Closets and Classrooms: Fear

Over the past several weeks, I have conducted six interviews with LGBTQ teachers in the Williamsburg/Richmond area. While each individual I interviewed had a unique perspective on what it means to be a queer teacher, there were some consistencies that came out of each interview, some patterns that emerged. In each one of the interviews I have conducted so far, my respondent expressed a deep sense of fear, identifying that as a driving force that determined how they conducted themselves in the school setting.

The fear my respondents felt was, sometimes, abstract. For example, Jacob, a man in his mid twenties who just completed his second year as a high school chorus teacher, had never received any bad reaction from students or parents who found out that he is gay. But, despite this lack of explicitly negative experiences, he still expressed a fear that his sexuality is stopping people from taking his class. Similarly, Olivia, a middle school band teacher in her mid twenties, told me that, even though she hasn’t received any blowback from parents or students yet, she would not going to sponsor a gay straight alliance at her school for fear of parents perceiving her actions as a ploy to convince their children to be gay.

This existence of fear solely in the abstract is not the case for everyone though. Several of the queer teachers I spoke with told me stories of occasions when their fear became all too concrete. A male high school theater teacher told me about how, several years ago, the mother of a student accused him of having an inappropriate relationship with her son, how she latched onto the fact that he subscribed to the magazine Teaching Tolerance to prove that he must be a predator, and how that drove him to be even more private and closed-off about his sexuality in an effort to prevent similar unfounded accusations from finding him in the future. Another teacher, a woman in her thirties who taught high school gym before switching to English, told a similar story. She explained that, during her time teaching gym, a female student accused her of groping her in the locker room. Security footage proved that the teacher was not in the locker room at the time the attack supposedly happened, but the experience still had ripple effects, encouraging both this teacher and her wife who is currently a middle school gym teacher to remain at least semi-closeted at school, keeping students in the dark about their sexuality so it can’t be used against them.

My retelling of these stories is in no way meant to minimize the very real threat that is sexual harassment. I completely understand the fact that the number of false accusations is far outweighed both by the true accusations and by the incidents that go unreported. However, I think these events are illustrative of the reasons that queer teachers so often have this underlying fear of being out at work. For these individuals, being themselves at work carries a significant risk that is simply not experienced in the same way by their straight coworkers. And, even if they are like Jacob and Olivia and haven’t personally gone through anything to validate their fear, I think that all queer teachers know on some level that these sorts of accusations are a real possibility and that knowledge can’t make it easy to put your all into your work and be authentically there for students.

Comments

  1. mbcmgill says:

    Hello!
    I just wanted to say how interesting I find your work. It is both heartbreaking and frustrating to hear this story of fear being repeated by so many LGBTQ teachers. As you point out, even those that have not experienced false accusations still have to be cautious about how they are perceived in the workplace.
    I would be curious to know if this theme of fear would be more or less present in different areas. In a large, liberal city would teachers feel more accepted by students and parents, or is this sense of fear present no matter the situation?

  2. egeichenberger says:

    For the teachers who haven’t had homophobic experiences with parents/students/administration, does their fear tend to stem from horror stories in the media or personal experiences shared by other teachers? I’m curious whether most queer teachers are isolated from others who share their experiences, or if in the same way that queer people tend to congregate and form friend groups, they have some sort of support network with others in their field. If the only experiences queer teachers tend to hear come from sensationalized news stories, I can imagine how disturbing that would be without the positive and less-newsworthy experiences of other teachers.

  3. Jehan Narielvala says:

    Having grown up in Williamsburg, I know about how closeted my LGBTQ teachers were and although there were always rumors floating around about the teachers’ sexualities, none of the teachers felt comfortable enough to share that information. Is not fair that straight teachers can feel comfortable talking about their partners and children, while LGBTQ teachers have to be afraid of sexual assault allegations if they open up to their students. I just wonder how LGBTQ teachers in a liberal district would relate or not relate to the situations dealt with LGBTQ teachers in the conservative parts of Virginia.

  4. egpreston says:

    Hi! I really enjoyed reading your findings thus far, you do a really nice job of respecting the delicacy of this issue. How has this experience shaped your personal opinions? I imagine hearing these stories and having people trust you with such intimate fears and details of their lives much be both awe inspiring and a little bit intimidating. How has this changed you?