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Allies Need to Be Bold in Their Support of LGBTQ Teachers and Students

It’s important for queer teachers to be free to be their authentic selves—and for children to have them as role models.

January 11, 2023
Dwayne J. Bensing headshot

Dwayne J. Bensing

Legal Director, ACLU

Dwayne J. Bensing headshot

Dwayne J. Bensing

Legal Director, ACLU

I started my first year of teaching in 2007, working as a middle school science and social studies teacher at the School District of Philadelphia. Like all teachers, I had a lot of decisions to make before the first day of school: How would I organize the seating chart? What would my “Do Now” be? How would I memorize names? And, importantly, how would I come out?

I first came out as an openly gay man in rural Arkansas in 2002, two years before a national wave of state constitutional amendments and a push for a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between “one man and one woman.” Growing up, I never had an openly identified LGBTQ+ teacher and few other queer role models. 

I was determined to bring my full, authentic, gay self into the classroom. But, how? The advice I received at the time ranged from “Don’t” to “Wait a few months after you’ve built a strong relationship with your students and you know they can handle it.” Neither approach seemed workable to me. 

A sixth grader named Angelina had the answer for me. In the final period of the first day of school, bubbly Angelina waved her hand in the air and exclaimed, “Mr. Bensing! Mr. Bensing!” Turning more bashful, but with a full smile on her face, she prefaced her question, “I don’t mean anything by it, but...” A long pause. “Are you gay!?” she asked. “Yes,” I said.

The sixth-grade classroom erupted. All control was lost. 

“Ooohhhh, I knew he was gay, I knew it!” one student said. “Wait, what? Ask him again!” another said.

“Yes, I am,” I replied. “Can we move on now?” A few heads nodded. The final 20 minutes of the school day could not pass more quickly, but other than a few snickers here and there, and redirection to continue coloring in their name tags, the rest of that class was otherwise uneventful. 

That was only the first of many uncomfortable exchanges. The school year proceeded with several challenging conversations with parents wondering why it was appropriate for their child to know their science teacher’s sexual orientation. (Un?)Fortunately, growing up in Arkansas had prepared me for conversations attacking my identity. I explained that these students knew the same amount of personal information about me—that I lived with both my partner of several years and my grandmother as well as our obese Weimaraner—as they knew about their math teacher’s basketball-playing daughters and their English teacher’s young son who often visited her classroom at the end of the school day. I would also say: “Families come in all shapes and sizes, and some of my students, or their families, may identify as LGBTQ+. All our students deserve representation in schools. We’re teaching all students how to live in a diverse world.”

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Each conversation ended the same way: mutual respect and a handshake of understanding. In none of those interactions, however, did my principal step in to defend me. 

To be clear, the Philadelphia school district had extremely inclusive and protective policies for LGBTQ+ students as well as teachers. In practice, though, those policies were worth little more than the paper they were written on. I often felt all alone—the proverbial “only gay in the village.” But not always.

On one memorable day after staying late grading papers, I was exhausted as I left the school and heard someone scream at me from the playground across the street: “Bye, Mr. F*gg*t!” Ouch. The source was indecipherable. The cut deep. The next morning, I told my co-teachers what had happened. The math teacher, Mrs. Somerville, was astonished. After we brought the students to our classrooms, she came into my room and told the class, “Whoever said that to Mr. Bensing, you should be ashamed of yourself. That is hateful.” 

“It has been 15 years since my first day in the classroom. I’m sad to say that many LGBTQ+ students and teachers face the same trepidation I faced then.”

Dwayne J. Bensing

Legal Director, ACLU of Delaware

Greater Philadelphia '07

It meant the world to me.  

There were good days, too. I fondly remember Omar, a student, coming up to eat his lunch in my classroom. Years later, Omar came out to me and thanked me for being a role model to him. But at the time, my classroom was just a safe space for him to eat his lunch and be himself. 

It has been 15 years since my first day in the classroom. I’m sad to say that many LGBTQ+ students and teachers face the same trepidation I faced then. We have states passing “Don’t say gay” bills, denying sports opportunities to transgender students, and pushing conspiracy theories about “sex-trafficking groomers” in our schools. I often think back to what would have happened to me in those states when Angelina asked me who I authentically am and Omar found refuge in my classroom during lunch. I take heart, though, thinking of Mrs. Somerville and others who boldly supported me and spoke up when I couldn’t. I know these brave educators are still in our schools supporting our LGBTQ+ students and faculty because they know it’s best for our students to learn how to be decent, accepting, respectful citizens who honor the individuality and diversity of our community. 

When I think back on my first year of teaching, I know I didn’t close the achievement gap. I barely knew enough science to pass the Praxis exam, I had never spent any considerable time with a 12-year-old to understand child development, and all I knew about teaching was what I learned at Teach For America’s corps member training. What I did know, however, was myself. And I brought my full, authentic self into the classroom. I believe my students benefited. I take pride in that. 

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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.

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