Being an out elementary school teacher isn’t always easy. My first year of assistant teaching, full of the fear of rejection, I reasoned with myself; this was my professional life, which is separate from my personal life and always will be. Deciding whether or not to reveal my queer identities felt like a precipice that I wasn’t confident I could leap across without falling. When I decided to finally to tell my lead teacher, she didn’t flinch.
After that experience, I realized that it was more painful living with the fear and insecurity that accompanied hiding, than it was to cross that precipice and come out. This realization helped me to come to terms with my own misjudgments. Over the years, I’ve been surprised, both pleasantly and unpleasantly, by people’s reactions. I’ve had to learn to not use a person’s religion or age or culture to anticipate their reaction. When it comes to LGBTQ-acceptance, people are not predictable. I had feared judgment and homophobia. I had expected ignorance and insensitivity. I decided, never again to let my fears of people's reactions dictate how I shared myself with the world. These presumptions would not take away an opportunity I have to make a change by sharing my true self.
A few years later, I had the opportunity to teach abroad in Beijing, China for a year. As a biracial Chinese and Polish first generation American, I was excited about the opportunity to learn more Chinese culture and to be closer to my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandmother in Malaysia. I was excited to focus on my racial identity rather than my queer identity, and didn’t realize at the time how they intersected. Keeping my queer identity invisible, however, proved more taxing than I had anticipated, and it reinvigorated my desire to fight for LGBTQ rights and visibility in the classroom. I was struck when I discovered that the first grade teacher also identified as a lesbian. I looked at my second graders and realized that they had been taught by two members of the LGBTQ community, and they had no idea. In contrast, the third grade teacher was a Black, Jamaican American, which was challenging due to anti-Black racism in the community and the limited exposure our students had to Black people and cultures. Nevertheless, she could not choose to hide her racial identity. I watched in admiration as she confronted ignorance and misunderstandings, and I saw how much her students benefited. They learned acceptance and gained understanding through her unit, “Africa is not a country.” They will always have the memory of their third gradeteacher, and have a relationship and face to defend when they hear negative comments and untruths about Black people or face anti-black racism. I thought about how different my life would have been if I had an out, queer role model when I was six years old. I realized that I wasn’t helping my students to gain understanding by sharing my queer identity with just my colleagues.
Back in New York the next year, I was sitting in another new staff orientation, and ready to be out to coworkers, students, and families. In addition, my co-teacher and I were able to work age-appropriate LGBTQ awareness into our existing first-grade curriculum at an inclusion school for students with a range of abilities. We had a school-wide “Friends and Family Assembly”, around Valentine’s Day, which celebrated many different kinds of love, relationships, and families. There was a bulletin board in the hallway to celebrate our diverse community, including students and faculty. I relished the feeling of walking past each day, seeing my partner and I as a family in the lobby of my school. I took a few of my students at a time to look at the board, pointing out, “This is Ms. L and her fiancé, and this is me with my partner.” I had also submitted a picture of my parents and I, and the kids always seemed to have more interest and questions about my Chinese father than my female partner.
My experience as a queer teacher was not always easy. There were some parent complaints after the assembly and there will always be people who think children are too young to learn about LGBTQ diversity, no matter what age. My school found success because my administration wasn’t afraid to have difficult conversations with parents, and understood that this kind of change does not happen immediately. Being out helped me to make real friendships and healthy working relationships with my colleagues and families, and to engage authentically with my students like my heterosexual colleagues. For now, I feel satisfied knowing that I get to be myself all day, whether at home, in the classroom, or with the families, and I’m grateful to be working towards the school environment that I want for all kids to be in some day.
Adapted from Mui, R. (2013). Embracing Visibility. Queer Voices from the Classroom: A Volume in Research in Queer Studies, 73-80.