“I realized it was going to be a problem when the kids picked up on it the second week,” says James (some last names have been withheld) of his first teaching job. “I’d be up at the board, and they’d just yell ‘faggot’ at me.” A self-described effeminate gay man, he didn’t have to come out to his high-school students; they simply presumed correctly, and “It was all downhill from there.”
Without resources or support from a Chicago Public School administration already overwhelmed with violence (James’s South Side school was in the national spotlight in fall 2009 after a student was beaten to death on school grounds), the 24-year-old struggled to get through the year. “I cried every day to and from work [and] took up smoking.”
Aiming to fill the gap in support for isolated teachers like James is Queer Teacher Mixer, a monthly social gathering for LGBT educators to share stories and build community. A.J. Jennings, a social-justice activist and preschool teacher, approached Erica Meiners and Therese Quinn, authors of the book Flaunt It! Queers Organizing for Public Education and Justice, and the three founded the group for educators of all types: from kindergarten teachers to university professors and even dance instructors.
Jennings, who identifies as queer and gender nonconforming, says QTM is relevant to her experience as a teacher. She’s worked at the same preschool for several years, is out to coworkers and says it’s never been an issue; it’s some of the parents who make Jennings nervous. “I do sometimes still have fear that if parents are homophobic, they won’t trust me with their kids.”
Taking place during after-school hours in classrooms and university spaces around Chicago, QTM is intentionally held outside of the usual gay hangouts. “It’s nice to have it be more formalized and to connect with other queer educators I might see at the bars but don’t get a chance to talk to about education,” Jennings says.
QTM spreads the word via e-mails, Facebook and Listservs. About 20 people attend the meetings and engage in conversation about shared issues like coming out, seeking administrative support and being an ally to LGBTQ students. Says Jennings, “[It] seems like other people are craving this sort of thing.”
Sean, 33, a North Side elementary school teacher, attended the inaugural QTM in February. “When I first heard about it, I was really excited,” he says. After leaving his job in real estate and going back to school to become a teacher, Sean remembers, “I was a little nervous about how you go from being an openly gay man to then teaching at an elementary school.” A friend told him about QTM. Sean says it makes him feel like a part of a smaller community within a community. “It’s really empowering to hear these other people’s stories and their struggles and to be able to share what I’ve done in my life,” he says.
At the meeting, Sean told the group a story about how he came out to his fourth graders after overhearing anti-gay bullying among four of his students. “It’s such a risk, especially as a new teacher,” he says of coming out to students, “but I felt like for my kids, I have to be myself in order to get through to them.” Luckily, that incident proved positive for all involved; one of the boys’ parents even thanked him later. By sharing this story with the group, he explains, “Hopefully I can give a little strength to [a teacher] who doesn’t feel as open.”
For information about the next Queer Teacher Mixer, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.