“It sounds like you’re taking this personally,” the superintendent said to me. “But this isn’t personal.”
“You’re telling me I can’t talk about people like me in school,” I replied. “How am I not supposed to take this personally?”
This disciplinary conversation came just a few months after I’d tried to teach my fifth-grade students about a new law in Illinois, one that finally legalized marriage equality back in 2013.
I wasn’t the only one who was excited about this new law–other teachers at my school were, too.
“We should do a lesson about it,” my straight colleague, Markus, said to me.
I’ll admit, I had to think about it. In my three-and-a-half years at the school, I had hardly built up the confidence to be out to some of my colleagues. Hosting a discussion about marriage equality with fifth graders was another thing entirely. I wasn’t sure I was prepared for the homophobia I knew would come.
Markus and I moved forward with the lesson anyway, notifying families of our intent and sending along resources that we’d use to broach the topic. The next morning, we received a visit from the principal of the school, ironically in the midst of celebrating our teammate’s upcoming nuptials.
“Can I see the two of you in my office?” she gestured at us with impatience.
We walked to her office in silence, and the door closed behind us.
“I’m so incredibly disappointed in both of you,” she said shamefully.
“Well, I’ve never been prouder of myself,” Markus replied. Markus would, through the end of the school year, be the only person who stood by me as a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusion in our school.
“And Paul,” my principal said, turning to me, “you should know that the classroom is not the place for personal agendas.”
She was, of course, referring to the fact that I was the gay one in the room–the one who would so selfishly advocate for his own minoritized group, similar to how a female educator might address gender inequity or how a Black teacher might address racism–despite the fact that Markus had approached me with the idea.
“This is not the forum for changing the world,” her words resounded in her tiny office, knocking me squarely on my proverbial behind.
The months that followed were, at best, uncomfortable–and at their worst, traumatic, the stress of which still impacts me to this day.
Surprise visits and even a request to sift through my classroom library for “inappropriate” books had clear motivation. I had gone from one of ten Excellent rated teachers in a district of hundreds the year prior, to a criminalized educator who needed to be monitored closely–and this all happened in Illinois, one of the bluest states in the country.
“Maybe in five or ten years,” the principal said to me after she’d cooled down. “If it were my granddaughter, I’d want her in that lesson. But now is just not the right time.”
Here were are, more than five but less than ten years later, as large portions of the nation have boomeranged into resistance against LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum, to the point where even acknowledging gender fluidity or using Queer terminology could result in termination or legal action. This means that it is not only unsafe to talk about Queer people in our classrooms–it’s unsafe to be Queer in our classrooms.
Given my personal experiences and these current realities, I am consistently entering schools and spaces where I wonder: Do these principals and superintendents feel the same way about gay people as mine did back then? And while I know that most of that is simply my post-traumatic stress talking, I also know that there are still Queer youth and teachers struggling around the country.
The most challenging part of my year wasn’t that I had stern conversations with the principal or the superintendent. It wasn’t that my legitimacy as an educator was questioned. It wasn’t even the principal threatening to go through my classroom library. It was the fact that only one person stood by my side–and that person was Markus. I can’t even imagine how it might have felt if he hadn’t. I say that because I know there are countless Queer educators out there, standing by themselves, feeling a loneliness that few know–and no one deserves to feel.
So, I hope you take this story as a call to action–not simply as an appendage to your #DontSayGay virtue signal on social media–because I can assure you, I am not sharing it for my own benefit. If you read this and think, God, that’s so awful, I implore you to write to your school’s principal or your district’s superintendent right now to advocate for pro-LGBTQ+ policies. Even if your state does not currently have anti-LGBTQ+ legislation or policies, know this: the lack of pro-LGBTQ+ policies or legislation is evidence enough that your advocacy is crucial, and quite frankly, already too late.
We don’t have any more time. We don’t have “five or ten more years” to wait for cisgender and/or straight folks to find comfort and come around. The Trevor Project estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth (ages 13-24) seriously consider suicide each year in the U.S. – and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds.
The responsibility we all bear as stewards for Queer students is great. If we care about their well-being and their lives, we cannot remain silent to their trauma.