Choose Dignity: A Call to Action

When I was in kindergarten, I never imagined that there would be anything wrong with growing up to build a life with another guy. It was as natural a projection as my peers who played husband and wife as early practice for the expected and affirmed heterosexual trajectory. My attraction to guys, both logically and emotionally, seemed a natural outcome of love's vast possibilities.

But growing up in poor black communities and schools and with a preacher-dad, I realized quickly that the only life such natural feelings would lead to was pretty lifeless: a fast ticket to hell, but not before verbal and physical abuse at the hands of family and friends, and sometimes even teachers and administrators who were charged with securing my safety. Sadly, some of the most cruel words I heard about gays or lesbians came from teachers, which was perhaps all the more biting because these were adults I respected and trusted to care for me.

I was fortunate for the privilege to "pass"-- to mask my sexual orientation in middle and high school through strict adherence to masculine codes and silence whenever LGBTQ people were vilified, taunted, or scorned. But passing brings guilt. This guilt for me culminated in a suicide attempt at sixteen that was as secretive as the shame I held for having same-sex attractions. Thankfully I was unsuccessful, and in time, I came to trust myself, and then a few educators and mentors.

Over the years, the few people I told about my suicide attempt were always baffled; as I had achieved great success in the face of racism and poverty, including being a chief recruit of military academies and Ivy League colleges. But being a celebrated low-income, black male means little when you believe that your whole community will hate you if they discover you're gay. Every time I came out to someone was a risk, but it was a risk I had to take because I was determined to stop hiding.

I was determined to choose dignity over shame.

I was determined to change the system and show that LGBTQ educators are among the best leaders we have.

I decided to become a teacher.

When I started teaching, it never occurred to me to NOT be out in the classroom. But the big open secret in education is that many teachers across the country remain closeted, at great peril to themselves and even more so to our students. Think of it this way: What are we teaching our kids by expecting LGBTQ teachers to bring their best selves, but not their whole selves, to work?

Teaching high school in Oakland, Washington, DC, and Houston as an OUT gay man, it hadn't dawned on me how much of an anomaly I was. But the stubborn reality is that many or most LGBTQ teachers in America wrestle with the decision to come out every single day. Many teachers fear that their love for the craft and profession might be subjected to the scrutiny of those who boldly, if in ignorance, equate gays who teach as nothing less than sexual predators.

Many people in this country also teach in places where employment protections are not extended to teachers and many risk being fired if they come out. Even in places where these protections do exist, many or most LGBTQ teachers are encouraged never to come out. In my conversations with TFA corps members and alumni who identify as LGBTQ, a vast majority echoed that sentiment. Some also lamented that they were probably not at their best as an educator given the anxiety about repercussions should their sexuality become known. They are teachers who love their kids to the point of sacrificing their dignity in order to ensure each one has access to the education they deserve.

Surely some of the kids we teach have already accepted or will come to accept that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning. We are doing our jobs partially if these kids feel they can't rise above poverty or racial discrimination, that they must remain shamed or silenced around their gender expression or sexual orientation. LGBTQ educators, OUT or not, know this as acutely as anyone because we were once those kids. And we survived.

We survived the silence and the gender reprimanding, the verbal and physical abuse, the shame and the compulsory heterosexuality, just so we could glean a life of dignity in a profession we love. We survived being reduced to any number of the negative indicators you find when you type LGBTQ youth into search engines, from suicide or homelessness rates, to truancy or to being victims of bullying. We survived the teachers who didn't know or pretended not to know or didn't care.

Most of us who are out still live with this ironic balance of courage and shame, resilience and fear, on a daily basis. In this light, I can understand why so many leaders who feel called to teach, won't even try to break the silence. It's just too scary; the institutional barriers too great. But our highest need schools lose out on an untapped wellspring of great leaders when we give in to these fears.

When we come out we choose dignity. What this means for our kids is that we be a little more brave, that we own who we are as individuals and collectively--that we form coalitions across diverse communities to do what we believe is right. This is something you learn when you're so close to ending your own life that you have the power to rise out of the hate, the poverty, the racism, the shame.

We have the power to live this every day for our students.