I am a lesbian. That is certainly not a secret. When I arrived at GCC in 2002 I was president of the Gay and Lesbian employee organization for the district (now Equality Maricopa), and I immediately became co-advisor of the LGBT student group on campus. I was out to my fellow employees, but in class, I tended not to talk about my personal life. Every once in a while, during the before class milling around, a student would ask me something like “How does your husband feel about being married to a psychology professor?” I would respond with “I don’t have a husband, I have a wife, and she was a psychology major in college so I think she is OK with it.” Usually the student would apologize for asking, for reasons I don’t quite understand, and then we would move awkwardly forward with the class.
Then, a few years into my time at GCC, the psychology department lost a long time adjunct instructor who had been teaching our LGBT studies class. We searched for a replacement, but we were only able to find someone for one semester. Ultimately, I decided to teach the class. It was as a result of teaching that class that I learned how important being out of the closet could be to my students.
Many of the students who enroll in the LGBT studies class are looking for something. About half of them are straight allies looking to learn more about LGBT people. The other half are students who are themselves members of the LGBT community, and they want to know more about the environment at GCC for them, the laws that pertain to them, the social environment in Phoenix, and many other things. I learned a lot about the importance of someone like me being out from these students. All of the students told me they had not had an LGBT instructor, and I knew that was probably not true, they just did not know that they had.
A couple of semesters ago, I was teaching an Introduction to Psychology class where a student asked me a question about my husband and I answered in the typical way, that I don’t have a husband, I have a wife, and then I shared the answer with them regarding my wife. During my office hour, one of the students in the class, who was presenting as male, came to my office and told me that he was transgender, but he was afraid to be out on campus or with his family. I listened, I told him what I knew about transitioning, but I mostly listened. I gave him contact information for a transgender activist I knew personally. I continued to check in with this student during the semester. As the semester ended, I was worried about him because I knew he was living his life in a way that was not consistent with who he was inside. I knew he was living in fear of his family finding out. I knew his being closeted was eating him up inside.
This past week, I ran into that transgender activist friend of mine. She told me that she had recently been in contact with one of my former students, and she told me the name. I was so happy to hear that now that student was presenting as female, the woman she really is, and was doing well. I would not have had the opportunity to get to know my student if I had not been out in my class.
We all have closets that we can come out of with our students when appropriate. Maybe we ourselves attended community college, or maybe we were first generation college students who had to learn to navigate academia and we made it through. Maybe we went to an elite university and we can dispel myths about what they are like. Maybe we worked two jobs putting ourselves through college and we can relate to their experience. Maybe we can just listen to them sometimes, and try to connect them with resources. Sometimes for students, just seeing that someone like them can be a college professor, or administrator, or professional, can help them see themselves achieving their goals.
I want to encourage my colleagues to consider coming out of their closets.