When my son was in fifth grade, he asked me if he was gay. When I asked if he had romantic feelings for boys or for girls, he told me he didn’t know. According to a new survey, most LGBT adults say they were aware of their sexual orientation by age 12. For some, the realization occurred earlier.
A decade after my son asked that question, as it turned out, he is not gay. The possibility that he might be gay did not bother me. But it did upset me that he didn’t have a gay role model to turn to in his life or at his school.
Most of the bullying I see as a middle school teacher stems from students not wanting to socialize with students they perceive as gay. That perception seems to be based on “feminine characteristics” in boys or “masculine characteristics” in girls. Boys who prefer to sit with girls or who participate in theater arts are often perceived as gay. So are girls who sport short haircuts and wear sweats.
Celebrities who come out publicly via popular media are many students’ only exposure to LGBT people.
Most adults know someone who is LGBT, perhaps even a family member or friend. Although we know homosexuality exists, many teachers pretend it’s not an issue relevant to students and staff in middle school. It’s OK for me to talk about my husband, but my colleague can’t discuss a trip he took with his male partner. In a more equitable environment, my gay colleague would be free to stand as a real-life role model for students, particularly students who might be questioning their own sexual orientation. Although every teacher can become a confidant and advocate, students sometimes want the perspective of a gay teacher.
Living in New Jersey, near the George Washington Bridge, my thoughts are never far from Tyler Clementi. Tyler ended his life because of public humiliation he experienced when his Rutgers University roommate secretly recorded his intimate moment with another male and shared it on social media. We need to end homophobia and promote role models so that middle school students can embrace their sexual orientation without shame. If our schools are forcing staff members to be secretive about their sexual orientation, what message are we sending to students?
To truly embrace every human being’s individuality, we must acknowledge that heterosexuality is not the only expression of love. Once our role models become visible, maybe we can empower all students and start to silence bullies. I hope that we are advancing as a society to the point where our schools acknowledge all types of families and the many expressions of love. I stand as a straight ally. My colleague deserves the right to put a picture of his spouse on his desk. A teacher’s ability to disclose such an important part of his identity can open the door to any middle schooler who may need to ask, “Am I gay?”
Ivankovic is a middle school language arts teacher in New Jersey. She spent this year as a class support teacher.