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Sexual Orientation

5 Questions From a Rural LGBTQ Teacher

2. How do I react when I get called a slur?

Key points

  • LGBTQ teachers face unique challenges in rural communities.
  • Connecting to local and national organizations can be an important source of support.
  • Straight allies and administrators can take visible and consistent steps to support LGBTQ teachers.

I received an email this week from a teacher from a rural community where I had given some workshops. They reached out after experiencing some new challenges after slowly coming out to members of their community. I am sharing an edited version of their email and some responses to share ideas and support with other educators who might be experiencing similar challenges due to the rise in anti-LGBTQ policies and laws around the country. I edited the actual letter to protect the author's identity.

The Letter

Hi Liz,

Thank you so much for all your support, resources, wisdom, and time! I am feeling more confident navigating cultural relativism, providing opportunity and space for students to explore identity and culture, and tolerating my awkward feelings and opinions stuck in the middle of multiple dialectics. That said, I’ve got a lot of reading and thinking to do. This is the first time I’ve been out as an educator, and I’m starting to feel the snags. On top of my conservative family, I’m starting to notice "soft canceling" from people around me, including students, parents, and staff. I thought I was prepared emotionally and professionally, but I’m not so sure. So, I have a few questions:

  1. How can I make myself feel 100 percent when people I must work with/for see me as "less," "evil," "dirty," or "contagious"? Even less than human? How can I train my brain to get back on task when worrying about reprisals, judgments, or threats?
  2. How do I react when I get called a slur, someone asks stupid questions, or I get tagged either in public or at work?
  3. What can I tell allies to do to support me?
  4. What will happen when/if a parent asks that I not work with their child?
  5. Sometimes I have intrusive thoughts of being shot and can’t help but ask myself questions like what I would say to get that person out of the building, "Let's settle this outside"? Or I ask myself where I would run.

I know these questions probably don’t have answers, and I hate to bother you again, but I don’t have any teachers I feel I can ask or who would understand.


Rural Teacher

My Response

Dear Rural Teacher,

Thanks for your vulnerability and openness. I can start with some guidance and info to help you navigate this process and additional resources to explore. I am also wondering if it's okay with you if I use this question to write a post for other similarly situated teachers and share it (without any info about the source–protecting your identity) on my site. Here are some initial thoughts:

  1. Developing pride in your identity is a long, tough road. I suggest finding sources of support that validate and see you as a whole person. This can be local, regional, and virtual social networks. A few places to start include: PFLAG, GLSEN, and your teachers’ union can be helpful. You could find an affirming therapist to support you or read some great queer literature or non-fiction like Kevin Jennings' One Teacher in Ten or Unmasking Identities.
  2. How to react to anti-gay slurs? It depends on the person, time, context, and energy you have. Sometimes ignoring it is all we have the energy to do. You can also just say how the comment made you feel, “Wow, that wasn’t kind. Did you mean to hurt me with that comment?” or talk about it generally, “Ouch. That word/phrase is insulting. I hope you understand that comments like that build up over time and cause real harm to people in the LGBTQ community and their allies.” Or make a joke: “Yikes, your homophobia is showing.” Over time you will find responses that feel most appropriate for you and more confident in responding. If it’s in your classroom, you could point to a bulletin board or poster that reflects your commitment to inclusive affirming language. Here is a lesson idea to create with your class. Welcoming Schools offers other suggestions.
  3. Allies can be encouraged to stand up and intervene during insults and microaggressions. You can even practice different responses together and support each other in those settings. Allies can post Pride flags and rainbow stickers on their cars and write letters to the editor to support the LGBTQ community in your region. Allies can take the lead on asking for and implementing community projects and events (Pride celebrations, Drag Queen Story Hour, LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, inclusive anti-bullying campaigns, updating sex education information, etc.) to relieve the burden from LGBTQ-identified folks. Some other examples are named by youth in this blog on the GSA Network.
  4. This question is more of one for your administration. I hope they would explain to the parent that you are a qualified teacher with the school's trust and support and that your identity is an asset that helps you better understand and advocate for all students. That they feel fortunate to have you as a teacher in your community. If a parent has legitimate concerns about their child’s academic progress or safety in your class, then they should have experience handling those complaints that have nothing to do with whether you are out as LGBTQ or not. This clear and consistent support from school leaders is essential for LGBTQ teachers to be successful.
  5. My brain also often works through worst-case scenarios. I don’t know how normal this is generally, but the fear of being shot in schools in our country right now is very real and hard to live with. This is another topic you could discuss with a therapist and ask for professional development to ensure you understand school protocols, supports, resources, and what to do if you feel threatened or are faced with a student who may be armed. How to keep yourself and your students safe? “Run, fight, hide” is the basic guidance in an active shooter scenario, but the space before that is more unclear. Some helpful principles to consider are offered here.

I hope these resources and ideas are helpful. I am thinking of you and sending appreciation and support!

Be well,

Liz Meyer

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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