by Patricia Smith
Listen. It isn’t as if we haven’t been here before. We have been fighting all our adult lives it seems, but now, finally, when things seemed to offer more than a glimpse of hope—Marriage Equality isn’t the be-all and end-all but it sure felt like a start— we have been thrown back to the Dark Ages. At least that is our—my—fear.
Most of my adult years have been spent teaching. In the early days, being a teacher and gay wasn’t easy. My first teaching job coincided with my first girlfriend. Back then, I had two separate lives, one at school and the other at home. I remember my first gay pride parade, in Boston. Oh, the joy of it—the crowds, the glitter, the out-and-proud men and women, Dykes on Bikes leading the parade, the drag queens, the fabulous men dancing on floats. But there was also the other side of our gay lives—the sad, angry faces of ACT UP, the marchers carrying the banner for the AIDS ACTION COMMITTEE and the men behind them with placards bearing dates of all the AIDS-related deaths; the teachers, myself included, wearing paper bags over our heads, the word TEACHER scrawled in front. We weren’t out and proud; we couldn’t be. We could lose our jobs.
And there we were, in the midst of those awful AIDS-epidemic years, not that they’re wholly over, either, but back then, in the early 80s in particular, there was so much mystery, so much misinformation, finger-pointing, blaming and hysteria. My first girlfriend had a dear friend, Barry, who died of AIDS-related complications, but no one was allowed to say that. His parents insisted that something else had killed him—a tumor, an unidentified cancer. I remember seeing his name on a square when the AIDS Memorial Quilt first showed in Boston a few years after his death, how I burst into tears and one of the many volunteers appeared at my side, box of tissues ready to offer. In the midst of terrible times, there was also compassion, a sense that we needed to bond together to get through.
As a gay teacher, there came a time when I thought I’d have to quit, that I could never be my whole self in the classroom. I couldn’t imagine it, not at my conservative private school, not even in liberal Massachusetts. I don’t remember how I envisioned then my future as an adult lesbian—I loved teaching; I loved living with my girlfriend and even imagined us together long-term, sometimes even went as far as picturing a wedding for us both, though I never, ever thought I would see official, legal gay weddings in my lifetime. Still, I didn’t bring my girlfriend to school functions in the early days; I didn’t even bring her to social events with other teachers. If I was invited to a party or to dinner, I went solo. As far as anyone at school was concerned, I was single.
Except many of them knew. Or they guessed. I told my stories in the faculty room, about “us,” about “THE bed we had to buy.” They noticed my careful avoidance of pronouns when I spoke of my “roommate.” They didn’t question our one-bedroom apartment. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in full force. But truthfully, they were waiting for word from me, which didn’t happen until my girlfriend and I broke up and I was an emotional mess and couldn’t help myself. Luckily, not long after at a teaching conference, I met Kevin Jennings, the man who would be co-founder of what we called then GLiSTEN — Gay and Lesbian Independent School Teachers Network, originally begun as a support group for LGBT educators in independent schools. I was giddy that first year at our conference as approximately fifty of us gathered at Concord Academy to talk about what it meant to be an LGBT teacher, how we could support each other, how it might be beneficial to our students if we could be out in the classroom.
After that, we gathered in living rooms. We talked more and planned and focused more and more on our students, less on ourselves. We organized conferences that grew each subsequent year. Comedian Kate Clinton headlined one of our earlier conferences, joking that she learned how to do stand-up as a high school English teacher and there on the stage in front of an audience of hundreds, she kissed me on the cheek. At another conference, held at Milton Academy, I spoke as part of a panel of “out” teachers, though I was hardly “out,” at least not in any public pronouncement way. Still, being on that panel gave me hope and strength, and I did eventually come out to the entire school after a day-long diversity training. Each year at the conference, I heard remarkable stories of courage and resistance. I vowed to continue to do my small part, in whatever way I could.
Before long, we changed our name to include public school teachers — GLSTN, Gay Lesbian School Teacher Network, and then finally, to GLSEN, Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, to reflect that all of us weren’t teachers — we were guidance counselors, coaches, administrators and nurses, too—and to include our straight allies. And that year, I helped carry the banner in Boston’s Gay Pride parade. I was giddy then, too, marching behind our motto emblazoned on the banner—“Together, For a Change.” It was probably my proudest moment, marching through the streets of Boston, there, with the Dykes on Bikes, the gay men on their floats, but now, too, church groups and youth groups and us.
“Look! Gay teachers!” the crowd yelled. People nudged each other and pointed to us. “Oh yay! Gay teachers!” they shouted and waved their rainbow flags. We marched through the applause, our smiles growing wider. This, I thought, was gay pride.
It seems so ordinary now that there are gay teachers everywhere. It is no big deal for high school Gay Straight Alliances (at least in Massachusetts) to march in Gay Pride parades. And Marriage Equality is the law of the land.
We fear that all our hard work will be tossed out. We fear that everything we’ve fought so hard for will be suddenly gone. And if I as a middle-class white cis woman feel this way, how do people of color feel? How do trans people feel? Sometimes, the fear from this election is all too overwhelming.
But when I think back to those early years, I remember the fear but I remember, too, the energy we had to make a change. Look at what transpired in my immediate life: a few teachers gathering in each other’s living rooms, from our meetings and conversations to conferences and eventually to one of the most influential national non-profit organizations that supports LGBTQ youth. What drove us then and what can drive us now is hope. In the words of Harvey Milk, “I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living….You gotta give em hope.” It’s the work we teachers are used to. Let’s get started.