Stage lights illuminated us. I began waving my baton to cue the piano and then, my students began singing “For Good” from the Broadway musical “Wicked.” As the song states, my students changed me “for good.”
Everyone watching saw in me a conductor leading students through a choir concert. My students likely saw a leader who always encouraged them to live as their authentic selves. But at that moment, all I could think about was the truth I withheld from them about my own identity.
When I started teaching, I worked in a small private school and made the conscious choice to lie as I signed my contract. I agreed to “not live a lifestyle contrary to the teachings,” of the school’s faith tradition. That meant actively hiding that I am gay. During the two years I was there, I limited access to who knew about the closet. I had a rough time there — sometimes hearing harsh words about my sexual identity from colleagues, administrators, and students — but I made some incredible connections, too, among the children I taught.
In 2018, I took a job at a public charter school within Indianapolis Public Schools’ Innovation Network and began as the K-8 music teacher. I meticulously read through the contract at the school, Matchbook Learning in Haughville, and breathed a small sigh of relief when I realized that signing didn’t mean lying about who I am. That was me peeking out of the teaching closet.
As I came to know my new colleagues, I stopped trying to act straight. I stopped changing my speaking voice, being quite so aware of my clothing, and monitoring how I moved my hands. I just decided to be myself.
But then, during a music lesson inside my own classroom, some students began taunting their classmates with offensive words, including an extremely derogatory term for gay people. The impact of this word reached further than students had intended; It made me question whether I was truly safe to live as my authentic self.
Around the same time, I had decided to come out formally to my administration, as I asked for guidance about representing myself without creating any unintentional discomfort. At one point, our school’s now-CEO connected me to an Indianapolis school leader who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
During my conversation with this school leader, I felt fully seen for the first time in my life. My professional and personal selves were no longer divided, and this educator gave me tips on how to come out naturally to students. Weeks later, I debriefed with my administrators, who gave me express permission to come out to students.
Soon after, I had that opportunity. I’d finally heard “You’re so gay”... “That’s so gay,” and, again, that hateful word for gay people hurled across my classroom one too many times. I pulled aside the two students who were using these words as insults and asked if they knew the meaning of what they were saying.
I compared it to how I, as a white man, will never utter the n-word — even if Black Americans sometimes reappropriate the word among themselves. Even then, it’s not a word we use during the school day. Through that approach, I was able to express to students that the other f-word was a hurtful term for a gay man.
Their response: “Well, nobody in our class is gay!”
And for the first time in my career, I told them: “I am. I am gay. That word is not acceptable.”
I dreaded what could happen next.
But what they said surprised me.“Well, you need to tell everyone that you are gay! They need to know it’s not okay to say these words!” I told them that while I didn’t plan to announce it, they were free to tell their classmates. Without hesitation, they proceeded to tell everyone. Gradually, all my students learned my truth. There were giggles and questions, but soon they were correcting each other when a peer used a homophobic slur.
The wave of acceptance from my administration, my colleagues, and my students was overwhelming. When I stopped hiding my identity, school became more joyful. I began dancing, singing, and laughing in the hallways more frequently than before.
Growing up, I never knew a gay adult, and anytime I encountered a gay person, those around me never had anything positive to say. Over time, students who were discovering their own identity within the LGBTQ+ community confided in me and now allow me to walk alongside them. Humbly, I have realized I am the representation I never had.
I am the representation that too few LGBTQ+ students have. Just 27% of LGBTQ+ youth “feel like they can be themselves in school,” according to a Human Rights Campaign youth survey. To change that reality and in honor of Pride Month, here are some of my favorite resources for fostering LGBTQ+-inclusive school communities:
- Develop Supportive Educators
- Create and Support a Student-led Gay-Straight Alliance Club
- Share LGBTQ+-Inclusive Learning Environment Resources
And here’s a list of service providers, hotlines, and text supports for LGBTQ+ youth who may be struggling.
While I am extremely grateful to have found myself in such an accepting school community, I know that is not the case for all educators, school staff, and students. Which is why my mission within education is to ensure every child knows that they matter, are valued, are important, and that who they are will always be enough.
Jeff Mayo (he/him/his) is currently an instructional coach and director of eLearning, serving the Haughville, Indianapolis community, with Matchbook Learning at Wendell Phillips School 63.