Author Archives: Andrew Rayner

On Being in the Closet at St. Ignatius

Originally posted on Where the Boom Bands Play.

St. Ignatius CollegeI distinctly remember one gay teacher while I was a student at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School in Chicago. Or, at least we all thought he was gay. He taught Spanish and was unapologetically flamboyant. I never had the pleasure of having him as a teacher, nor did I ever have a teacher who was openly gay until graduate school — I cried when she said it in passing on the first day of class. I don’t know if the Spanish teacher ever came out to students or ever said that he was gay. Frankly, it was none of our business. Even without the “official” confirmation, the students loved him. It was said that he was one of the best Spanish teachers in the department. In particular, the students loved that he was gay. However, students weren’t seemingly obsessed with the fact that he was gay because it was some kind of celebration of identity. They loved that he was gay because of the novelty of it.

I have vivid memories of male students making a sort-of-game out of approaching this teacher. He gave any student a hug when the student asked, and I remember watching male students dare each other to go up to him to get a hug. The male students would always approach timidly and reluctantly while a pack of friends stood back and giggled behind their hands. I wonder now as I wondered then if that teacher knew the spectacle those students were making out of his identity. I saw this exchange happen frequently during passing periods in the hallway. I have one particularly clear memory of a male student getting a hug and then promptly brushing off his clothes and skin as if he were wiping off the contact he had just had. He was a popular student, making his actions all the more “important” and the embrace all the more “egregious.” Everyone thought it was hilarious. The message that action sent has stuck with me over 10 years later. I can see that student’s face as he grimaced, wiping away this teacher’s homosexuality like it was contagious. I still know that student now. At one point that student was a teacher himself. I hope he gave hugs to kids that wanted them when he was a teacher. I hope no student ever wiped off his identity, his love.

I never got one of those hugs. I both thought it would be weird since I was never a student of this teacher (though he would hug anyone who asked, pupil of his or not). Moreover, I tried to avoid anything that might lead to the assumption that I myself was gay, since I was terrified of the truth that lie latent within me. I now wish I had gotten one. That hug could have been affirming for him and for me in a time when I felt like something was wrong with me; a time when I felt suppressed, confused, and invisible.

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The Day I Was Reminded LGBTQ Students Still Don’t Feel Safe in Schools

Recently, I co-facilitated a session with Lora Cover at a conference for school leaders of color, where we focused on creating more diverse, equitable, and inclusive education institutions. In the session, we conducted an activity (one which our Talent Advising team created in partnership with Erin Trent Johnson and Xiomara Padamsee) where we asked participants to name times in their lives when parts of their identities were either on the mainstream — seen as “normal” — or in the margins — seen as “other” — and to explore when and where certain identities potentially shifted between the two.

Then we listed some demographic identifiers that could describe a member of their school community — a teacher, parent, student, or even a school leader — and asked participants to physically place themselves on a spectrum from “IN” on one side of the room to “OUT” on the opposite side of the room depending on how that person might feel in the context of their school and work environment.

Most prompts yielded relatively balanced spreads across the “IN” or “OUT” spectrum, indicating a fairly evenly split between those that were struggling and succeeding in creating inclusive environments for different types of students, family members, and staff. However, when we came to “a student who identifies as LGBTQ,” every individual in the room with the exception of two non-school based leaders went to the “OUT” side of the room. The striking implication: not one school leader in that room felt as though their school was inclusive for LGBTQ youth.

I was heartbroken. As both a person who identifies as LGBTQ and a former teacher, to see a room full of school leaders all express that their school environments were non-inclusive for students who identify as LGBTQ was horrifying. However, it painted what I believe to be an accurate picture of the majority of schools in America. Despite the fact that gay marriage is legal across the country and that there is increased visibility and representation for LGBTQ people in the public sphere, individuals who identify as LGBTQ — particularly our children — do not feel protected, safe, or like they belong. They are not able to live as their full selves.

I have distinct memories of not feeling safe in high school as a closeted teenager. I never felt I could act as my “full” self. I pretended to like all the things the other boys liked, including girls. For a while, I was incredibly unhappy. When I finally came out in my early twenties, I felt as though a burden had been lifted. Even still, as a teacher, I never came out to my students for fear of causing some kids discomfort, backlash from parents, and even potentially losing my job. This is the greatest regret of my professional career thus far. I frequently think to myself: “When is the next time my black and brown students are going to have a gay man of color in front of them to show them that that we do exist, that we do have value, and that we can be proud of who we are?”

Unfortunately, recent data underscore that things have not gotten better in our schools for young people who identify as LGBTQ.

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