“Gay teachers have to ‘split, knit, or quit”

As students across the nation get ready to go back to school so do thousands of gay teachers. I was a high school teacher for 10 years and I have many former students that identify as LGBTQ and are educators.  I think twenty years after I started my first teaching job in 1996, things have changed quite a bit in and at the front of the classroom.

How is it being a gay teacher in 2015? Is it full of freedom and rainbows? Privacy and seclusion? Or is it a profession LGBTQ people realize is not too welcoming?

Richard Barlow recent reviewed School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom (UC Press, 2014) a book by Catherine Connell, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University.  In his article "Gay teachers have to ‘split, knit, or quit," he shares how being an LGBTQ teacher is not the same across the nation.

[After] teacher interviews and observations in California and Texas, the former bans discrimination against gays statewide, the latter does not, she finds that teachers sometimes can’t manage this conflict and quit the profession altogether.

For example, June, a lesbian high school teacher in Los Angeles, proudly marched in an LGBTQ pride parade, exulting in the young people who attended and telling Connell that she was “proud to be a gay teacher.”

Yet just a few days later, at her school, a noticeably subdued June greeted Connell. A classroom discussion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had prompted one of June’s students to exclaim, “Huck Finn was a f—ing fa–ot!”

“The one-size-fits-all model of gay pride that demands disclosure is harmful in its own way”

June was torn: as a teacher whose students knew her sexual orientation, she felt bad that she hadn’t confronted the student. Yet she didn’t want to be known as a “gay teacher”—her march day remarks notwithstanding—but rather as a teacher who happens to be gay. – futurity.org



Is there a distinction between the two statements – the gay teacher and a teacher who happens to be gay?  I would have to say yes.

Richard Barlow, a fellow BU employee, was able to discuss with Connell her findings.

Can you discuss the various strategies teachers use for navigating the conflict between sexual identity and professionalism, and the shortcomings you see in each?

Strategies fall into three basic categories that I call splitting, knitting, and quitting.

Splitters attempt to keep a strict division between their identities as teachers and as gays/lesbians. Imagine dropping off your sexual identity (and along with it, much of your personal biography) at the schoolhouse doors and trying to pick it back up at the end of the day.

Knitters try to weave together their professional and sexual identities into a cohesive whole by bringing their sexual identities and politics into the classroom in different ways.

Quitters find the process of splitting too arduous and the process of knitting too risky, so they leave classroom instruction by either moving into administration or out of the profession entirely.

Each has significant drawbacks. Splitters feel stressed, exhausted, and often guilty from the work of keeping their professional and personal worlds separate. Knitters put themselves at very significant risk for discrimination, harassment, and job termination. Quitters have to give up their jobs, and often their professional goals, to avoid the conflict. – futurity.org

I am not sure I agree with these being the only three categories an LGBTQ teacher could be.  I would like to think there was a fourth category between Splitters and Knitters and that's where I felt I resided as an educator.  Or maybe even two levels of Knitters, Knitters I and Knitters II.   Knitters I where one brings in their own personal lives as an adult.  Knitters II where the weaving involves more political and social issues.  Students know when you are bringing in your own personal beliefs and there is nothing wrong with that in most cases.  Believe me, I've heard many stories where fellow teachers interjected too much of their personal lives into the classroom.  But with Connell's description of Knitters or what I would call Knitters II, it almost seems that this type of teacher is being sneaky and inserting one's beliefs into the classroom without being open and honest.  I feel that is what most people that are anti-LGBTQ teachers are afraid of, where we as gay educators are subliminally altering our students.  I personally feel there has to be a balance for all teachers as to what they bring into the classroom, LGBTQ or not.

Barlow continued his discussion with Connell asking the question, "How many LGBTQ teachers quit the job?"  There is no palpable answer, but he does state, "For teachers, who are held to very conservative expectations of on-the-job comportment, I would imagine these negative outcomes are amplified."  At my last school I taught at, I remember 4 teachers that were pushed out of their positions because of their sexuality or support of the LGBTQ community. We lost some great educators, but the good ol' boys club (the administration) saw things differently and made the changes they felt needed to happen.  Unfortunately, after seeing 4 others forced out, you lose some of the will to fight the negativity.

Barlow asks more questions of Connell.  For the answers to these two questions below, go to his article, Gay teachers have to ‘split, knit, or quit.

Could you summarize your argument that the campaign for LGBTQ rights winds up reinforcing discrimination?

What do you mean when you suggest in your book that we take “more seriously the idea of children’s own sexual agency” and that “children have a right to the world of sexuality?”

Looking back on my own K-12 education, I am trying to remember if I had a gay teacher or not.  I think there was a lesbian or two during those 12 years, but as for a gay male teacher, I am blanking.

Did you have a LGBTQ teacher?

Were they Splitters or Knitters?

What do you think teachers should be?

I think being a Splitter or a Knitter is a personal choice, a personal battle, and one that may depend on where you are employed.

Of course the real answer is LGBTQ teachers should be themselves.


2 thoughts on ““Gay teachers have to ‘split, knit, or quit””

  1. I am a gay male teacher and

    I am a gay male teacher and recently married my partner of 16 years. I chose to take his name and in doing so, my name at school changed. I work in an elementary school and when students ask I simply tell them, "I got married and changed my name." Without a blink of an eye they reply, "Oh" and skip on their merry little way. If the state in which they work in affords a teacher to "be themselves" then go for it. If it does not, then fight for it. 


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