How to Come Out as a Teacher

Benjamin (gay) talks about his experiences & gives tips for other teachers.

Coming out in the classroom is challenging for everyone involved in the school. Whether you are a student, a teacher or a parent, talking about your sexual orientation always requires self-disclosure. While there are numerous counselling services for young people, especially in the big cities and online, teachers in the LGBTIQ* spectrum are particularly challenged to keep an eye on the personal bond with the students in addition to their professional distance. To better understand the central moments of coming out as a teacher, we interview someone who has experienced school from a wide variety of roles.

Benjamin Ehlers is deputy principal of the Emil Krause School in Hamburg (Germany) & gay himself. You can find more info about Benjamin at the end of the article.

Benjamin is, i.a., a lecturer at the Center for Teacher Training and Educational Research Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Benjamin, when was the last time you came out at school?

In the fall of 2019 when I started serving at my current school. I had just been appointed as an assistant principal and got to know my new students in 7th-grade physics class. After the first few lessons, students begin to ask personal questions during work periods. So, of course, at some point, the question came up whether I was married or had a girlfriend. When I answered both in the negative and, when asked, didn't seem to be single, one student snapped: "Are you together with your dog?". One of his classmates then realized I might be gay, and after a few queries, the coming out was then also done in this class.

What happens then is always the same: For the next two weeks, the new gay teacher is the big hallway topic of the students. Again and again, I am approached and asked in an almost conspiratorial tone whether these rumours about me are true. Then, after two weeks, this phase is over, and only students who have a personal connection to the topic come forward: their own insecurities, the issue of parents or queer friends.

That sounds pretty relaxed. Have you always been so casual about it?

No, of course not. When I had my first teaching assignment - that was before I had even completed my preparatory service - I didn't come out at first and blocked off questions about my private life. Then came the opportunity shortly before the summer vacations, in other words, the end of my service at this school. A student asked for my key ring. I had lent it to her in between for the toilet access, and she had seen a name tag. So she asked, "Can I ask you a personal question? Who is Peter?". What she didn't know was that my father (Peter) had passed away a short time before, and I still had his apartment clearance key on my keychain. When I explained this, she replied in surprise, "Oh, I see! I thought maybe you were gay and your boyfriend's name is Peter!". To my response, "I'm gay, yes, but my boyfriend's name isn't Peter," there was absolute silence in the classroom for about five seconds until something like cheering broke out. The ice was broken. A few more questions followed, but the students were very open. I had not expected that.

Why was that? Today, young people are open-minded as never before, aren't they?

Maybe that's true in certain parts of society. Nevertheless, "gay" is still one of the most popular swear words for students. It's changing very slowly.

When I was a student, I couldn't have imagined coming out at school. I also lacked the terms to classify my sexual orientation. The topic didn't come up at all in sex education classes, and then there were two role models: A gay classmate who painted his fingernails and was a regular customer at the tanning salon, and a teacher who also struggled a lot. I wasn't like that, and that's why it took me until after school to come out without fear. That's why I'm still committed to diversity education in schools today.

How can diversity be given more space in school? After all, it's not part of the curriculum...

That's only true to a certain extent. In school, there is not only subject content that needs to be taught, but also a whole range of interdisciplinary competencies, such as health, traffic or democracy education. These are topics that need to be linked not only to one subject but actually to all subjects. One of these aspects is to show the wide range of society, from different family models to sexual/gender diversity to classism. Educating students in these areas is a vital core task of the school and thus of all teachers. 

Benjamin and other members of the "Queer Teachers of Hamburg" at the Hamburg CSD 2019.

So you actually need an hour of "diversity" on the timetable?

I wouldn't go that far. We can take a much more low-threshold approach: One of my favourite projects in Hamburg is the Soorum school education project at the Magnus Hirschfeld Center. There are similar projects in many German states, for example, under the name "SCHLAU". The principles are relatively identical: students learn about other "normalities" from peers of about the same age, often with LGBTIQ* background. Through the peer approach, a personal closeness is established, leading to the rapid dismantling of prejudices. The reason for this is quite simple: by getting to know each other, prejudices are put to the test and, in the end, replaced by judgments. I have experienced this project from different perspectives. In my studies, I participated in the project, as a trainee teacher, I was an advisor, as a class teacher, I was then a visitor with my class, and today I help in the background - for example, with further education or networking. Both in the team and the guest role, I have experienced how deeply and long-term the social structure of the class changed. It often happened that the particularly provocative "blokes" were forced to rethink their prejudices through the confrontation and later reflected more on their behaviour.

Of course, not every city has such offerings. Still, internal project weeks or the proper selection of reading, assignments or discussion topics can also help the school fulfil its educational obligation and thus advocate for a fairer, more open society.

Let's get specific again: How do you react when a teacher from your school approaches you with coming out thoughts?

First of all, of course, I listen, let the colleague describe the situation. There is no patent remedy for coming out. I can't just say: "Do it like me!". It simply has to do with the fact that every person's personality and social structure are different. As a teacher, you stand in front of the class every day - if everything goes well for 40 years! - showing a part of your personality. Some teachers can quickly build a good relationship with their students and at the same time maintain a professional distance. Other colleagues find exactly this difficult and struggle in everyday life not to offer too much attack surface, or try to gain popularity through good grades. Coming out does not change this situation at all. In my work as a supervisor and as a long-standing spokesperson for the gay teachers' group, I have accompanied a whole series of colleagues through their coming out. For none of them has the aspect of the fundamental relationship with the students changed.

This means that coming out can be a liberating blow for a popular teacher and offer the students another personality facet for affection. On the other hand, the teacher, who already has a problematic standing, offers even more surface for attack and usually does not become much happier in the profession. This is exactly what needs to be reflected upon before making such a decision. At the same time, I would like to encourage young colleagues to come out of the closet and set an example as role models for their students.

So, should you just come out, or is there more to consider?

Here, too, there is no patent remedy. It is undoubtedly good to involve your personal school environment: The team partner can help with practical problems in the class; the principal with disciplinary dealings with students and strange parents; the school's social services can relieve the burden of the topic by specifically addressing it; a working group of the teaching staff can ensure more openness through theme days. Of course, this doesn't all have to happen beforehand. Still, it helped me a lot, for example, to speak directly to the department head about a student conflict to get the appropriate support without having to come out again.

What advice would you give to future teachers or un-outed teachers?

Always be yourself! Seek support when you need it! Be there for your students with all facets of your personality as a teacher!

Benjamin Ehlers is the deputy principal of the Emil Krause School, a medium-sized district school in Hamburg-Barmbek (Germany). He has long been the spokesperson for the Association of gay teachers in Hamburg, a member of the Diversity Working Group at the State Institute for Teacher Training and School Development. He has made numerous publications, in-service training, and interviews on diversity at school. In addition to his school duties, he is a lecturer at the Center for Teacher Training and Educational Research Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the area of university teacher training. Contact: benjamin.ehlers@bsb.hamburg.de

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