Welcome to ”The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American Experience?” It depends where you look.
The rise of anti-bullying efforts in schools across the country has brought the challenges of LGBTQ students into the national conversation. What many of those discussions overlook, however, are teachers who openly identify as queer.
Given that it’s perfectly legal to be fired for identifying as LGBTQ in 28 states, it’s no wonder why many teachers are reluctant to disclose their sexuality in professional settings, no matter how upfront they may be in private.
Jason Bailey, 28, has been teaching science at an urban high school in Arkansas, a state he calls “about as red as you can get,” for six years. Though he has not come out to his students, he’ll be serving as one of the coaches of his school’s gay-straight alliance this year, and believes he may have to address his sexuality with participants at some point in the future.
Meanwhile, 31-year-old Christopher Haffler teaches second grade at an elementary school in New Jersey’s Bergen County. Discussions of his private life are, similarly, out of the question around his young pupils – but nonetheless, he said he benefits from working in a school district in a left-leaning state not far from New York City, which boasts a visible LGBTQ community.
Both men say they were drawn to teaching at an early age. Although their profession requires them to, as Bailey described, “deal with every socio-economic issue the world can throw at us,” the success of their respective students is paramount.
Below, Bailey and Haffler open up about how they’ve wrestled with the challenges of pursuing teaching careers while identifying as gay in states at opposite ends of the socio-political spectrum.
HuffPost: Why did you decide to become a teacher?
Jason Bailey (Arkansas): When I was in college, I had plans to become a surgeon – specifically, a neurosurgeon. I loved the sciences. In my genetics class, there was a non-traditional student with me. She had children in high school, and I’d actually tutor her in genetics at the same time I would tutor her kids in their biology classes.
I found that I really enjoy helping people. I enjoy getting to know people and helping them in whatever endeavor they’re trying to commit to. The majority of my time is spent teaching to a curriculum, but I take into consideration the emotional well-being of my students. For instance, with the political mess that we’re in right now… I’m very politically active, and I try to be sensitive to those situations, especially in my school. They know that they have me to rely on if they’re ever in trouble.
Christopher Haffler (New Jersey): I’ve wanted to become a teacher since I was in preschool. Growing up, I always had a classroom set up in my basement. I like helping kids and helping to shape their minds.
When you decided to pursue education as a career, were you ever concerned that your sexuality would be seen as an obstacle?
Jason (Arkansas): Absolutely. There’s always been a great deal of concern. The school that I teach at right now is a safe school – we have out gay faculty – but, at the same time, there’s always that interaction and recourse that can occur with being a gay male teacher in a red state like Arkansas.
I don’t let it become a problem. If I ever treated being gay as a problem, then I’m going to continuously find problems, I’m never going to find solutions. Students consistently ask about my personal life, and I kindly let them know, “That’s my personal life, you don’t need to know that.” I’ve never had a negative interaction with students or parents. I try to become a part of the community so that parents can feel as comfortable with their child moving along in the curriculum more so than me being a problem.
Christopher (New Jersey): At the time, no. When I started college, I didn’t identify as gay. I knew that I was, but I was doing whatever I could to hide that. Even though I’m from a very liberal area, my family is very conservative, so I was afraid of being kicked out and not being a part of the family. I didn’t come out to my family until I was 28. My immediate family – my brother, my sister, my parents – they were surprised, but everybody accepted it.
I get asked by my students all the time, “Do you have a wife? Do you have a girlfriend?” I always say no, but I never get into detail. When I’m married, I fully plan on having a picture of my husband on my desk. When the time comes, that bridge will get crossed.
What’s your support system like?
Christopher (New Jersey): I have a few teachers who I’m extremely close with, and others who I work very closely with. I’ve never had any issues. Our staff is very diverse.
One of my very close colleagues is the wife of our mayor. [Our town] does a summer concert series, and the last night of the series was an LGBTQ night. So they had LGBTQ artists and organizations. So they’re really cool. Nobody has anything negative to say.
Has the subject of sexuality ever come up in classroom discussions, and if so, how did you address that?
Jason (Arkansas): When I taught biology, it absolutely did – especially in the genetics unit. Many of the students were concerned with identities, in particular transgender individuals. Basically, I took the time to correct some misconceptions. For example, many students believed [transgender people] were born with both reproductive organs. You’d be surprised what kids will say.
It’s just about having a conversation about the fact that they’ll meet different people throughout the rest of their lives, and that it’s their responsibility to treat them with honor and integrity.
Christopher (New Jersey): I’ve taught second grade, third grade and fourth grade, and some students have made comments. With the fourth graders, they’ll make comments like, “Oh, that’s so gay!” So I’ll say, “Hey guys, there are people who are gay. So when you’re calling something gay, you’re being offensive to other people.”
I guess I’m the typical gay man in that most of my friends are female. I was helping out with a tutoring program last year, and a second grader in a different class said to me, “Oh, Mr. Haffler, you’re just like one of the girls!”
I was dying of laughter inside – it didn’t offend me at all! I am like one of the girls – I’ll go out with my girlfriends, drink rosé, go to brunch. This kid, I guess she picked up on whatever vibe I give out.
Has a student ever come out to you as LGBTQ?
Jason (Arkansas): Yes. I let them know I’m a safe person. The only thing that I’m going to do is make sure that they understand physics, and that they know that this is a safe place for them.
Do you know other teachers in your area who are openly queer?
Jason (Arkansas): Yes. I teach with two openly gay men and one lesbian.
Christopher (New Jersey): In my school, no. [Regionally] I know a couple.
Who did you vote for in the 2016 election, and why?
Jason (Arkansas): Hillary Clinton. She’s a tough person. She’s diplomatic, and I would’ve felt safe with her as the president. Now we have an individual who doesn’t know the diplomatic process and refuses to learn it. Even President Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is a very offensive statement. Only a person who has never studied American history would say “great again.” It took us a very long time to get to the progressive nature we’re at. We still have a great deal of work to do.
Christopher (New Jersey): Hillary Clinton [but] I would’ve voted for Bernie Sanders if he’d been an option. I feel that anyone in the LGBTQ community who votes for the Republican party is self-hating. I can’t imagine voting for a Republican, because they tend to not have my interests [at heart]. As a public school teacher, I also felt that the Republican party wouldn’t try to help the fight of the public schools. Donald Trump has proven that he’s not.
How much do you think that politics and policy impact your career as a teacher?
Jason (Arkansas): I’d say a great deal, considering very few policymakers have ever stepped foot in front of a classroom, let alone taught. One of the reasons that I believe that the majority of Congress don’t have a foundation in science is because it’s been literally 50, 60 years since they’ve been in a high school science class. Things have changed so much in science since they’ve had textbooks and no one, of course, is going to study something outside of their field unless it’s a hobby. There are people who’ve been in their offices for so long, they haven’t seen what’s happened because of their decisions they’ve implemented. I invite politicians to come to my classroom.
Christopher (New Jersey): A lot. Education is very political. It took me four years to find a job. In education, it’s mostly who you know. You have to know somebody to land a job most of the time. I didn’t have anyone in my family who was in education. When I got hired in the district that I teach in, a lot of people were like, “Oh, well, who did you know?” I didn’t know anyone.
Being a teacher, I’m a low man on the totem pole. The administration is one the front line – they’re making the rules, and we’re the ones who have to actually do the work. A lot of the policy that’s put in place negatively affects us.
How do you think your career in teaching would be different if you lived elsewhere in the country?
Jason (Arkansas): That depends. If I moved to an even more red state, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to teach evolution, but if I moved to a more liberal area… the one issue I have with teaching with very progressive, very liberal students is their sense of entitlement sometimes. But I don’t know an area where a school is fully funded. I know I can move from Arkansas and gain more income, but I’d still face the struggles that the students in that area face every day. I love my job. I could never, for the life of me, think of doing something else.
Christopher (New Jersey): Teaching in New Jersey is great because we’re a state where teachers get paid well, and we tend to have very supportive parents. In other states, it isn’t always the same. There are a lot of states where teachers aren’t paid what they’re worth, where they’re just viewed as nothing. Being gay and being a teacher… being here is better because people tend to be more open-minded.
In our district, they took the high school’s gay-straight alliance to a Pride parade. I like that I teach in an open enough district where they’re doing that. I feel like, in most places, that wouldn’t be the case. I wish that had been the case when I was in high school. Maybe I would’ve been more willing to come out [earlier].
Kids don’t care. If they see two men holding hands… they really don’t care. My sister-in-law has been telling my nieces, who are 6 and 4, “If Uncle Chris brings somebody home, it might be another boy instead of a girl.” It doesn’t matter to them.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.