On October 22nd, I gave the following speech at the high school where I’ve taught for 17 years. I don’t consider it a coming out speech; it’s more a “here’s what it’s been like” chronicle.
I’ve gone back and forth about whether or not to give this speech. I think the times demand it. We are living in a volatile time, a time when the differences between people, whether that difference is skin colour, culture, or sexuality, or religion, or something else, seem to be pulling us further apart, instead of bringing us together- the wrong kind of social distance. I figure anything that can shed light on the differences, and the similarities, between people, is good. So I am going to share my own lived experience of difference.
I call this speech “Fact of Life”. And it’s in four parts.
Gary was someone I worked with in an office, in the 1990’s. One day, Gary dropped by my desk or cubicle, and stared at me. I asked him, “Gary, is there something I can help you with?” He continued to stare, and then he said, “You’re gay!” Now I knew what Gary was doing. He was processing new information. It took Gary about three more days of coming by my desk, and peering at me, and talking to me, before he fully integrated it. He realized that the information was not bad or good; it was just information. A fact. Nothing more, nothing less. And for the time that I worked at the company, Gary and I got along great.
How many of you have a Mac computer? Or watch Apple TV? Or have an iphone? So do I. How many know the name of Apple’s chief executive officer? Tim Cook. How many know Tim Cook is gay? Tim Cook, the CEO of one of the most successful companies in the world came out as homosexual in 2014. In a carefully worded editorial, he explained why he had left it unsaid for so long, and why he had decided to mention it now. He knew the impact of being out, given his celebrity and status, especially for young people who are being bullied. In the article, he talked about his pride in being gay.
I’m not. I’m not proud of being gay, any more than I am proud of having elbows or shoulders. It just is. And like Tim Cook, I am proud of the person I have become because of it. I have grown up an outsider- outside the norm. That perspective, though difficult, has afforded me two important points of view. Firstly, I have almost immediate empathy for other outsiders, no matter what their particular identity. Secondly, I try not to take anything for granted. It has made me a better listener, and observer of life. I might have come to those perspectives without being gay, but I know for certain that it has significantly shaped my views, and for all of it, I am grateful and proud.
Now, I am going to say something every young person knows, and no adult likes to be reminded about: every adult is a role model for every young person, in everything we say, in everything we do, and in everything we don’t say, and everything we don’t do. I think I know what kind of role model I have been, and I think I know the kind I would like to become.
3. Funny Boy
For grade 9s and new students, Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai is the Grade 10 English text, featuring a gay protagonist. When I have taught the book, I have never directly referenced my own experience. I remember one class last year where we had finished about three quarters of the story, and the class wanted to know if by this point, the main character, Arjun, knew and accepted that he was gay. After all, by this point, he had a sort of boyfriend. I gave a rather generalized response that it wasn’t definite, because Arjun’s family didn’t know and his culture did not affirm it. It just wasn’t that simple.
Not that simple? That is putting it mildly. If I were to reference my own experience, I would say this. Growing up this way, I figure I was formed by two factors. One is the sexuality itself, that’s a given. I think an even stronger factor that formed me was the silence around the subject. The silence of others, and the silence of myself. And no one told me- no one could have told me- how much I would have to manage and navigate that silence, for the rest of my life. That is something Mr. Selvadurai got exactly right in his novel. And Grade 10s- It is one thing for you to read about it in a book; it is quite another to have that experience confirmed and validated by the person standing right in front of you.
You probably think I mean gender pronouns. But I don’t. I mean pronouns of number: singular vs. plural.
When students would ask me what I did on the weekend, or over the summer, or at Christmas or holiday time, I would answer that I saw a movie, or spent time at the family cottage, or travelled to New York to see a Broadway play.
That is only partIy true. I did all those things, but not alone. We did. My partner and I. We went to the movies, we went to the cottage, and we went to Brooklyn where his family lives, and we’d go uptown to see a show. I have been with my partner longer than I have worked at this school, and I have worked at this school since 2003. Yet every day I have worked here, I have consciously switched my pronouns from “We” to “I” in order to deflect attention from my relationship.
Now I’ve struggled with this a lot. I’ve received every kind of advice- all of it well meaning. One kind goes like this: You want to talk about your personal life in the classroom? Go ahead. I talk about mine all the time; why shouldn’t you? I have also received the exact opposite advice. Talk about your personal life? In the classroom? I would never talk about my personal life in the classroom, it’s private, it’s personal, it’s nobody’s business.
Well. It’s one thing to not talk about your personal life out of a sense of privacy; it’s quite another to not talk about it out of fear. I’m still afraid. But I won’t be switching my pronouns any longer.
To finish up, some of you might be thinking: why mention this topic at all? Because the topic needs to be mentioned until it doesn’t need to be mentioned anymore. Until the stigma ends, and the topic becomes redundant and unnecessary. We’re not there yet. Until that day arrives, we need more communication about difference, not less.
So. Over the next hours and days, there might be discomfort around this, but I doubt it. I guarantee you, the person who will be most uncomfortable is me. But it will pass. Just like it did for my friend Gary, it will become old news, and get replaced by “The Next Big Thing”.
And all of this will recede to become what it always was to begin with: just a fact. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Quote of the day:
“I don’t want to go into the question of whether [he] was homosexual or not, because the definition is of no use to me…. He is not a puzzle so arbitrarily solved.”
- Alice Munro (from “The Turkey Season” The Moons of Jupiter 1982)
…. And ladies and gentlemen, neither am I. Go to class.