Queer Teachers

I spent K-12 in parochial schools and suffice to say it wasn’t exactly the right place for a budding “queerdo” like me. Columbine popped off when I was in junior high making it a very bad time to be the semi-goth alt girl in the class. There was no support offered to queer youth. I only possessed a growing idea that I was queer but when you’re a kid you’re just different. The assumption is that in dire straits like these there are no queer teachers but that’s not the truth.

There have been queer teachers around since the age of teaching first began. My Catholic schools were no exception.

It was the closeting that was the issue. In the 7th grade the parish deacon came to give my class the “sex and Jesus” talk. This is when we learned that to avoid masturbating we should read the bible and splash some cold water on our faces. I never thought that was good advice. There’s too much sexy stuff in the bible, really. I ignored most of everything by dragging my pen into my page to doodle and tearing the paper with each stroke. Then he started to talk about homosexuality. Aside from being a deacon (which is kind of like a de-caf priest in the hierarchy of the Church) he was also a therapist with a private practice.

My head jerked up to listen when he talked about working with homosexuals trying to fix themselves as if being queer were like alcoholism. He had 4 people he was “working with” to get rid of those inclinations and lead a godly life. “Sadly, two of them committed suicide and lost the battle,” he said. It was the first time I had ever heard of homosexual therapy in this way. I knew that it had to be bullshit because my parents both worked on a psychiatric ward and I used to thumb through the DSM when I was bored. I knew that homosexuality had been taken out of the big book but my deacon’s words were terrifying and silencing. I had no idea how to process what I was hearing so I just swallowed it and felt grateful that I hadn’t gone around asking questions or identifying myself as a queer. Not reaching out to the grownups for these kinds of issues was a survival instinct.

And yet I had queer teachers. They were always silent around these issues and that’s why I felt certain that I *could not* reach out to them either. I never knew for certain that they were queer because they never came out of made those kinds of announcements to junior high kids at a Catholic school. They always radiated a form of unhappiness. They relayed a message that being queer meant unhappiness and social isolation. It was my first recognition of bizarre politics beyond my understanding at play. When something is taboo, we make the assumption that no information should be provided about it and especially not to children. It’s not that I had advanced gaydar; most of the students could peg that something set something people aside from others. There was an adult world out in the mist and the best we could cultivate was a mythology around it.

I graduated on to high school and attended an all girls school. There were more queer teachers around this time with a little more prominence. Here it was at least a quiet fact without denial but there was certainly no promotion or prominence. There was no GSA and the one year I participated in the National Day Of Silence I was alone. I started to make my own noise about being queer and tested the waters. I harbored huge crushes after the seniors like many freshmen do. I still lacked a community to talk to and people to share those moments. I dressed in drag for my first formal and I posed for one of my graduation portraits in drag as well. I made up a queer community in my head and crossed my fingers that it would get better because I was invested in the notion that everything would get better when I took off to college and left conservative Catholic schools behind for good.

I had one teacher in high school who stood out to me. She taught English with a prowess for sarcasm and reason that I still admire across the years. Her classroom was a bullshit free zone. Meaningless demerits about uniform codes were nonexistent. There was no busy work, no surprise pop quizzes that eviscerated the soul of the literature we were reading. Everything went back into the text or the art of writing.

I cannot talk about this particular teacher in a wholly sentimental way because we didn’t have any hallmark moments. It was dry, short, and sweet even though I was the editor of the literary magazine my senior year and she was the faculty moderator. I distinctly valued the distance she had because it was done with respect and a lack of hysterics. There were no power battles between us and she was always reasonable with everything.

When given the unenviable task of getting teenagers to actually read Jane Eyre she would give us a chapter assignment like this: “Read up to chapter 7 tonight and feel free to get ahead but whatever you do, don’t read too far. There’s a lot of sex and I want to make sure we all read it together so I can help you understand it.”

I think a huge bulk of that class almost damn near finished the book on the first few nights. I remember laughing when I heard her give the assignment because I had read Jane Eyre already and got the objective. It was a fair game scam and she won my proper respect for it. She was also the first teacher to dock points from an essay for using the phrase “mankind” when I meant humanity. I still remember the sting of that A-. The only red ink on the paper was that line, a perfect essay save for a one word mistake. I focused on that edit trying to parse out what it meant that just one word could create such a strong deduction from the overall impression of my work. Every time I ever went to write “mankind” I saw the red ink and the A- and I opted for “humanity” instead.

I never even noticed that there were many other errors all over the essay. I always wrote things at the last minute and barely looked things over at all and for the most part I could get away with this pretty well and still get an AP rank. I could see through the Jane Eyre manuever but I fell hook, line, and sinker for what she was teaching me with that red ink. The typos, the few misspellings here and there, and some grammar issues can all be cleared up with editing. The ability to craft a sound essay that successfully communicated at least one decent idea was already there. But I had never questioned gender paradigms in writing and that was something much more profound.

That red ink actually changed the way I wrote. For a long time I just practiced the language but in doing so I started to consider other possibilities. One A- actually introduced gender theory to me in many ways and it happened in a place that was not very progressive at all. I know that it was an immense privilege to be her student for so many reasons. In college I sat through repeated lectures in upper division classes teaching the nuts and bolts of things I learned in her class. It was an eerie example of the degradation of schools that in the final year of my B.A. in tiny upper division seminars when my peers were hearing, for the first time, something that someone taught me when I was a junior in high school.

What I didn’t know at the time was the extent of her writing career. Just a few weeks ago I was wandering through the Mission District of San Francisco when I stumbled past a used bookstore and saw her name on the spine of a paperback. I bought it and read it over a course of a few days laughing and even sometimes blushing over some unexpectedly spicy tidbit from a lesbian sex scene. It made me regret not having actually given her more honest writing in my assignments or my work with the literary magazine. I held back in utter terror at what I was really pouring my heart and soul into. I handed in half-assed essays when there was draft after draft of something better and presumably too dangerous to hand into any school authority.

I never felt like I had permission to write freely. I took my first real chances in her classroom and hers were the first eyes to ever read any of my horrible adolescent queer fiction. She actually gave me exactly what I needed which was just an acceptance of its existence and some notes about how to work towards something stronger. I don’t know how many notes you can actually give to a young writer clearly terrified of actually engaging in the exercise. Her was an oasis but I didn’t want to take too many risks with the one place where sanity prevailed because its absence would have been very bad news for me.

This was the kind of school where in order to pass senior religion we had to plan a wedding. The religion teacher boasted about the popularity of the assignment and spoke of former students who came back to thank him for encouraging them to start planning their weddings early because of all the work involved. “This is like your thesis,” he said. “It’s very dyanmic. Go with it as far as you can. In fact, take your boyfriends engagement ring shopping. I promise that people will take you seriously and offer you coffee. You don’t have to tell them it’s an assignment.”

I was apalled by this. I already had an admittedly histrionic habit of refusing to do assignments that were busy work only and a waste of my time an energy. I was right but it was a dumb battle to fight. In order to graduate high school I had to make up a history class even though the University of California had already awarded me college credit for the exact same subjects as a result of my politics. I didn’t want to risk having to make up a religion class because there was no online university I could reach out to for a repeat. There was no getting out of this bullshit assignment though I negotiated firmly to do my project about wholly secular same-sex domestic partnerships.

In order to get my diploma, however, I had to plan my imaginary partnership around the style of a “normal” wedding. I got a C+ for forgetting to budget the cost of stamps for invitations. My biology grader had also taken a blow when I got another low grade on my “fake baby” assignment for failing to clothe the sack of flour I was instructed to cart around for a week. Somehow this class maintained its accreditation for science for the University of California as well. Having a fake baby for a week did not teach me a damn thing about mitochondria, I can say that much.

The reception of anything short of lady like behavior was met with hysterics and an old school mentality about noble womanhood. Girls who got knocked up were menaced by encouragement to go off to the “home for unwed mothers.” A known abortion would get you expelled as per the teaching of the Catholic church governing your education. This is totally allowed for private schools but I really would like to point out that there is no legal way for the school to have ever proven an abortion. Any time it happened must have come from confessions under scrutiny.

We even had random sniff searches by drug dogs. Once a month, our teachers and ourselves would be taken by surprise when the dean walked in with the drug dog company. We were to keep our hands away from our belongings and file outside the class while the dogs sniffed our bags and purses. While we were in class they sniffed our lockers and our cars in the parking lot. The dog would walk by our bodies as well. This procedure was set up when girls were found to be smuggling marijuana in tea bags to on a spiritual overnight class retreat.

I’ve always loved English class regardless of whether or not I liked the teacher because at least there were books to read. Having an English teacher who was a no drama dyke meant the world to me. Everyone else around me bought into the hysterics and the paranoia around our lives as teenage girls. The idea of holding that kind of post in a school like the one I attended would be a veritable hell on earth for me personally but I’m so deeply grateful that there was at least one class during the day where I was treated as a student and not a suspicious package left on a public transit platform.

I am frustrated that I can’t just name this person who was so important to me and a stepping stone for me to define personal happiness on my own terms. My dreams are regarded as bad dreams by my culture. To acknowledge someone by name as someone who helped that process would be more like implicating them in a downward spiral rather than an upward climb. For a teacher working at a small all girls Catholic school, that kind of publicity could put her job in trouble. Even if I wanted to, no one is ever going to let me teach a high school English class but I really couldn’t do it and feel happiness. I couldn’t smile through the bullshit bureaucracy and I would probably lose my shit and get uppity if I ever encountered another situation like the wedding project with any chance in hell to shut it down.

Still, I needed there to be at least one educator there to help me catch my breath and know that it would get better. There wasn’t a Dan Savage campaign for this at the time and I remember walking to school everyday past signs posted in yards to protect marriage when California formally stated that marriage was for a man and a woman. It was so strange to read Kafka and want to write an essay about how The Trial related to what it felt like to be a queer teen but I never did. There was a balancing act that my teacher maintained. Neither in the closet nor too publicly progressive she pushed the limits enough that I could look up and see the first example of someone who was queer who didn’t have a destroyed life over that fact. It was enough to be seen but not enough to be noticed.

I read her novels and I get a certain joy that she got away with writing what she did without a scandal. A quick read of her novels and the school handbook makes it clear that trouble was just a breath away. Hunter S. Thompson wrote an essay about “The Edge” that I have loved for many years. We frequently masculinize “the edge” but that very same edge is there when it comes to writing a novel very much based on the real world insanity of the all girls Catholic school where you work. That’s fire play already.  The indie queer XXX fisting SM porn star alum is just the kind of thing that could push it all over. It’s just the kind of fuel someone would use to enforce codes about what teachers can and cannot write about lest their students all run off to San Francisco to make porn rather than get married and raise 2.5 sacks of flour.

It troubles me so much that I have the real potential to fuck up her job by expressing public gratitude. One of the first things we teach children is to say please and thank you. That’s a ritual of my culture where I have to abstain or exercise caution. I can’t give you names, I can’t give you titles. I’m the awkward piece of a house of cards. Maybe it’s the end goal of my activism. I want to be able to thank the people who helped make me who I am and have them received in a positive light for their contributions and fingerprints.

We need queer teachers and we especially need them in anti-queer environments. When all you can see is the anxiety of queerness it’s easy to think that there is little to hope for in your own life. Not all students would benefit the way I did from this particular teacher. I didn’t want someone to cozy up and be a friend, I didn’t want a long listening ear after class. I just wanted someone else to acknowledge that it is hell and the best thing to do was get through it all and look for the light at the tunnel. My whole world was wrapped in constant anxiety that it could all go to hell at any moment. High school was like an emotional marathon. I didn’t need someone on the sidelines to be so friendly that I would be inclined to stay and chat for hours, I needed someone with cool water and a word of encouragement to keep moving.

4 Comments

Filed under About me, atheism, culture, feminisms, queer, sexuality

4 responses to “Queer Teachers

  1. I’m glad to see someone else point out that, beyond the more obvious injustices happening in schools, there’s the small subtle things: The pointless busywork, petty rules about when you can use the bathroom, where you can have food or drink…. All of these things generate a prison-like atmosphere that sticks with you. In my dreams, no matter the topic or how old I am in them, I’m still often shuffling from room to room at the sound of a bell, like cattle. And I’m 26 – I haven’t heard a school bell in a long time.

  2. TheJerseyDevil

    Maggie,
    The bigger points of your post aside (and I thank you for making them; queer visibility, even if it is through a scrim of sorts, is so important for LGBTQ youth), have you considered trying to track down your teacher and send her a private note of thanks? My Mom, a retired teacher, recently passed away and as I sorted through her belongings I was amazed how many letters of thanks from kids and parents she kept. Some dated back to the 70’s.
    Any teacher will tell you the gratitude of parents and students means the world to him or her. Being a teacher is a pretty thankless job; I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a queer teacher in a Catholic school. Not trying to butt into your business, but it’s just an idea.

  3. I think everyone one has a teacher like that. Someone that gives them a taste of what you could be and risk just a little to let you do it, for me it was a law teacher she let me draw pyscothic drawings that she proudly displayed in her class room, she would preach to her other class that I scared the living hell out of her but it was a large inside joke, she was very nice to me and let me be a little of myself when I was lossing it, I was a immagrant kid in rich jewish high school, law studies got me throw a lot of it mainly, by letting me shock a few of the other kids around me.

  4. captio

    I’m one semester off qualifying as a high school English and history teacher. I study at a Catholic university, I’ve done my pracs in Catholic schools and I was raised as a Catholic. Every day, I balance that with the knowledge that I am queer, that I have been a sex worker in the past, that I have worked on marketing with a feminist porn company and that I have been filmed in feminist porn. I wear professional clothes, but I have to hide all of my tattoos and tone down my appearance not only when I am teaching in a classroom, but also when I attend lectures. To add to that, I am obviously always censoring huge aspects of my life and personality for the benefit of others, fully aware of how damaging that really is – not for me, but for others who are less comfortable with themselves and who need to know there are others like them and that there is no need to be afraid. My undergraduate degree was at a university where none of this was an issue and I could be open and honest with everyone with little to no risk. I took that for granted and realise only now that the freedom is taken away just what a privilege it was. I still don’t know if there is any clear way to somehow combine all the seemingly contradictory aspects of my life or if I am even doing the right thing and yet, when I’ve been in a classroom, I’ve loved it and have felt at home. When I’ve been on prac, I’ve seen kids who are obviously queer and I can feel myself reaching out to them, with all the knowledge of what it’s like to be the queer kid in a religious school. Despite that, I can’t actually tell them that I’m queer – even though that might be the most powerful sign of solidarity. I know you can’t publicly thank your teacher, but let me at least thank you – reading this has helped me more than I can express.

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