by Brie Jessen-Vaughan (@DanceWellNZ), a middle school teacher from Wellington, New Zealand
It’s the start of lunch and I’m chatting with a group of students. I’m not even sure how we got to this point, but I don’t mind. I’ve been out at school now for 3 years. That’s half my teaching career. (The answer, by the way, is neither; we went for the double-barrelled version).
I got married (well, had a civil union – at the time the only option in New Zealand) the summer before I started teaching. I spent the first couple of years talking about my ‘partner’ and never really confirming or denying any leading questions. I was out to the staff at my school, but I wasn’t openly out to my students. I wasn’t sure how parents might respond, and I justified myself with the fact that it wasn’t really any of the students’ business.
But when my wife became pregnant with our son, I realised that something had to change or I’d be hiding a huge part of my life. To be honest, it’s pretty hard NOT to be out when you’re having a baby, but you are not the one who’s pregnant (also a little confusing for some students). So I told my class, and they were excited, but they didn’t even blink when I mentioned my wife. It was the biggest non-event. And you know what? It IS the biggest non-event, that I’m married to a woman. There are so many different ways to be a family, and we’re just one among many.
You could argue then, well why does it matter to be out at school if it’s a non-event? But it’s kind of like arguing why do we need male teachers when we have plenty of female ones? It’s not a question of necessity, but rather representation. Students need to see diverse role models, of all kinds, different genders, ethnicities, abilities, interests, and sexual orientations. But what they need above all, is to see the person behind a label.
For most of my students, my being out at school doesn’t matter to them personally. But for some students, it might. Maybe not right now, but maybe one day. When I became openly out at school, I showed my students that I trusted them. That I trusted them with a part of who I was and my classroom is richer because of it. Just last week we took a trip to visit parliament, and sitting outside the parliament buildings, we were talking about the different parts of parliament and the roles of the government. We were learning about how laws are passed and I mentioned the marriage equality law. I talked about being able to make a submission to the government, sharing my views on how this would affect me, and explained to my students how that law subsequently did affect me and my family. It was eye-opening for them, but also so much more real to hear a first hand story. They hadn’t realised that less than 4 years ago, I hadn’t been legally allowed to get married to the woman I loved.
Last year we had a group of students calling things and people ‘gay’ as in dumb. I could have told the students off for using it, but instead I used my own identity to help them understand the effect that it has when you give the word a negative connotation. It was a teachable moment, made all the more real because they suddenly understood what they were saying about someone they actually knew. It’s not all serious though, there have been some hilarious moments, like overhearing a discussion between some students at lunchtime about how they took DNA from me and from my wife to create our son (not yet possible guys!) or when students have realised that I am married to a woman.
When I mentioned to a colleague that I was writing this article, she pointed out that I don’t look like the typical lesbian and sometimes that challenges students. I hadn’t really thought about it, but she’s right in a lot of ways. Some students do hold a pre-conceived idea of what a lesbian looks like, and I don’t really fit into that mould. And I think that’s a really good thing; too often we hold tightly to stereotypes and try to box people in, and when you meet me, with my long hair, high heels, and love of ballet, you might not pick that I’m married to a woman, and so when you learn that, some people are challenged. But it’s good. We all need a challenge.
Mostly though my students, their parents and staff have been nothing but supportive. I’m a quiet person, but I do believe that I need to set the example. I want my students to feel safe in sharing of themselves and the things that they love, that make them excited about life, so I need to do the same, and my family is such a huge part of who I am. When I talked to my syndicate leader, Louise, about this she said the most important thing about my being out is that “you show care for your partner, and the fact that it’s a wife, not a husband doesn’t even matter. I like how it’s just who you are, not a big deal, and that’s what you share with the kids.” There are so many ways of being in this world, and the more students are exposed to them, the richer their lives will be, and the more open to new experiences they will be.