Coming Out of the Classroom Closet
By Avner Shapira
Last week Education Minister Yuli Tamir announced the establishment of "an advisory committee on the gay community," which will examine the attitude toward homosexual students and suggest ways of integrating them in schools. The committee’s aim is to try to prevent the feeling of isolation from which many of them suffer. More than any of her predecessors at the Education Ministry, Tamir follows a liberal policy with regard to the acceptance of homosexuals: She has called upon school principals to take action on the matter and she recently participated in a fund-raising evening of the Israeli Gay Youth organization, which, she said, will receive budgetary support from her ministry.
However, most of these changes concern students only, and therefore neglect the fact that homosexuals can be found in schools not just as students, but also at the blackboard. "Invisible Teachers," a new study by Hagit Ashur-Efron, focuses on the problems and distress of gay and lesbian teachers in public high schools in Israel. Ashur-Efron, who is studying for her master’s degree in the sociology of education program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, will present her study tomorrow at "An Other Sex 07," the Seventh Israeli Annual Conference for Lesbian and Gay Studies and Queer Theory at Tel Aviv University.
Ashur-Efron interviewed 20 teachers and documented some meetings of Gay Teachers, a support group for homosexual teachers from the center of the country. All of the group’s members had made their sexual preferences known in their private lives, but in their educational work most of them preferred to remain in the closet. They had many reasons for opting to do so, including fears of being fired, of not receiving tenure, of negative reactions from principals and other teachers and also because of the fear that their students would consider their "coming out" as a weakness, which could also serve parents as ammunition against them.
"While the integration of gays and lesbians is less problematic in other professions," says Ashur-Efron, "in the education system the old fear of legitimizing the alternative lifestyles identified with them is still prominent. The prejudices against homosexuals, especially in the form of stigmas concerning their attitudes toward children, are not fading."
Nurit (not her real name), 40, is one of the founders of the Gay Teachers group. She has been teaching art for the past 12 years at high schools in the Dan region. "Seven years ago, I discovered that I am a lesbian. I was already a teacher. Since then I have been deliberating whether to make my sexual preferences known at school and, if so, to whom and in what way," she says. At first she told only her friends among the female teachers but "when I was on sabbatical, I also allowed myself to express myself publicly in these areas; I wrote about gender issues and lesbian identity in the newspaper Hazman havarod [Pink Time, the magazine of Israel’s homosexual community] and in other forums."
When she returned to school after her sabbatical, she found that some of the students in her classes read Hazman Havarod: "Two male students brought copies of the issue in which I had published an article to class and read them demonstratively. I couldn’t avoid their hint that they knew."
Since then she has been dealing with the subject openly in conversations with homosexual students. Last year, when she was pregnant, the issue came up before the whole class: "One student asked me directly: ’Teacher, are you a lesbian?’ I immediately answered in the affirmative, without hesitating. The initial response was several seconds of total silence and then they started to ask me questions all at once, about a lesbian way of life and about single-sex couples. I tried to answer their queries in detail." She says the reaction on the part of her students was "wonderful. One of the boys even shouted in the hall after class; ’Teacher, you’re the first lesbian I’ve ever met and it is so cool!’ In the wake of the revelation I developed a close and supportive relationship with several homosexual students."
The Gay Teachers support group was established about four years ago and was active for two years. Nurit notes that there were significant differences between teachers of different ages and in different phases of coming out of the closet. Only a few of them spoke about their sexual preferences during class, although most of them assumed that the teachers and students at their schools knew about their sexual preferences, even without their publicizing them. "The idea was to create a framework for discussing difficulties, on the assumption that a teacher who isn’t ’out’ misses the opportunity to help students who are agonizing over these issues and also misses out on an important aspect of teaching by personal example," Nurit says.
"Teachers and educators are supposed to promote acceptance of the different and the exceptional in society and instill values of tolerance and multiculturalism in students," adds Ashur-Efron. "Therefore, the teacher’s personality is also important. Many of the teachers I met with related that they feel that if they do not tell their students about their being gay or lesbian, they are not properly fulfilling their role as someone who is not just supposed to transmit information and knowledge, but also to give an example from their life experience, to show a way of living."
The teachers told her how they maneuver between their identities and weave "cover stories": When they spoke about their partner at school they would make it sound like they were in a heterosexual relationship; they made a point of avoiding any physical contact with their partner in the the school’s environs; and if students brought up questions on the status of the homosexual community, these teachers stressed the rights of minority groups but disassociated themselves from the topic and sometimes even refrained from expressing explicit support.
"In so doing they are reiterating the traditional separation between the private sphere and the public-political sphere, which most feminist and queer theories undermine," says Ashur-Efron. "Through their very being, as people who are different in some way and acting in a public space, they should be undermining this distinction. But teachers who choose to remain in the closet are actually helping to confine sexuality to the private sphere. In this way they are in effect once again confirming heterosexuality as the main form of sexuality, about which no questions are asked."
These attempts at concealment sometimes put the teachers in embarrassing situations: One teacher interviewed for Ashur-Efron’s study spoke of the frustration he felt during a conversation with a student who intended to leave school because of his distress as a homosexual. Despite the teacher’s desire to help the student accept himself, he did not share his personal experience with him.
The interviewees also spoke about the explanations they had come up with to deal with undesirable questions. Sometimes this evasion exacts a price: For example, a teacher who participated in the gay pride parade and noticed one of his students there preferred to leave and demonstrate his gay pride elsewhere. Itay Harlap, 32, a teacher of literature and film, also met a former student at the gay pride parade. For Harlap, who is now teaching at the Thelma Yellin School in Givatayim, this encounter was a significant event in the process of coming out within the education system.
"At the previous school I taught at I was a new teacher. I was afraid that if I came out of the closet, this would undermine my authority as a teacher," he relates. "But even then I didn’t lie. If the issue came up, I would joke about it with the students. Over time I accumulated more experience and confidence and in the end what changed my approach was a meeting with a female student at the gay pride parade, who said that she was happy to see me at such an event. After that the students suspected and hinted at my being gay but they didn’t ask. Then I, too, started to hint, especially in classes that dealt with representations of gender and sexuality in literature and cinematic works. As a result a sort of humor was built up around the subject."
This school year, Harlap has been serving as the homeroom teacher for a ninth-grade class. After a few months with his students, he told them about his sexuality. "It wasn’t planned, but after I taught the poem ’Only About Myself’ in a lesson on the Israeli poet Rachel, I felt a burning need to tell them about myself as well, to let it out, so it wouldn’t be a secret anymore. As an educator, I felt that this double game was ridiculous, especially in light of the fact that I expect my students to be honest and open with me. Therefore, my identity as a homosexual is partly their business, just like it would be relevant for them if I were married to a woman and a father."
His students’ reactions were positive and, as in Nurit’s case, he became a teacher with whom students could consult on such issues. He is aware that the school at which he teaches, a prestigious arts high school with many students from liberal families and the established classes, is different from many educational institutions. His sexual preference does not cause problems and he receives full backing from his colleagues and supervisors. In contrast, Nurit relates that in the framework of her activity at the Hoshen (acronym for Education and Change) association, which sends homosexuals to schools to talk with students about sexual identity, she frequently encounters antagonistic reactions, even at schools considered prestigious. Ashur-Efron’s study did not deal with differences in the attitudes toward homosexual teachers among schools in different areas or among different groups. However, she believes that since most homosexual teachers conceal their sexual preferences, even at schools of established populations in the center of the country, it can be assumed that the picture is much harsher in the country’s periphery. However, she praises the approach of the Education Ministry in recent years, which has been open to Hoshen representatives and recognizes the work by the Israeli Gay Youth organization.
Nevertheless, Nurit says, "there is still a huge population of teachers who don’t think they need to talk about themselves or about these topics at school, despite their educational and cultural importance; there are still homophobic prejudices and insinuations. I believe that personal revelations by teachers contribute a great deal, but I am not going to try to convince a colleague to come out of the closet if he isn’t ready for it and he isn’t at peace with it."
Harlap concurs: "It’s a very personal process that everyone goes through at his own pace, and contrary to those who believe in outing and exposure at any price, I don’t consider this to be an ideology. I don’t think that in every case teachers need to come out of the closet. There is no certainty that a teacher who comes out of the closet will necessarily ease the sufferings of his homosexual students."