We Say “Gay” in My Classroom
There are some giggles you dread as a middle school teacher.
Like when one of your students loses all control over a line of poetry.
It happened most recently over these lines of Dylan Thomas:
“Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
There it was. The G-A-Y word. The one thing with which adolescent boys and Florida Governors cannot contend.
One of my 8th graders thought it was the height of hilarity.
“You know that word here just means ‘Happy,” I said.
And he lost it some more.
I tried logic.
“I’m gay. You’re gay. Sometimes we’re all gay.”
A renewed outburst.
“You’re probably the gayest student in my class.”
And the laughter stopped.
“No, you come in here laughing and gay just about every day,” I said.
The frown on his face was serious.
“Me, too. I’m hoping to have a really gay weekend.”
Which seemed to break him. He got up, walked to the other side of the room and sat silently in the corner.
Not exactly the reaction I was hoping for.
Some people just can’t take the truth.
Like the fact that there are gay kids in middle school.
And, no, I don’t just mean “Happy.”
There are gay kids.
And straight kids.
And trans kids.
And all kinds of kids.
There are black kids and white kids, Muslim kids and Christian kids, Latinos and Lithuanians, Italians and Iranians, girls, boys and all genders in between.
There are tall kids and short kids. Fat kids and thin kids. And, yes, some kids who like other kids in ways which all adults might not approve.
However, some people are too juvenile to deal with it – they can’t even say the word or can’t even endure someone else saying it!
That’s not so bad when you’re 13 and terrified of your own sexuality, anxious that anyone might question your cis privilege.
You still have time to grow out of such sophomoric hijinks.
But it’s worse when you’re a counterfactual zealot like Ron DeSantis passing laws like the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.”
I’m glad I don’t live in the Sunshine state, but you know ALEC will bring their own copycat version of this fascism to the rest of us sooner or later.
Forbid teachers from talking about gender identity and sexual orientation?
Allow parents to sue schools for any comment they take offense to?
Things are tough enough in middle school simply because we’re not such cowards.
We say “gay” and embrace all its multiple meanings – often at once.
“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” but we talk about everything else.
And we have to!
It is incumbent on teachers to acknowledge the reality before them.
We have to recognize our students for who they are.
That doesn’t mean labeling them. It doesn’t mean trying to convince them of anything in particular about their identities.
But it does mean admitting that identity exists. And it means refusing to accept the intolerance of those who refuse to accept others for who they are.
When a student tells you their pronouns, you listen.
When a student draws a pride flag on their notebook, you tell them it’s beautiful.
When a student tells you in confidence that they feel ugly, hurt or broken because of what their pastor or parent or classmate said, you tell them they’re marvelous and not to change a thing!
Because we don’t have the luxury to be judgmental.
It’s not in our job description.
We teach our kids no matter who they are. We love them for who they are. And if DeSantis or any other adult has a problem with that, they can just fuck off!
Silencing the grown-ups in school won’t change who the kids are. It will just forbid us from mentioning reality. It will permit us to recognize only the tiniest fraction of who our students are and leave a de facto shroud over the rest.
I refuse to turn my classroom into a closet.
It might make the most bigoted adults feel better. It might relieve grown-up fears that just talking about other ways to live is enough to mold someone into something against their nature.
As if such a thing were possible.
But it won’t help the kids.
People don’t become their sexuality. They discover who they were all along – and ultimately no piece of legislation can stop that. It can make that search more difficult, painful and riddled with guilt. But you are who you are.
It’s regressive shame-based norms like these that encourage little boys to bash those who are different.
That make them feel the only safety lies in violence against the other so no one questions who they are, themselves.
That scares them enough to giggle at a three-letter word embedded in a poem.
And speaking of my giggle goose, eventually he got himself under control.
Before the end of the period he came back to the table.
Silently, swiftly, and soberly, he sat down with the rest of us ready to continue discussing “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight.”
Not a titter or laugh.
It wasn’t until a week later that he turned to me with a smile and asked:
“Mr. Singer, did you have a gay weekend?”
I did, Buddy. I did.
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