since moving back in June) relatively liberal, but I was locked into my own family’s way of being. I didn’t have an adult in my life who was out, let alone out and happy; I also didn’t see rainbow flags or go to spaces where it was clear that being gay was equally as good as anything else.
While I wish I could have started accepting who I was earlier in my life, I am glad that I eventually got there. It took meeting other people like me and developing healthy friendships with them that I was able to settle into myself more fully and share that information with other friends and family. I’m grateful that I was able to reconcile myself with my answer to the question that plagued me when I was 18, and the path I took to get there deeply informed who I was as a teacher.
I worked at a school where I didn’t have to hide who I was to make other people comfortable. I could talk about my life in the same ways that anyone else could. I didn’t have to have any kind of coming out moment there (which many TLGBQIAA+ people have to do many times throughout their lives, including at each job), which was wonderful. It also made me really clear that I wanted to make sure my students saw me for who I was so that they could also be able to see their future selves. It can be hard to imagine what we don’t know exists, so I wanted to share my own example of being queer AND happy.
I hadn’t thought a lot about this lately, but then, scrolling through Twitter, I came across this:
To put a very fine point on it, this template is appalling. As a parent, a teacher, and (most importantly) a person, I am embarrassed and horrified that we would try to take away opportunities for kids to see themselves clearly and love who they see, or to see any acknowledgment of their lived experiences. To refuse to recognize sexuality, gender identity, racism, and equity does not make a classroom apolitical. Silence does not convey neutrality.
Noticing a rainbow flag was not what first hinted to me that I might not be straight; that knowledge came from inside of me. I’m not sure what “LGBT issues” even means, but the idea that anyone who falls into that category would need to stifle themselves in deference to people who want to support heteronormative thinking is sad. No person who identifies as straight is harmed by someone else showing a clear sign of acceptance for folks who aren’t. But even now, when I see a house or a business displaying a rainbow flag, I feel more at ease. It’s in those moments that I usually realize that I am regularly holding tension in my body, because it’s when I see those symbols of acceptance that I’m able to release what I’ve been holding. These signs and tokens are meaningful, especially before we feel comfortable acknowledging in any way that they might include us. That’s why it is so crucial that students are able to experience their classrooms and schools as affirming places.
Ignoring the lives and identities of people doesn’t make them go away, it makes them feel like they need to keep parts of themselves hidden. I spent that year and much of my time in college trying to be straight-passing, hoping that I could will that version of myself into existence. But that person didn’t exist and could never have existed happily. Even in my mostly liberal town, the classrooms I occupied didn’t have pride flags, and I really wish they had. They weren’t apolitical spaces because those don’t exist. Instead, they were places where a few kids who were brave enough to be exactly who they were still got teased. And other kids, who weren’t gay, still got called “gay” or a variety of TLGBQIAA+ slurs. A flag isn’t protection from bullying, but a flag helps to create a culture where bullying behavior is publicly seen as wrong. When we aren’t very clear in our messaging that intolerance is specifically unwelcome, we welcome prejudice and give it a place to grow. We need to be clear and unequivocal with our spaces so that its occupants know that teachers and administrators will see all of them and protect them fiercely.
Here’s the thing: I will never get that sleep-deprived year back. My senior year of high school is hazy at best, and I’m okay with that. What I cannot tolerate is the idea that there are young people across the country who still have to experience the same kind of anxiety and fear that I experienced because they are exactly who they were born to be. We need more examples of happy, well-adjusted, loving TLGBQIAA+ adults in and around our schools so that our students see what awaits them when they acknowledge all of themselves. We should do and be better for all of our kids, so that they might be well-rested, at ease, and ready to learn, and honestly, we should all put up pride flags.