The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 15
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
Listen to the Audio Version of this Podcast
This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to episode 15 of the Cult of Pedagogy podcast. In this episode you’ll hear what happened when Jessica Lifshitz, a 5th grade teacher, decided to finally share her true self—including her sexual orientation—at school.
There are very few issues more important to me than the rights of the LGBT community. Since I was probably in my early twenties, for reasons I really can’t explain, I have had a really soft spot in my heart for this community and for the struggles that they have gone through to basically just be recognized as full human beings deserving of any right that anybody else has. And despite gains in civil rights in the military, and the right to marry in somewhere around 35 to 37 states depending on how you look at certain legal statuses right now, I always pretty much assumed that the U.S. public school would be among the very last institutions where people would not have to hide their sexual orientation.
So a few months ago, I was really surprised to read a blog post written by somebody named Jessica Lifshitz, who is a 5th grade teacher. Her blog is called Crawling Out of the Classroom, and in this blog post, she basically talked about coming out at school. Her girlfriend at the time proposed to her and they were engaged to be married, and she had to make the decision to tell her coworkers and her principal. And reading this I thought, Oh my goodness, I can’t believe that there is actually a teacher in the United States who is an out gay woman and she’s still teaching. I was just really surprised that she had not been somehow driven out by irate parents or by coworkers who, I don’t know, somehow marginalized her. It was just such a surprise.
And so since that time I have followed her on social media and I’ve read her blog, and I asked her recently if she would come on the podcast and tell her story. Because I know, based on my own experiences, that there have got to be tens of thousands—at least—of closeted teachers out there, people who hide this big piece of who they are from their coworkers, their students, probably even their entire community, for fear of losing their jobs. They want to be able to keep doing the work they love, even if it means spending their whole careers avoiding questions and making excuses and basically pretending to be someone they’re not. In a lot of their situations, this is probably a smart decision, because they probably would lose their jobs, or they would be made to feel so miserable that they would quit. And even though hearing this podcast may give courage to some who feel they’re ready, a lot of people will still need to proceed with caution. Not everyone has an administrator and coworkers like Jessica did. Or like Jessica does.
And so although this podcast is meant to be a message of hope for all those closeted teachers out there, the people I really hope to reach today are the administrators. I just want you to know that in all likelihood you have at least one gay employee working for you right now who is terrified about what might happen if the wrong person found out about who they really are. And just as in Jessica’s story, one essential ingredient in helping that person know that they’re safe is a strong, supportive administrator. It’s my hope that hearing Jessica’s story will give at least one administrator out there the courage to stand by this teacher, to let them know that you will support them, and that they will get to continue doing the work they love as their whole, authentic self.
Here’s my interview with Jessica Lifshitz.
Jennifer Gonzalez: Let’s just go ahead and start by telling me about where you teach, what grades you teach and what subject area you’re in.
Jessica Lifshitz: Okay, sure. So, I teach in Northbrook, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago and I have taught in Northbrook for — this is my tenth year. I have taught fifth grade for all of those ten years. Before that I taught two years of first grade outside of St. Louis. So most of my career I’ve been in fifth grade and for the past two years I’ve taught just reading and writing to two different groups of fifth graders.
Gonzalez: Okay, okay and on your blog you do talk quite a bit about — And you teach literacy?
Gonzalez: You do talk a lot about, just your practice and some of the things you’re doing with your kids and that sort of thing. However you also have another thing that you — Which is funny because sometimes your posts are completely devoid of LGBT issues and then other times it’s all that, so.
Gonzalez: So if someone’s going to your site looking for just the LGBT stuff they may come across weeks and weeks of none of that. Then all of a sudden there it is again. So–
Lifshitz: Of learning how to write a persuasive piece of writing, which probably isn’t helpful to them at all.
Gonzalez: But okay, so I would like to sort of scroll you back to your early years of teaching and start by just talking about the years before you came out. What was it like to teach closeted? And if you can just talk a little bit about the impact on any decisions you made, your relationships with your students, your colleagues. Just set that stage first before we get into when things changed for you.
Lifshitz: Sure, so for actually the majority of my teaching career, I was teaching without being out and actually when I started teaching I wasn’t out at all in any aspect of my life. So I sort of went through the coming out process while I was teaching. It wasn’t, for me, something that happened when I was younger. So when I was going through the coming out process just in my life, but in my classroom I was still very much closeted. It was a really tough experience because I was going through this huge thing and I couldn’t tell any of my colleagues or tell any of my administrators and it just — It took a toll, I think, on me as a teacher. But once that was all figured out, you know once I was out in my private life, I was still closeted in the classroom. And it came up all the time in my own mind.
You know things as simple as, I think so many elementary school teachers that teach writing start the year with Okay, let’s brainstorm a list of people who are important in our lives and you know I would make this list but I would have to leave out, well my now wife, but who was my girlfriend at the time and then fiancée. I, I — She wasn’t on the list. Or I would put her on the list, but like then say, “Oh this is a friend of mine.” And it felt like lying to my kids. And it would come out in, you know, in just random questions that my kids ask about “What did you do this weekend?” Or I remember once my mom came to visit my classroom because my mom does things like that. And the kids, because they’re funny and they don’t know stuff, they said to me, “Oh do you still live with your mom?” And I said “No.” Then another kid asked, “Oh, well where do you live?” I said “Oh, I have an apartment in the city.” And then they said “Oh, do you live by yourself?” And at the time, I was living with my girlfriend, but I said “No, I live alone.” And it was lying. It was an outright lie and it was like — It like catches your heart every time it happens. I think for me the biggest piece of it all was that I just felt like a huge hypocrite because above everything else that I teach my kids, what I want them to walk away with from my classroom is to be proud of who they are and to know that who they are is worthy and wonderful, without any changes. And then I wasn’t living that in the classroom.
You know I had these terrible fears of one day, you know one of my students, being years out of my classroom and finding out that I was gay and feeling like I lied to them about it. Then thinking what if one of my students is gay and then sees that I was hiding this and what does that do to that student. So I think that though who I am as a teacher is so open and honest, there were these walls put up that I was afraid to take down and it felt really unfair because it just didn’t feel like who I was as a teacher and I do think it sort of put up walls between me and my students and you know to a lesser extent my co-workers. But that, you know that didn’t feel as awful to me as it did knowing there were these walls between my students and myself.
Gonzalez: Did, did– During those years and this sounds like we’re talking about seven, eight years of teaching (..) about that.
Gonzalez: Was there ever a time when a student or a — Well, let’s stick with the students for right now. Was there ever a time where a student kept pushing the questions to a point where you thought ‘Wow, they’re getting warmer.’
Lifshitz: Luckily, no.
Lifshitz: You know again, they’re ten and eleven and they sort of don’t get stuff, so you know — And I got really crafty too with how I answered things. And you know (…)
Gonzalez: Like how?
Lifshitz: I think the way it would come up most often is when they would ask questions about what I — You know the life outside of the classroom, the fact that I had a life outside of the classroom was kind of mind boggling to them. But just in like — Like if I told them I went somewhere, there were a lot of questions about “Oh, well who were you there with?” And I would just say “Oh, friends.” You know and that was sort of enough for them. They sort of got over that.
So it wasn’t the questions, necessarily, but I do remember the hardest time was when I had a boy in my room and one day I just saw him sobbing at his desk. His shoulders were just, you know, going up and down and I went over and I couldn’t get from him what was going on. And some girls came up to me later and told me that two other students in the room were calling him gay and were, you know teasing him fairly relentlessly. And I don’t remember exactly what words were used, but it was you know your run of the mill, unfortunately, bullying and — I remember — and I wasn’t out at the time — and I remember when I was, not talking to him, the one who was being teased, but when I was talking to the students who were doing the teasing, in my mind, I so badly wanted to say “I am gay and that, that not just hurt your classmate, but that hurts me.” And I knew it would’ve been so powerful. I knew that those two kids would never use the word gay as an insult again and I couldn’t do it. And it killed me because I felt like I was letting this kid down, first of all, which was awful. But also then the other two students who were doing the teasing, I felt like I missed this really powerful learning opportunity because I was too scared to tell them that I was gay because I hadn’t been out yet and —
I think that was kind of a turning point for me, when I realized, okay something at some point is going to have to change because I can’t let these opportunities go by. There’s no other thing that I would have let go like that when it involves something so important. So it wasn’t necessarily the questions but moments like that when I knew being who I was openly would have been such a powerful learning experience for the kids.
Gonzalez: So at what point — And I kind of know this story a little bit, just from reading your blog, but I will act as though I don’t so that you can tell this story. But– Plus I don’t know a whole lot of the details of this because — So talk about what made you finally make the decision that you were going to have to come out at school.
Lifshitz: So I think, you know it all gets a little fuzzy, but I think, well yeah — I– My, now wife, proposed to me during the summer and this huge, happy thing. Then, it got to be August and it started to like cause anxiety because now I had an engagement ring, which you know, I don’t know if the kids would notice, but I knew the parents would’ve. And I knew in that moment that either I was going to have to make the choice to lie and not wear my engagement ring to school or I was just going to have to be honest. And I felt like I saw my life going on and I saw big things happening and I thought, you know every time something big happens, I’m going to have to hide it. I’m going to lie about it. At that point, I was like– You know I sort of got to the point where it felt too much like lying and that’s not who I am.
I remember going to talk to my principal,and she’s not my principal anymore, but I adore her. And I remember going to talk to her and like hiding my hands for the first part of the conversation because I didn’t want her to see the engagement ring until I had told her what had happened. Because she didn’t know at that point — I’m trying to think. She may have known. No I don’t think she did. I don’t think anyone at school knew. I think a few teachers knew, but my administrators didn’t. So I didn’t want her to see because I felt like I wanted it to be this reveal where I tell her “Yeah, I’m engaged! And it’s to a woman and I think I have to tell the parents and the kids.” So I remember like sitting on my hands or something that I’m sure looked so awkward. In my mind that seemed like a good idea. And then I told her and I said “I need to tell the parents.” And that’s where I started is that I just needed the parents to know. Because to me that somehow seemed like a first step. And her response–. I am so lucky that this was her response but she said “Of course.” And she said “I’m going to call our superintendent to find out what we need to do to support you. And that (…)
Gonzalez: Oh my gosh.
Lifshitz: Yeah I know. Like nothing could have been more perfect. So that was sort of the moment where it just started to happen. The first step was really having her just sort of announce that I got engaged at the, like you know, back to school staff meeting. They always do, like, Oh, exciting things that happened over the summer. To me it felt better to have her tell the staff, like just all at once, that I got engaged. I think we planned it out that she was going to say that “Jess got engaged to her partner, Carla.” And that was going to be like some big like announcement. I remember the staff meeting of course feeling like I was going you know to be sick. She said it and everyone was like “Oh, yay!” But like people didn’t really get it. So I remember, like later one woman who works at my school came up to me and she’s like “Oh, so who’s the lucky guy?” And I was like “Oh, God.”
Gonzalez: “You didn’t listen, did you?”
Lifshitz: Some folks just sort of missed that part, you know people hear what they’re ready to hear. So like coming out often is, it’s just this ongoing process that I was looking for like this easy way to do it all at once and it just didn’t exist.
Gonzalez: I think that’s hilarious because I’m imagining that you went from person to person and kind of tested people out and eased your way in. I think it’s hilarious that you just said, “Hey, principal, announce it to the whole staff!”
Lifshitz: That’s sort of how I roll. I feel like I don’t. Like I hold on to things for a really long time and then when I make the decision that we’re going to do it, we just do it. Like really big. So that was the staff and that piece, I don’t know, I didn’t worry so much about that, because that was sort of easy to me. Like if someone had a problem, okay, they could just sort of stay away from me.
Then the first thing I did to sort of let parents start knowing was in my, you know, at Open House I always send out a letter and– Just introducing myself, you know who I am, what I believe. I send it home with parents on that open, first, back to school night or whatever. In that letter, at the bottom, I just said that over the summer I got engaged to my partner Carla. I sort of left it at that, and that was the first time that I had ever come out to parents. That piece, I think– That was way scarier than telling my administrators and my co-workers. Because then it became a thing of, from now on am I going to be known as, “Oh, that’s Jess, she’s the gay teacher.” And I cooked up a whole lot of fears of what would happen when that letter went home. You know you – I – always imagine the worst. So I imagined people storming out of the classroom and demanding that their child be moved. And I don’t know, all sorts of things. I was terrified that my principal would get phone calls (…)
Lifshitz: It was quite the opposite. I mean it was like utter silence on the whole thing. I didn’t really know how to take that for a while. I kept waiting for something to happen. Then, I remember there was a curriculum night or something and I remember that I had a student in my classroom whose dad was from Spain and he came up to me, and no one had said anything to me about being gay or being engaged or anything, but he walked right up to me and he said “You know what, you and your fiancée, you should come to Spain and get married, it’s been legal there for years!” And I was like okay, I guess we’re okay. That was sort of like, you know, that sort of broke the ice for me. That was — I mean it’s funny because I’m sure that this man has no idea that he’s had– that he had this huge impact. But just that little comment of, this is okay. You’re my kid’s teacher and this is just a piece of you. That was huge. So that all ended up being fine.
I didn’t end up coming out to the kids themselves until later on in the year, closer to the spring. And that was – for me – that was the scariest. Coming out to administrators, coming out to co-workers, coming out to parents…it was the coming out to kids that left me dry in the mouth, just really scary. I think part of that was I didn’t know how to talk about it in the classroom. I had no models of how to talk about any kind of LGBT issue in the classroom. I had never had any teaching about that. I’d never seen anyone do it. And I wasn’t just going to be talking about LGBT issues, I was going to be telling them that I was gay. I just didn’t know how to do it.
So I happened to have gone to a workshop where they talked about like family diversity and lessons on family diversity. There was this great lesson where the kids got pictures of individual faces and they were told to like put them together into families but there weren’t enough pictures to create typical, you know, traditional families. There weren’t enough moms, dads, one boy, one girl. So the kids had to kind of wrestle with that. I thought that would be a nice stepping stone for me to have the conversation with my kids. I’m really, really lucky. I work with some pretty incredible people and so my other fifth grade coworkers, the other fifth grade teachers, we all agreed to do this lesson as part of our Social Emotional Curriculum on the same day. It just felt really good to have that kind of support where it was sort of like it’s not just being taught in Jess’ room. You know, this is something we’re all going to teach.
Sorry, that’s my cat’s tail. I just noticed it was on there.
Gonzalez: I thought your wife was just messing with us.
Lifshitz: Nope, that was the cat!
Anyway, so we did that. We did the lesson and the social worker was in my lesson, just as moral support. I, again, work with just incredible people who wanted to support me. Then at the end of the lesson, I just sort of shared a picture of my family. And you know we were still engaged at the time, we hadn’t gotten married. This was sort of like, there was no other purpose in telling them about my family other than this was like the start of the change for me. From now on, I’m going to answer questions honestly and it was really important to me that I be in charge of the information, that it wasn’t whispered about in the hallway and it wasn’t “Oh, did you hear about Mrs. Lifshitz?” I wanted to be the one giving them the information. So that was it. I remember I showed them — We had just gone on a trip to Israel and I brought in a picture of my wife and I in Israel. I shared it with them and I said “This is my fiancée. Her name is Carla and we’re getting married in the fall.” And I said, I don’t even remember what I said. Much of it was probably somewhat nonsensical because I was not thinking clearly. But I said you know “Does anyone have any questions?” Nobody’s hand went up and eventually one girl sort of raised her hand shyly and I called on her like expecting the worst. And her question was “When you were in Israel, did you visit the Dead Sea?”
Lifshitz: Like, well yeah.
Gonzalez: “Did you guys hear what I just said?”
Lifshitz: Yeah, it was sort of like, okay… So that was kind of it. Then there were some kids who came up after and they were really concerned with language like when you get married, what will you call her? And you know gay marriage wasn’t legal in Illinois at the time. So we were going to Vermont to get married and so that made it harder also because there was that whole political piece of well, some people wouldn’t consider her my wife but she is my wife, so. That was a little tricky, but I said, “You know, she’s Carla.” and I think I told them that at that point I used the word partner and fiancée and said “But when we get married, she’ll be my wife.” That was sort of it. That was the big to do. You know that year, I happen to have a really wonderful group of kids and it didn’t really come up a lot after that. At first I was still really hesitant to bring it up, but at least I felt when questions were asked I could answer them honestly.
Gonzalez: Yeah. This was fifth grade that year too, is that correct?
Gonzalez: I’ve got a fifth grade daughter right now and I know, like that at those ages. I mean I’m remembering her opening a birthday card and it was something about someone loving somebody else. The friend corrected her and was like “Like a friend,” and all of the girls were like, “phew!” and I remember thinking that’s just rampant at that age, it’s not like it’s kindergarteners who are just like cute and kind of clueless. These kids are fully aware of all the stigma around that.
Lifshitz: Yeah. Yes they (…) really are.
Gonzalez: So you’ve had a couple of years of kids since then, correct?
Lifshitz: I have.
Gonzalez: Has your approached changed? Have you brought it up early on in the year and —
Lifshitz: Now it’s day one. I have always done, you know the same thing that elementary classrooms everywhere do. I share an all about me bag and then they all bring in theirs. I used to not bring in any pictures in mine and now, now a picture of my family is of course in my all about me bag, just like it would be in anyone else’s. And so it’s day one, this is my family. And I always give the kids permission to feel uncomfortable because as far as we are, a lot of these kids still haven’t ever really had conversations about families that look different than theirs. So I want the kids to know always that it’s okay if they giggle and it’s okay if it sounds strange to them. I tell them that’s one of the reasons it’s so important to me that you know who my family is because yeah, it’s different than your families but there are families all over the place that are different than your family. So I always — It’s really important to me that I give them the permission to not be okay at first. Sometimes I can see them, you know sort of looking at each other when I first show a picture and say this is my wife, Carla. but I will tell you–
So two years ago we brought home our daughter and when — Since then, she’s kind of the focus. Now it’s like “Oh that’s a cute kid!” before anybody has like any reaction to the fact that I have a wife. I was just saying recently– So our daughter is just a little over two and she’s just every definition of a toddler that you could possibly have. So whereas I used to walk into restaurants and worry that my wife and I would get looks, now I worry about is this place okay for my kid to be?” Like is someone going to give my daughter a dirty look?
So yeah, now it’s just start of the year, this is who my family is. You know, now my wife and daughter come and visit at work and it’s not a thing. It’s just you know, Carla’s here and Millie’s here. I need it to be that way. I need to get it out right in the beginning. You know that’s the hard part about, I mean there’s many hard parts about teaching, but it’s coming out every year to a new group of kids and a new group of parents. In some ways I think the word is out, but there are always families who have no idea who I am and especially if their kid is the oldest. You know they have no exposure to fifth grade teachers. So it’s every year and it’s always a little nerve wracking, even though it’s now been three or four years that I’ve been out. It’s still a little nerve wracking every time I bring those pictures out because you just never know and no one wants to see the giggling and as proud as I am of my family and who I am, you still don’t want to see those looks where people are like wait, what? You know, it’s still. So I still get a little nervous every year, but I have to say kids always surprise me in such a wonderful way. I’ve not had any negative reactions and I really even, like the giggling, you know there’s just not a whole lot of it. So that’s improving.
Gonzalez: You said, I just, I wanna — So a part of my goal for putting this out there is I want to help other people who are considering doing this and one of the things you said is, I just want to make sure how this actually looks when you’re doing this with your students. You show them the picture, you describe your family and then you said that you make sure that it’s clear that it’s okay for them to feel uncomfortable. What does that look like? What do you actually say, is that right after you show the picture, or?
Lifshitz: You know what, it’s usually before I show the picture and I say “You know the last pictures I have are of my family and my family looks kinda different from any of your families and it may even look different from any family you’ve ever seen before. Sometimes when you see something that’s different, it feels kind of weird and it might even make you giggle and that’s okay. I’m not going to be mad about that, but I want you know know who my family is. Then I just sort of show them and by then I think they’re expecting that I’m going to show them a picture of someone with two heads or something and they’re like oh, you’re married to a woman, okay. You know, I do, I have to say that I think things like Modern Family and, well my students are too young for Will and Grace, but it’s not as weird to them as it once was to us when we were growing up. So, yeah, I do make sure to say that. That message is pretty much the same every time I share those pictures.
Gonzalez: I’m glad that I asked though because I think that’s important. I was imagining that– So you’re not just sort of springing the picture on them.
Gonzalez: You’re giving them a little preparation so that they know that there’s going to be something about this picture that’s going to make them be like huh. So I think that’s a smart way of handling it.
Lifshitz: It works. It works for us.
Gonzalez: And so you’ve gotten no backlash from parents or —
Lifshitz: No, not to my knowledge. (…)
Gonzalez: Got it.
Lifshitz: I think if there ever was a problem my administrators would let me know, but to my knowledge there has not been a problem. I have to say that I do think my administrators and my co-workers look out for me. I think if there are families that people might fear would have a negative reaction, they don’t end up in my classroom.
Gonzalez: Got it.
Lifshitz: And I’ve never asked for that. I luckily have never had to ask for that, but I think that gives me kind of a layer of comfort that I just, I don’t worry about it. I just haven’t had any really negative reactions. You know I have, when I was deciding to come out I had a couple people say things like “Well why do you have to talk about your personal life anyways in class?” and I think (…)
Gonzalez: These were friends of yours outside of school?
Lifshitz: Both. They were friends outside of school and then co-workers as well who just didn’t get it. You know we — I think the term privilege gets thrown around a lot and I think means a lot of different things, but I do think when you are comfortably in the majority, you just don’t think about it. You don’t think about how often you bring up your husband or your wife. You don’t think about how many times a kid asks a question that you are revealing personal information about yourself. And so I do think there was a piece of me that felt frustration with those kinds of questions, but even that I wouldn’t classify that as negative, it was just not getting it yet. So yeah, I’ve been really lucky and I don’t know that I would be able to be as comfortably out as I am if I didn’t teach in a place that I felt like I was pretty sure I was going to be okay.
Gonzalez: That’s what I wanted to find out because I’m thinking there had to of been some pretty clear signs ahead of time that this was not going to be difficult. So what were some things that people did that gave you that impression?
Lifshitz: Well probably the biggest thing that I had going for me was that there was another woman in the district who had come out, and was married, and actually her wife also used to work in the district but then moved on to a different district. She was a band or orchestra teacher and so it felt a little different. She didn’t have like a classroom full of kids. She never really came out to a group of students like I was going to have to do, but she had pictures of her and her wife. They had adopted a child as well and were very open about that. She had pictures of her family up and so she sort of blazed this trail five or six years ahead of me. So I knew that the district was supportive of her. I knew that she didn’t, to my knowledge, there wasn’t any big backlash. And in fact when I first went and talked to my principal, right before I was going to come out to the parents, one of the first things she did was give me the phone number of this woman and said, you know call this woman, she’s been through this in our district. Just let her tell you how she did it. You know, let her share with you her story. So that was kind of this huge sign that it was going to be okay, that I wasn’t going to face a whole lot of backlash.
And another thing is just the community that I teach in. It is — It can be economically conservative, but socially pretty liberal and open minded. I think I knew that. That was just, you know the way that the community operated. Our high school had a Gay/Straight Alliance. There were, I knew that there were teachers at the high school who were out. There was a teacher at the high school who while teaching there had transitioned from being female to male. So I knew that there were these out individuals in the community and the school system. So I sort of felt like it was going to be okay. And honestly I knew my administrator and I knew that I was going to have her support. Just from who she was, I knew she would support me and that first conversation that I had with her was sort of like sealing the deal. Like you know what, if I have administrator support than I can deal with any kind of parent backlash. Then I really was just very lucky. And I guess that’s the thing. Even going into it I knew I was going to be okay. I really did. I knew I was going to be okay. I knew I wasn’t going to lose my job. I knew that I wasn’t going to have parents protesting or anything and I was still terrified.
Gonzalez: That’s such a different scenario than a lot of people are facing in other parts of the country.
Lifshitz: Yep. It really is and I– That’s why one of the posts I wrote is it’s hard for me when people say that what I’ve done is brave because — I get it, I really do. I get where that’s coming from, but that just has this implication that those who are in the closet aren’t brave and I just don’t believe that because I think that we do what we feel is safe to do and what we feel is responsible to do in the sense that people can’t just do things that are going to make them fear the loss of their job.
Lifshitz: So I get the brave comments, but I think what I really am is very, very lucky because I had incredible support. I couldn’t have done it without the support of administrators and without the support of co-workers also that just sort of rally around you and protect you and make you feel like even if there is this backlash from parents or weirdness from kids, like I’m going to be okay.
Gonzalez: About your co-workers, since you have been out– I know you sort of said earlier that there have been people that you’re not really sure how they feel. But as far as the ones who have made you feel welcomed and accepted and supported, what are some specific things that they have done? I guess right now I’m thinking about people listening who may have a co-worker who has come out, but they themselves are feeling uncomfortable because they don’t know how they are supposed to act.
Gonzalez: What are some things that your co-workers have done that have really made you feel supported?
Lifshitz: Yeah, I would say the biggest thing, and I also think it’s the hardest to do, but is — When I know that other fifth grade teachers, and other grades as well– When I know those teachers are using the word gay in their classrooms, I feel really supported. If another teacher is willing to read a book that has gay characters in it, that feels supportive to me. Because all of a sudden, now when I talk about who I am and who my family is, then it’s not just me. And nobody can say I’m pushing an agenda because it’s something that all fifth grade classes are talking about. That to me is one of the biggest things. I no longer teach Social Studies because I just teach Literacy, but knowing that my fifth grade co-workers who do teach Social Studies talk about the fight for gay marriage rights when they talk about government. That feels really supportive to me because then it makes me less afraid to talk about myself in the classroom. I think that’s the hardest thing to do because I think a lot of teachers are still uncertain of those conversations, but that really feels incredibly supportive.
But beyond that, you know, people were so happy when I announced that I was getting engaged. Just those little congratulations and when– My goodness, when we adopted our daughter, it was such a last minute kind of a panicky, frantic thing, and my principal — I now have a different principal, equally wonderful. He announced that everything was final and we were on our way to pick up our daughter. Later on he told me that when he made that announcements, that the whole staff clapped. Just that share of those happiness or those moments of happiness feels really huge. I think it’s those things, you know like the asking “How’s Carla, your wife?” The language piece, it is hard. At first people were really unsure of how to refer to my wife and again I think having gay marriage be legal in Illinois has made it much easier because I think it’s not an issue any more. It’s not a question. If you’re married, that’s your wife. But just seeing people not be afraid to ask, even if they weren’t certain what word to use. I still — you know people will say “How’s your.. How’s Carla?” I’m like, that’s okay and that feels really supportive still. So I think just those little comments. Not being afraid to talk about it is really wonderful.
And then you know things like when I was getting married, that the Social Committee Chair asked if I wanted a shower at school. And actually, interestingly enough when I got married, I didn’t want a shower at school because I was afraid that people wouldn’t show up. I was worried people wouldn’t come and just the growth in where I’ve come — By the time that we adopted our daughter, and they said “Do you want a baby shower?” I was like, “Yeah, I do!” And if people don’t want to come, okay, that’s fine. I’m really happy and this is this really wonderful thing and I want to celebrate it. So you know things like that are also, feel really supportive.
Gonzalez: Did they come?
Lifshitz: Almost everyone.
Gonzalez: There you go! Okay, so let’s shift a little bit to what’s happened with you since you started your blog. And I wanted to add that despite the fact that you have been lucky at your school and in your community, it is a whole other thing to go online with it. That piece, nobody could question whether you’re brave or not because then you are just really exposing yourself to everyone and to all of the meanness of the internet. So, so you started the blog and also you’ve started this twitter chat. So talk a little bit about both of those things because now you are able to help people who are not in the situation you are in, in terms of being lucky.
Lifshitz: Yeah. Well, what’s funny is that both my journey into twitter and the blog had zero to do with me being a gay educator. Purely they had to do with me feeling stuck as an educator and feeling like I had hit that rut that so many of us hit that it’s like ‘Yeah, like I’m doing fine, but just don’t feel great.’ I don’t know how, but I ended up entering into the twitter world and you know felt really great about being connected. Started the blog as a way to just sort of reflect and think and process. The first blog I ever had was when my wife and I were going through the adoption process and again I needed a place to sort of process and think. So we had a blog. When I found myself needing the same things in my teacher role, that’s where I went. So the blog started, really as a place to think about other issues. And twitter also sort started as well as a way to sort of learn how to be a better reading teacher and a writing teacher. As I was there, I saw that I had been so isolated as I think we all are as educators in our buildings and even in my own classroom. I had been exposed to such a small number of other teachers and there were all these other teachers out there that were just at my disposal.
It was wonderful and so that made me start thinking you know maybe I could connect with other gay educators also because you know there just aren’t a whole lot of us. I remember when I was coming out, like scouring the internet to find someone just like me. I want to find another elementary school classroom teacher who’s come out so that I can read all about it and figure out what I’m doing. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t find that.
I am so thankful that we live in a world where there are a lot of resources for gay students. I’m so thankful for that because it’s so important, but I wanted that for teachers. I wanted there to be a space where gay teachers could connect and I just didn’t find that. So I sort of felt like well maybe we could make one. Maybe we could create this community and these connections. So that’s sort of where it all started and that was really terrifying because that was another thing where I was like maybe I’m going to reach out and no one’s going to reach back. Maybe I think all these people want to be connected like I do, but maybe they really don’t. That’s really where it started and those were really the first posts about being a gay educator were really– Because I was talking a lot about how I felt isolated as an educator just in general, then this was sort of another layer of isolation was being not just a teacher, but a gay teacher. So that’s sort of where it all started.
Gonzalez: So you started a twitter chat.
Gonzalez: Okay and this is #LGBTeach – hashtag L G B Teach – When did you have your first chat?
Lifshitz: Probably four or five months ago at this point. And that was terrifying too because it was like is anyone going to show up? I guess that’s sort of a weird recurring theme in my life. I’m worried about if people aren’t going to show up for things I’m hosting or having. But you know what’s funny, I never, I was never worried about like getting negative comments. I don’t know why. I know that there’s really negative stuff out there. I guess I wasn’t worried because I felt like the worst that would happen is that I would quit out of twitter and not have to look at it. And that felt okay to me also. So I was more worried that just people wouldn’t want to talk about it. I think that continues to be a fear of mine is that other gay educators wouldn’t want to talk about it and educators in general wouldn’t want to talk about it. So I think those were my bigger fears.
Gonzalez: So how did that first one go, did you get some good attendance?
Lifshitz: Yes, yeah! It was so much better than what I thought and what I realized with that first chat. You know it’s hard to know how many people were there, but it didn’t matter because the people who were there so wanted to be there. There was so much discussion of desire to feel connected to other people who knew what it felt like. And there was also so much support from straight educators saying “We want to know how to help. We want to know how to make it better. We want to know how to make our schools and our classrooms safe for LGBT students and teachers.” That was pretty unexpected. I didn’t think that would happen and it did. So it didn’t– That’s when I started to think that it doesn’t really matter how many people are here, it’s just that there are people here and there are people who want to talk. I think that’s progress, no matter how many people show up.
Gonzalez: So you have found other people then I am guessing who are– Would you say there is a certain percentage of these people who are doing these chats who are out at work? And are there some talking who are not out at work?
Lifshitz: Yes, yes.
Gonzalez: They’re both voicing their – yeah?
Lifshitz: Yeah, and there’s also– There’s those groups and then there are e-mails from people who are even too afraid to be out on twitter.
Gonzalez: Well it’s kind of public. You’d have to have a complete pseudo-identity.
Lifshitz: Right and I, you know, I know those things are happening. It’s so far from where I am that it’s easy for me to forget, but it makes everything so much more important because of just how many people are still afraid to come out at work. I think, again the progress we’ve made in these past few years in this country is incredible, but I sometimes worry that the rapid pace at which we’ve made this progress can almost leave some people behind and I think education is one of those realms where we’re not keeping up with the progress that is being made in our legal system, I think that’s to be expected, but i think that there are still so many teachers who fear for their job if they, you know, come out. I guess we’re just sort of teaching in a scary time where you know. The last blog post I wrote was about you know feeling sort of sad about the test, the standardized test I have to give. Even that people wrote and said I wouldn’t be able to say that. I’d be too scared to say that. So here we are in a culture where teachers are afraid to voice their concerns about a test that in general we all hate. But teachers are afraid to say that publicly. So then to add in the fears of coming out as a gay teacher, of course there are teachers who are afraid to do that too. In so many states, those teachers could still be fired, just for being gay. That’s scary(…)
Gonzalez: Yeah, because it’s not written into the law that they can’t.
Lifshitz:. Right. So that’s a scary place to be and I guess I hope in some small way that me talking about being out. I hope it can give somebody some kind of hope that someday they can not have to lie to their students and co-workers. You know I certainly don’t see myself as some sort of success story, but perhaps it could be a sign of where we might be moving to. And I think if the Supreme Court makes a ruling that has a federal reach in terms of marriage, I think that could start to make some big changes for people. Because I do think that there was a difference once it was legal. It just sort of made it almost not okay to have a problem with it anymore, at least in a way that you would fire someone for it. People are always going to have their problems, I’m certain. But yeah, I think I was pretty ignorant of just how many teachers were still teaching from well within the closet.
Gonzalez: How– I don’t guess you could actually put a number to that but if you could quantify it in some way. Is this based on the chats or the e-mails you’re getting?
Lifshitz: You know what I feel like from the small little world I’ve been exposed to, I do feel like we’re at like 50/50. Maybe, if it’s going to lean one way or the other, I would say there are probably more teachers that are closeted than out. And it’s hard because I think there’s a whole lot of closeted teachers who wouldn’t reach out. So my guess is really there’s more online really then I’m even aware of. I guess that’s part of the reason that I’m just feel so — I feel like it’s so important to keep talking about it because I feel like anytime a teacher who is in the closet can see a conversation that involves both gay and straight educators, I think it helps them take one tiny step towards feeling okay with coming out. It’s so much better once you’re out. It’s so much easier and you don’t compartmentalize your life anymore. You don’t feel the need to just watch everything you say and you don’t have to feel your heart start to beat when kids ask questions about your life. I just- I would want that for any teacher because I think that makes us better teachers and it makes us better role models for the kids no matter what they’re struggling with. So I hope that people see these conversations online and start to think that one day, even if it’s not today, one day it’s going to be okay for them too.
Gonzalez: That sounds like a really good place to end. Can you go ahead and give me your details. Where can people find you online?
Lifshitz: So on twitter, I’m @Jess5th (note: Jessica’s handle has changed since this recording).
Gonzalez: I’ll put links to this on my website too, so.
Lifshitz: Even better. And then the blog is Crawling Out of the Classroom – no WordPress – dot – Crawling out of the Classroom – dot com. I think.
Gonzalez: It’s crawlingoutoftheclassroom.wordpress.com
Lifshitz: Oh, there you go, I’m glad that you know. It’s bookmarked!
Gonzalez: It’s not that important to know your own URL.
Lifshitz: So either of those ways you can find me.
Gonzalez: Oh, and when is #LGBTeach? When is that chat?
Lifshitz: So that’s the third Thursday at – of the month – at 8pm Central time.
Gonzalez: 8pm Central time, okay. Alright, hopefully you’ll get a couple new people in there next time.
Lifshitz: Always looking for that. We always welcome new attendees.
Gonzalez: Cool. Thank you so much Jessica, this has been fantastic.
Lifshitz: Well thank you, this has been absolutely lovely. It’s my absolute pleasure. So thank you for this.
[Listen to the audio version of this podcast.]