Life

Lead Bi Example

A primary school teacher is bisexual but passes for straight. Should he come out?

A teacher in front of his classroom, silhouetted out in orange.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

This piece is part of the Passing issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

As a guy in his early 20s working in primary education, I’m something of a rare breed. Doubtless you will have heard about the perceived importance of male role models in boys’ lives generally, and specifically in the supposedly “feminized” environment of school. Owing probably chiefly to my age and gender, as well as the fact I’m reasonably sporty, the boys in particular look up to me, confide in me, and ask me personal questions they might not ask other members of staff. I’m probably more popular now than I ever was at school.

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But I’m very aware that I have the potential to be an even more decisive role model for my students —and for a subset of them in particular—if I decide to be open about something I suspect would shock a lot of them: my bisexuality.

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Thinking back to when I was about 9 or 10—a year or so younger than the kids I’m teaching now—I remember being aware of the existence of two gay men in the entire world. (It was years before I’d learn the word bisexuality.) These were Freddie Mercury and Justin Fashanu, England’s first openly gay professional footballer, who after years of homophobic abuse on the terraces and in the media, killed himself at 37 years of age. My parents had told me about them both because they were incredibly talented and successful individuals, but as a result, one of my first associations with homosexuality was inevitably tragedy. Although my folks were keen to stress that things had changed for the better, being gay, to 10-year-old me, was something that might make people hate you to the point you felt compelled to take your own life and brought with it the risk of dying from a horrible disease called AIDS. I wouldn’t consider exploring my own bisexuality until about a decade later.

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Of course, there are already many more positive (and living!) LGBTQ role models around today. But to know that queer people are not all celebrities but also normal people who lead normal lives—maybe even like your teacher!—could be huge for any LGBTQ child, including those who only come to question their gender identity or sexuality years after having that particular teacher. While I don’t for one second think gay and bisexual men should need to be of the masculine, straight-passing, “I’m-just-like-you” Love, Simon ilk to be accepted, my coming out to the class would also challenge some rigid stereotypes about what queer men are supposedly always like that I remember from my childhood (camp, effeminate, giggly, etc.).

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That’s because I’m straight-passing, which puts me in a privileged position, whereby I have the luxury to keep my sexuality entirely to myself, without my pupils and colleagues suspecting anything. It also affords me the ability to challenge homophobia from students, without fearing I will then become the object of it. I have robustly challenged homophobic attitudes whenever students have expressed them, which has occasionally led to questions about my own sexuality. I’ve always declined to answer these on the grounds such matters are personal, safe in the knowledge the pupils will accept my reasoning and continue to assume I’m straight.

But I’ve often thought to myself, what would a student say if I told him that I was one of those people he claims to despise; if the next time he asks me whether I have a girlfriend for the thousandth time, I share that I have a boyfriend instead? Would it shatter his preconceptions of gay people in an instant? I doubt it. Would he at least slowly begin to alter his (relatively newly formed) views and see things differently? Perhaps. Or would he lose all respect for me? So far, I’ve said nothing, because I’m afraid of losing respect from my students, and, well, because in my straight-passing privilege, I can say nothing.

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Not all teachers are so lucky, of course. I vividly remember my class teacher’s reaction to finding some homophobic graffiti concerning him on a desk in Year 9 (eighth grade in the U.S.). He passionately and eloquently explained how disgusting homophobia is, but as a few probable culprits smirked, he grew more and more animated, redder and redder in the face, and progressively campier in his mannerisms. If there was speculation that he might have been gay before, it had suddenly been all but confirmed. I remember contrasting his manner to how restrained and plain he usually was, and wondering if he’d worked hard to repress part of himself, that was only bubbling up to the surface now, in his volcanic rage. He left at the end of that year.

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In my particular situation, though I’m lucky to be in a generally safe and accepting environment, coming out is a little risky. But when I think of the good it could do, before my class moves on to the all-too-often toxic environment of secondary school, to just honestly answer a personal question, or to be half as open about my personal life as the majority of the (as far as I know, exclusively heterosexual) other teachers are, is tempting. I know not all my pupils and their future peers and teachers will be lucky enough to go under the radar, so perhaps I really should cast off my “passing privilege” and act as a positive, unapologetically open queer role model now. At least then, I might help my LGBTQ students feel more comfortable and confident in their own skin, and encourage their friends to accept them for who they are, whether they “look gay” or otherwise.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.

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