Musings of a Southern Belle

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 03 2015

Seven Truths About Being a Minority (hint: you don’t choose it)

This post has been a long time coming. It all starts with one really simple question.

Why would I choose to be a minority?

From the outside I seem like the stereotypical perfect American girl. I am good looking, I have good hair, I dress well, I take care of myself, I am intellectual, I am middle class, and I am white. I am part of the majority, just from looking at me. Knowing that I am not discriminated against or biased in any way except for being a woman, it goes without saying that my life is pretty smooth sailing. Those qualifiers beget the following questions:

Why would I choose to be a part of a minority when doing so will cause people to dislike me, judge me, mock me, discriminate against me, and deny me equal rights? Why would anyone choose to make their life harder than it has to be? To bear a burden that is not understandable in a place that is hostile? Why would anyone choose to be something that could cause them to lose their job, their house and not be able to get married? Why would anyone choose to be gay in the south? Why would anyone choose to be gay in oppressive countries in Africa? Why would anyone choose to be gay knowing they could be killed for being so in some countries?

The answer is simple: it’s not a choice. I can’t help being a lesbian more than I can help being blue-eyed.

It’s who we are and we can’t change it just as much as you can’t stop being straight.

Have you ever stopped to ask a gay person if they chose to be gay before you say, “People aren’t born that way”? Have you ever thought about your own sexuality and realized that you didn’t choose to be straight; you just always were? *As an aside, I will use gay throughout, referring to the LGBTQ community as a whole, while identifying personally as a lesbian*

Some people think that being gay is a choice because that’s what religious leaders tell them or because they knew a gay person while they were still in the closet. Why do gay people hide?  Heteronormativity gives you the right to judge, condemn and hate us for being who we truly are. Of course we don’t want to come out: of course it is safer, even easier in some regards, to stay in the closet, especially in a small, rural American town. But what does it do to a gay person when we’re having to hide part of our identity? It keeps us from being who we truly are. It keeps us from voicing how we really feel. It keeps us living in two worlds. The one we will want others to see and the one we know is real. It keeps us on guard at all times. It keeps us from truly expressing our emotions. We are a shaken two liter of love just waiting to explode.

And what do our families (at least in the Bible Belt South) do? Make us feel terrible. Ask yourself, how do you think it makes us feel to know we’re an embarrassment to the family over something we cannot control? How do you think it makes us feel knowing we are believed to be going to rot in hell over something that is biologically programmed in us that we cannot stop? How do you think it makes us feel to be told God, the perfect creator, somehow created us wrong? How do you think it makes us feel knowing the unconditional love of family suddenly has conditions, including never being able to bring our significant other home or acknowledge their presence in front of our family? How do you think it makes us feel to have to justify the way we express ourselves sexually, who turns us on or how, when we have never asked that of our friends or family members (nor do we want to discuss your sex lives!!)? How do you think it makes us feel to be labeled as “other” “messed up” “confused” or “gross?”

It makes us feel shameful, disgusted with our very being, angry at who or whatever programmed us this way, sad that people are so intolerant, depressed that we can’t live our lives fully, shocked that people can be so mean and devastated to know that “unconditional” love is has its limits.

The problem with being gay is magnified as a teacher. As an authority figure and respected member of the community, you want to act your best and be treated as such, but as a gay person, you are always having to hide parts of yourself, deflecting advances of colleagues and offers from older ladies to hook you up with the son or their neighbor. You have to deal with bigoted adults in your school who make it an unsafe space for gay youth, making comments such as, “If I saw two dudes kissing like that, I would lose my job because I’d beat the hell out of both of them.” You have to deal with students who think it’s okay to call people gay, to make fun of effeminate qualities in men and masculine qualities in women. As a teacher, you have to deal with students who’ve been raised on in the bigoted idea that gay people just choose to be this way while somehow they themselves don’t have to choose to be straight.

The ignorance, the prejudice, the lack of understanding, the fear of the unknown, all of these fuel the daily discrimination. What can be done? You can hear my voice as I speak these seven truths to you.

Truth number one: Have you asked a gay person if they chose to be gay? Do it: here is my answer. Hell no. I spent 24 years try not to be a lesbian, to repress my true feelings, to convince myself that it was normal to be never sexually satisfied and that it was alright to only pretend to be in love. My whole life I heard about how immoral, wrong and sinful it was to be gay. I heard that all gay people went to hell. I heard they were all terrible people.

That leads me to truth number two. You, people of my community, have known me over the last three years. I have proven myself to be a good person. I teach your children. I love them. I give them extra love and support when they need it. I buy them things out of my own pocket. I go out of my way to ensure that they receive extra opportunities that attempt to balance out the disadvantaged position they are in just from being Appalachian. I push them to be better, more tolerant people. I help them, guide them, lead them, support them, love them, laugh with them, and cry with them. I do the same things with you too. I volunteer. I do civic work. I go to a church and volunteer in it. I sing in a choir. I collect food for needy children. I have, over and over, shown myself to be a passionate, dedicated, driven, loving, compassionate, and overall, normal.

Truth number three: I laugh, cry, get angry, get sad, get hungry, get turned on, get distracted, and experience every other emotion that you feel. I love, just like you love. I express my love differently, but I don’t ask you about your sex life in the same way I don’t want you asking about mine.  My preference in companion, friend and lover should not be and is not any of your business. I don’t try to regulate your actions or prohibit you from doing things. I don’t care about your public displays of affection and and don’t believe you should care about mine. Ultimately, I am just a person, and you are making my life harder for no reason. Just because you don’t agree with Democrats doesn’t mean you make fun of them every time you see them, pass laws against them or try to prevent them from doing everyday things that you can easily take for granted. My sexuality has nothing to do with your life or your religion.

An uncomfortable truth number four: You do bad things too, as Atticus Finch said: “There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie who is never done animal thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a person without desire.” You sin just as I do, so what makes mine so bad? It’s in the Bible you say? Look at the 10 Commandments and count how many times you’ve broken them just this week. I don’t judge you on how many women you slept with before marriage, even though the Bible tells you not to do that. I don’t judge you for being divorced although the Bible clearly says that too is wrong. I have studied Christian theology, at the University of Oxford, no less. I know what the Bible says. I know Christians aren’t supposed to eat shellfish. I know they aren’t supposed to mix linen and wool, but polyblends are worn every day by Christians who seem totally fine with overlooking Leviticus 19:19. I know there are many other sins and I could go on and on pointing out all of the ones that you casually overlook on day-to-day basis, while throwing in my face one aspect of who I am that I had no control over since birth. My point is this: I am simply a person, like you in all regards except for one that is simply none of your business, and just as I don’t judge you, I shouldn’t be judged either. As the Bible says in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.”

Truth number five: Look past the stereotypes you have in your head, look past the storybook notions that religion tells you, look past the ignorance and fear of not understanding me and see: a blonde-haired girl, slightly overweight, pale with a broad smile, twinkling blue eyes, a slightly crooked nose, long fingernails, freckles and straight white teeth. I look like the majority, and I tried to act like the majority, but it just isn’t fair for you to take away my freedom to be who I am just because it makes you uncomfortable or because you disagree with what you think is my choice. Being gay is not a choice in the same way that being left-handed was not a choice; one day I just picked something up with my left hand and kept going, learning and finally becoming graceful in the only way of doing things I knew how: the left-handed way. I will forever be grateful for an opportunity to hear Barbara Kingsolver utter that simile about being left-handed and shaking me to my very core with a truth I have always known: It’s just who I am. It’s what I’ve known to be true for as long as I can remember and it is one tiny part that makes me who I am, but it is a valid part nonetheless, and not a part I should be ashamed of or feel as though I have to hide just because it makes you uncomfortable, you don’t understand it, or you think it’s wrong.

Truth number six: In the words of Macklemore, Ryan Lewis and Mary Lambert, “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to.” If you are questioning how you can continue to have a relationship with me after learning this new, small facet of my identity, read this article. As the article says, “Parents and families can support their LGBT child — even if they believe that being LGBT is wrong — by simple actions that don’t require them to accept a “behavior” or “identity” they don’t condone. This includes talking with their child respectfully to begin to understand their child’s experiences; requiring that other family members respect their child even if they disagree; and advocating for their child when others mistreat them. These behaviors also reflect key religious values of respect, mercy and compassion.” If you are calling yourself religious, practice what you preach. 

Truth number seven: I tried to put this one in my own words, but I will instead let you read the words of this article, which sums it up so powerfully and succinctly. “There is no scientific evidence that a child’s sexual identity is mutable or affected by the sexual orientation of others. If it were, none of us would be gay because the world around us is overwhelmingly straight. Great teachers can influence their students’ love of learning, their self-esteem and perhaps even their political beliefs; they cannot, however, affect their students’ sexual identity. We can no longer let this spurious argument drive our nation’s educational policy.”

I am just me, love or hate me, take or leave me. I want to be my complete self because as a teacher I know that my students deserve my best, and my best is can only come out when I can truly be myself. I also know that I am a role model to them and in staying silent in the majority, I am complicit to the anti-gay culture that is being perpetuated. Harper Lee taught us all that there are very few people like Atticus Finch in this world. Most people will sit idly by, waiting on someone else to do the hard, uncomfortable work that needs to be done. I will be the Atticus Finch to my community today because, like him, I could not hold my head up in my town or tell my students what to do if I did not stand up for what is right and try to show people the prejudice that they hold, and how it is negatively impacting others for no good reason.  In the words of Atticus himself, “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions, but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that does not abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” My conscience is clear – I know that I was born gay, I know that I am a good person, and I know that until someone speaks up about the prejudicial beliefs that people hold about gays in the name of “religion” nothing is ever going to get better, and the world is not going to become a more fair place.

To those members of my community, back home or my current community, I hope you will realize that I have nothing but love for you. I feel fully alive, fully myself, and fully loved for the first time in my life, and I hope I can share my fullness with you. If you want to choose to be full of hate after reading this post, I am ok with not having you in my life, but I hope you come to a place where you can make peace with yourself to love others unconditionally, especially if you call yourself religious.

I think this picture sums it up pretty well: What You Are Missing

Hating on gay people reminds me of Boo Radley and Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird – As a vulnerable population in society, discriminated against and targets of bigotry and hatred, shooting us with words, hateful rhetoric or with literal violence, should not be condoned. “Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Instead of sitting idly by while others make prejudicial, bigoted comments, I urge you to realize that the cycle of prejudice stops when you follow Atticus’ advice. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” I hope this post gives you some insight into what it’s like to be in my shoes and teaches you a little bit more empathy than you had before you read it.

For the last three years, I have had my students read To Kill a Mockingbird then write an essay about a time in their lives they showed courage. In essay after essay, I saw definitions such as, “Courage is standing up for what you know is right, even when others won’t stand with you because they are afraid” and “Courage is difficult to show when people do not think the same way you do, but you have to be brave and do what you know in your heart is right.” So to all of my students, this is my courage narrative. I hope you will be my Scout, my Jem, my Miss Maudie, my Judge Taylor, my Sheriff Tate, and stand on the side of justice, equality and love as I play Atticus Finch and peel the veil back from the eyes of our society, because in my heart, I know it is not right for our society to discriminate against people for something they had no choice in. 

To my students now and in the future, I want you to be true to your whole identity: gender, race, culture, class and sexual identity, as well as the many personality traits that make you up. The only way I can get you to be more tolerant, open-minded and accepting is by making “gay” less other, and more real to you. So here I am, in the flesh, being the exact same as I was before you knew that I am actually a lesbian, continuing to support, nurture, cherish and love each one of you and trying to create transformational change in your lives. I want you to ask tough questions: I want you to question why you believe what you believe and think through how you can come up with your own answers rather than passively accepting the status quo. I want you to realize how the life lessons I have taught you about overcoming prejudice through many voices uniting behind a common cause is truly the only way to create a more just society, not just for gay people, but for everyone. I want you, my students, to know that although I did not choose to be a minority, I will always embrace it because it’s what makes me who I am. I hope you will be able to be brave, honest and open about who you are, accepting and loving yourselves the way I love you. I love you for who you are, flaws, quirks and all, and I hope you see, especially if you are rooting their beliefs in religion, that the most important thing we have in this world is love. Love is love.

Thank you to Teach For America, and especially Tim’m West and the LGBTQ Initiative, for starting the conversation on #braveeducation. Thank you to everyone in the LEE LGBTQ Political Leadership Cohort for inspiring me to think about the importance of starting this dialogue. Thank you to Josh, Christina, Taraneh and Cyndi, for picking me up and pushing me forward. Thank you to Lauren and John for being there from day one. Thank you to Jake for teaching me what real love looks like and for letting me go so I could truly be happy. Thank you to all the other people who have supported me on this journey and who have accepted me with open arms. Finally, thank you to Harper Lee for writing such a powerful novel that has taught myself and generations of students how to recognize and fight back against the prejudices that society holds.

I hope this post brings even more open arms. It fills me with so much joy to write it and know that finally, I am free. I am a lesbian, I was born this way, and I love who I am.

I will leave you with the song that first made me want to come out.

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