By Kailynn Barbour
I refuse to be silent.
Today, April 17th, is the 2015 GLSEN Day of Silence.
Eight years ago, as I was a junior in high school, my stomach turned in knots as I participated in the Day of Silence, a national day where individuals are silent in recognition of anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools. I was one of about twenty-five students who participated as “an ally,” and the small percentage of understanding and support in my high school of 2500 students left me feeling more isolated than ever. The following year, the newly formed Gay-Straight Alliance and the Student Council paired together for a huge Day of Silence, where hundreds of students took a vow of silence and participated in a beautiful and emotional Breaking of the Silence ceremony after school.
When I first started teaching in my current high school, I was a young, naïve, and very out individual. Much of my college years had been spent as an accidental activist, and I regularly was asked to be a part of LGBT and Diversity caucuses and councils. I even received the Lionel Cuffie Award for Activism and Excellence upon my undergrad graduation in 2012. While I never identified as a lesbian first—I’d rather be known for myself as an individual, rather than my sexuality—I became identified as an activist on campus at Rutgers University.
So, it came as a bit of a shock when I realized that the atmosphere of my school district wasn’t exactly welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals. I found myself back in the closet, something I hadn’t been in for at least five years. Leaving the college and grad school bubbles of open-minded individuals and acceptance was a bit of a shock, but I resolved to be quiet about my private life. I didn’t want my sexuality to have an impact on my non-tenured job. After 50 job applications and countless interviews, finding a tenured-track teaching position with courses I loved was like winning the lottery. I didn’t want anything to jeopardize this.
I became engaged to the love of my life one month into my first year of teaching, and my immediate feelings of excitement were filled with dread at the idea of going to school and having students and teachers alike ask about my engagement ring. So, I wore my engagement ring on a chain around my neck, hidden beneath my sweater. After my first observation, and nervously asking my supervisor for permission to wear my ring in class, as well as preparing her for the potential phone calls from conservative members of our school community, I began wearing my engagement ring in school. I also started accepting the friend requests of my colleagues on Facebook.
Essentially, I was out. Looking back, it’s ridiculous, really—a quick web search of my name would lead any curious colleague, parent, guardian, or student to pages upon pages of my identity as an out poet and blogger. Colleagues began to talk about my sexuality in the faculty room when they thought I couldn’t hear them, but I could. They didn’t exactly share the kindest words about me. Yet, their own ignorance has only made me stronger as an individual, and even more determined to be someone students who are struggling can come talk to.
If students can sense their teachers are judging them or feel prejudiced against them in some way, how can they feel safe? Students spend more time at school than at home. The GLSEN 2013 National School Climate Survey says that, in my state of New Jersey, nearly 7 in 10 students experienced verbal harassment based on their sexual orientation, and more than 5 in 10 based on the way they expressed their gender.
Of these students, 55% of students who were harassed or assaulted in school never reported it to school staff, and 49% never told a family member about the incident. Among students who did report incidents to school authorities, only 55% said that reporting resulted in effective intervention by staff. How can we help our students grow up to be healthy, happy, productive members of society if less than half of teachers actually intervene in something as serious as verbal harassment?
Over time, I’ve established the sort of rapport with my students where I will answer any question they ask, within reason, honestly. It helps us have a better student-teacher relationship, and, as I teach 11th and 12th graders, they appreciate being treated like adults.
Students began asking me if my fiancé was a woman a few weeks after I began wearing my ring, and I answered them honestly. This school year, I entered my second year of teaching knowing that my former students were gossiping with their friends who had me on their schedules. Sure enough, within the first few days of school, I had students ask me if it was true that I was engaged to a woman. I confirmed that it was, and we all moved on with our lives.
Some of my friends have commented that they would have never asked a teacher directly if he or she was gay, and I have to agree with them. However, if my students feel comfortable enough to ask me that question, I feel comfortable enough to give them an answer. If they don’t ask, then I don’t tell. As an educator, I’d rather be known for my love of literature and poetry than my love for other women.
So, today I will not be silent. I will not stand up for anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools by having my voice taken away. Instead, I will let my voice be loud and clear for my students, and individuals throughout the world, who do not feel safe enough letting their voices be heard. I will be an out educator in a setting where being who you are can sometimes be isolating. My students deserve better than being treated like second-class citizens, and I want them to see that I am a strong, confident individual willing to let my voice be heard.
I refuse to be silent ever again.
Kailynn Barbour is a second-year educator at an urban high school in New Jersey, where she teaches 11th & 12th grade English, as well as a poetry course. She graduated in 2013 from the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, where she received the Nancy Higginson Dorr Award for Excellence in Education. Kailynn can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.