“Having a lesbian teacher changed my life.” “I didn’t believe that people like me could BE until I had a queer teacher.” “My teacher was the first person to accept me for me.”
The idea that teachers can be life changing influences is nothing new. But the idea that (out) lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT+) teachers can be life-saving is.
Still, some LGBT+ teachers choose not to share their gender or sexuality with their students, peers, or administration.
In many cases, it’s because if they do choose to share, they aren’t protected from discrimination under the law. Read on to learn how this lack of protection can hurt both students and teachers.
In June 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination.
In the context of a school classroom, this ruling means that teachers can’t be discriminated against for their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, more than 20 states have introduced bills that target how teachers talk with kids about anything LGBT+ since this ruling.
Known colloquially as “No Promo Homo” or “Don’t Say Gay” laws, if passed, these bills would make it legal to discriminate against teachers in some states.
In Florida, for example, a Parental Rights in Education Bill signed in March 2022 forbids instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for kids of a certain age.
This could give parents and schools the fuel they need to fire teachers who come out or otherwise share information about their sexual orientation or gender identity, like having a picture of their similar-gender partner on their desk.
Not to overstate it, but having an out LGBT+ teacher (or 10!) can literally alter the trajectory of a student’s life for the better.
And the benefits of having an out teacher don’t just exist for LGBT+ kids — kids who aren’t LGBT+ can benefit, too.
1. It can help students feel seen and safe
“Having LGBT+ representation will help queer and questioning kids feel seen and safe,” says Ley Cray, director of LGBTQIA+ programming at Charlie Health, a virtual mental health clinic for high-acuity youth.
Tree M., a Massachusetts-based elementary school teacher, shares that they once taught a fifth-grade student who didn’t have access to a TV or computer at home.
“The student told me I was the first person they’d ever seen who looked like they wanted to look when they grew up,” they say.
2. It can help create a larger sense of community
For LGBT+ students, “seeing their identities represented in the classroom can give kids a tangible sense of community, support, and validation,” says Cray. “It allows them to feel like they have a place in the world.”
3. It can give all students access to another ~slice of life~
Students are constantly given real-life situations to navigate in school, says Dani H., a Chicago-based lesbian who works with middle and high school students.
“They’re forced to work in groups, interact with people of different skin colors, religions, who speak different languages,” she says.
How is that different for students than working or interacting with someone who is LGBT+? The answer, she says, is nothing.
4. It can offer tangible proof that a happy LGBT+ life is possible
“It offers concrete examples that help a young person’s ability to visualize themselves as someone with a happy and healthy future,” says Cray.
Given that LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their non-LGBTQ peers, the power of feeling like your life is one worth living cannot be understated.
5. It may help students realize they want to be teachers themselves
When a student sees only one type of educator teaching, they subconsciously begin to believe that only someone who fits those parameters can or should become a teacher, says Kryss Shane, LSW, LMSW, author of “The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion: A Practical Resource Guide for K-12 Teachers, Administrators, and School Support Staff.”
“When students see a variety of people teaching, they begin to recognize not only that they can become a teacher too but that all of their peers are potential future teachers,” explains Shane.
6. It can give students a person to direct their questions to
“Being an out teacher has allowed me to be a resource for kids who either haven’t learned about gender or sexuality at home, as well as those who are specifically being taught that being LGBT+ is bad,” says Molly M., a queer teacher working in middle school special education.
Danish D., a Brooklyn-based high school teacher, reports a similar experience.
“After I came out to my students [as transmasculine and bisexual], a number of them came up to me with questions about their gender identities, which ultimately helps give them the tools they need to explore themselves,” explains Danish.
A classroom without representation is a classroom that fails in several ways.
First, it doesn’t accurately represent the world as it actually is. “In a diverse world, classrooms that avoid or suppress a range of representation simply give false impressions,” says Cray.
Second, it can lead kids who are “different” or “other” from what they see represented in their surroundings to feel like outsiders, they say.
The experience of being an outsider can make someone feel like they’re deviant, defective, deficient, or delusional.
“It can also contribute to feelings of isolation, as well as internalized homophobia or transphobia, all of which exacerbate the significant levels of minority stress LGBT+ persons already face,” Cray says.
While it’s valuable for kids to have out LGBT+ teachers, the weight of diversity doesn’t fall exclusively or even primarily (!) on LGBT+ teachers.
The weight falls on state legislators and school administrators to make it safe for teachers to come out.
Whether you come out is a personal decision, one that several factors can influence, including:
- how comfortable you are with your sexual orientation or gender identity
- how comfortable you are with different labels used to describe your identity
- your relationship status and security
- job and financial security
There are potential benefits to consider, too.
1. You get to be yourself
You can’t separate an individual from their sexual orientation or gender identity. Being LGBT+ informs, to some extent, how you interpret and navigate the world.
So, when you come out to your students and co-workers, you’re essentially allowing yourself to show up, as, well, you at work every day.
As Jared B., a Charlotte-based high school teacher who came out to his students for the first time last year after a decade of choosing not to puts it, “I genuinely feel lighter walking into work every day — more me — I’m a happier person because of it.”
2. You won’t have to live a “dual” life
If you aren’t out at school, you may feel like you’re forced to keep up a “dual” or “double” life.
That’s actually why Jared B. finally decided to come out.
“Not being out at school made me feel like I had my ‘real life’ and my ‘teaching life,’” he says. “But because I feel like teaching is my calling, that split felt disorienting and ultimately impacted my mental well-being.”
3. It may help your mental health
“When their surroundings intimidate someone into keeping their identities silent, they risk an ever-present fear of being outed,” says Cray.
Or, having that information shared in a way that isn’t aligned with their optimal timeline, phrasing, or care.
For many people who are still “in the closet” in certain parts of their life, this can create an intense amount of anxiety, they say.
Not being out can also make a person feel:
- suspicious of anyone who asks them personal questions
- paranoid about being outed
- jumpy when in public with a partner
4. It may give you opportunities to be a mentor to kids who need one
When you tell your students that you’re not cisgender or straight, you are also telling them that you’re a person they can talk with about their own gender and sexuality, as well as things they’ve learned about gender and sexuality.
“Being out as gay gave me the opportunity to be a sounding board for, and celebrator of, students in secret relationships with someone of a similar gender,” says Molly M.
But it isn’t just LGBT+ kids who may come to you.
Molly M. says she also had students who learned that homosexuality was a sin at home ask to talk with her about her experience.
“There were some really fun conversations I got to have with LGBT+ students, but there were some really hard conversations, too,” she says. “But those hard conversations were rewarding because it helped students realize that the thing their parents were teaching them was a sin was a thing their teacher who they love was or was doing.”
5. It may extend the “lifespan” of your career
Being out may even have the power to increase your interest and likelihood of staying at your current school district or continuing your career as a teacher over the years.
“Often, LGBT+ educators [who are not out] end up feeling alienated at work, depressed, and even tend to leave their careers to live openly,” says Shane.
“Not only does this harm them, [but it also] harms our society, as our teacher workforce is already far too low, and great educators are life changing for all children,” adds Shane.
This article may have convinced you that there are benefits to you coming out, for both you and your students. But before you go full steam ahead, be sure to read up on the discrimination laws in your state.
“The main reason I felt comfortable coming out is because I live in Massachusetts, which is on the up and up with their anti-discrimination laws,” says Molly M. “I also work for a school district that is known for treating their LGBT+ employees incredibly well.”
To find out whether it’s legal for you to come out in your classroom, as well as what types of protections are in place, check out this nondiscrimination map.
Molly M. also recommends being prepared for the type of stress you experience while being out in the class to be different than the type of stress of being closeted.
“Understand that there are times when being out is going to be stressful and where you’ll feel like your sexuality is a burden,” she says. “But there are also going to be moments where you get to be there for your students that feel really, really wonderful, nourishing, and special.”
What does it look like to come out to students, exactly?
It’s a good question with a long list of answers. Some teachers choose to come out by announcing their gender or sexuality alongside a list of other identifiers on the first day of class.
Some choose to do so nonverbally by posting photos of their family in their classroom or hanging a rainbow flag on the wall.
But you can also choose to mention it to students only when it feels like it could explicitly benefit them.
Dani H., for example, likes to ask herself the following questions before coming out to a student or group of students:
- Will it help that student with their problem if they know about me?
- Would it build another layer of trust with them?
- Would learning that I’m LGBT+ possibly open their mind to other LGBT+ people and possibly help someone else?
At the end of the day, kids across the gender and sexuality spectrum benefit from LGBT+ representation in the classroom, as do the teachers.
But for there to be that LGBT+ representation, most teachers need proof that their school district and state will actively protect them from discrimination.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.