Saturday, April 10, 2010

The First Openly Gay Student I Ever Taught

This blog is not like others I've done. I'm basically sharing my homework with you, because I feel the topic of my assignment is worth sharing. My task was to interview someone who is gay, asking him or her to describe any difficulties that occurred while growing up, attending school, and coming out to family and friends.

Many people generously volunteered to be the subject of my paper, but when it came time to choose, Marc Wheeler, now a working actor living in West Hollywood, Calif., seemed the full-circle choice. This homegrown Iowan was the first openly gay student I ever taught. I realized I didn't know much about what life was like for him during the years he was a student in my classroom.

It was time to learn.

We talked for two hours one night, and I learned a lot that will help me as I teach others who happened to be born gay. I have always respected Marc for his willingness to openly share who he is with the world. I hope you do too.

Marc Wheeler is likely not the first gay student I have ever taught; however, he is the first student I taught who openly identified himself as gay. In fact, I am fairly confident that I taught students born with a same-sex orientation before Marc came along in 1997 – whether any of us knew it at the time or not. In fact, a publicized medical study* estimates the prevalence of male homosexuality as between 2% and 10% of the population, thus supporting my suspicion. That study, published in 2004 by the Journal of Theoretical Biology, reported the estimate along with disclaimers about the difficulty of calculating such a statistic. The problem is basically two-fold: 1) Homosexuality is defined in different ways, and 2) The varying degree of acceptance among differing cultures affects the ability to collect data. By the time Marc, a 4.0 GPA student, was ready to attend college in the late 90s, his identity as a man who happened to be gay was something he was ready to define and accept. However, his parents were unaware of his sexual orientation and related identity struggles.

Interestingly, Marc’s dad may have had suspicions that were not admitted aloud, as he seemed to think that having his son attend Waldorf College would keep him away from people who were gay. That might be why his father, who Marc described as “a conservative, Christian, Republican, fundamentalist,” asked the college admission counselor during Marc’s college visit if Waldorf “had a gay problem.” He didn’t want his son being persuaded into a lifestyle that he regarded as sinful. Marc, embarrassed by his father’s question, reassured both men that being around gay people was not an issue that concerned him. In that moment, Marc privately thought of what he wanted – a place where he could live as who he believed himself to be: a man who is gay.

After years of repressing emotions that had nowhere to go, Marc felt “ready to burst” into a new life; and so, two days after he arrived on campus, he began to openly identify himself as gay. He used the occasion of meeting new people at theatre camp to finally express feelings of attraction to other males. The admission was something he had feared happening in elementary and middle school, for at that young age, Marc believed identifying himself as homosexual would mean – according to what he had learned from his experiences in churches (i.e., Pentecostal, United Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran) – that he would “burn in hell.” In fact, the first time Marc heard the word “homosexual” in late elementary, he secretly looked through a dictionary at home to verify the meaning. He learned it was someone who is “attracted to the same sex.” Taken aback, he thought: “That simply can’t be. I love God. I cannot burn in hell.” Fearing damnation, Marc hoped that simply would not come to be, for he already found males physically appealing.

Marc’s earliest introductions to anything regarding homosexuality were universally negative: the condemnation he felt from the church; remarks made by family members; references in health classes to AIDS and “the homosexual lifestyle”; and comments made by a male history teacher about a nefarious dictator who had been believed to be bisexual. When the teacher mentioned bisexuality, he added an explanation that sounded like a distasteful aside: “And, you know what that means – you are attracted to both boys and girls.”

Absent of positive adult support, Marc felt he could not come out until college. As he described it, his coming out was an inevitable, necessary step toward self-actualization, and he understood that part of the process meant redefining his relationship with his parents. In a way, he needed to introduce himself to them as who he had been all along – their first-born son who happened to be gay. He chose to tell his mother first on a weekend home from college. She asked him to not tell his father. She told Marc that she wanted to break the news to him. It took her nearly a year with consistent prodding by Marc. During that year, she sent occasional care packages to her son full of Skittles candies and other things that depicted rainbows, a symbol of gay pride. Marc remembers getting a lot of Skittles from home that year, his mother’s way of silently showing her love and support.

His father’s reaction when he finally learned of Marc’s sexual orientation perplexed Marc. On another trip to his hometown of Polk City, Iowa, Marc learned that his mother had told his father, yet his father made no indication of having heard. So, Marc looked for occasions to be around his father and to strike up conversation, testing his father’s emotional temperature, yet his father never took the lead. Finally, after nearly a week of uncomfortable exchanges, Marc initiated the topic: “Dad, did Mom talk to you about me?” His father responded, “Yep, and I’m not happy about it.” In the ensuring conversation, Marc’s father shared his belief that Marc had fallen into a gay lifestyle out of a desire to be accepted into a group of students at college. He believed that for Marc to be accepted into this group, he had to become like them. Marc attempted to convince his father that there was no such group; that he simply was gay and always had been. When his father threatened to remove him from Waldorf College, Marc asserted both his identity and his independence by refusing to allow that to happen. He had found a place where he could safely prepare for a career while learning things about himself that he had not been able to before.

Marc wondered how his parents could claim that they had no idea he might be gay. His reflections of childhood include memories of annual performances in a lip-syncing contest held in the summer by the city of Polk City. Beginning at age nine, Marc looked forward to entertaining crowds while dressed as either a male or female entertainer and willingly took on the female role when teamed with his brother for a male/female lip-syncing number. Performing became a socially acceptable way to express an identity that felt more comfortable and more authentic. To be clear, Marc did not identify as a transvestite or a cross-dresser. He simply appreciated the freedom to express characteristics more often aligned with those identities than those of hyper-masculine males.

Because I have always known Marc as a male who happens to be gay, I was not aware – until this paper – of the intensely personal identity struggles he navigated, particularly in relation to his father. I was aware that his father was having a hard time reconciling Marc’s sexual orientation; however, I wasn’t aware of how long it took and how isolated Marc felt during that time. The ability to have conversations with family members about important topics is a valuable part of belonging to a family unit. As I teach, I will now be more aware of the personal pain and toll that is exacted on students who are not only far from home, but also emotionally isolated from people who define key relationships in their lives. Children depend on primary relationships to help them form their identities. I hope to become even more sensitive to the difficulties that face young men and women who come to an awareness of their same-sex gender orientation without the full support of their parents or siblings.

Marc told his siblings – a younger sister and younger brother – when he told his mother. His brother’s reaction: “Yeah, I figured you were.” His sister stated that she knew, too, determining that the man Marc introduced as his friend at the time was more than a typical friend. Marc described his sister as “a little gay activist” and shared that she was and continues to be his most ardent source of family support. His exact words: “She TOTALLY had / has my back.”

Even with that source of support, Marc’s family – in many ways – became the students he knew through his major courses and theatre activities. He regularly engaged them in conversations about what it meant to be a gay male in an era where good ole boys were terrorizing and then horrifically killing gay males like Matthew Shepard. On the one-year anniversary of that murder, Marc sent an email to all faculty, staff and students, asking them to visit a web site created in Matthew’s honor and to become more aware of the injustices faced by those who are gay. I still have a copy of the email response I sent to him in 1999, thanking him for the courage he showed through his personal activism. The fact I printed and kept our exchange is a testament to the impact his life had on mine. He was a pioneer at Waldorf College, an institution of higher learning whose Gay-Straight Alliance was honored by the Iowa Pride Network in 2009 as the best college GSA organization in the state – 10 years after Marc sent his all-campus email.

What I will remember most about this conversation with Marc, however, are the stories about other children calling him “faggot” or “gay” beginning in elementary. Most striking was when, at the end of 6th grade, he was on an orientation tour and a large, athletically built, senior male stared across the cafeteria at him as he walked with his tour group, and then loudly yelled out, “FAGGOT!” All eyes looked toward Marc who – embarrassed and humiliated – could only shake his head “no” and attempt to protest this negative slur for an identity he could not yet accept. I thought: “Where were the teachers?”

Marc helped me understand the extreme difficulty present in those moments. Teachers might be insensitive to the harm that occurs from name calling, and it takes great courage for the victim of the slur to make the offense known. As Marc explained, sharing news of the incident is practically an admission of its truth at a time when the student might not yet be ready to bear the consequences. “When children identify someone as gay,” said Marc, “they may well be right, but it is so difficult to admit, because you are not yet ready to accept all that goes with it.” I want to be a teacher that any student would be comfortable coming to. I want him/her to feel that he/she can rely on me for support as he/she determines what it means to be who he/she is. To help, I will continue to support GSA events and create a classroom environment that upholds all students as valued members of society, while including lessons that highlight the harm of discriminatory language and actions. Thank you, Marc, for being my teacher.


KaKi said...

Excellend, Joy! Unfortunately, Marc's story is all too common. I have heard so many similar breaks my heart!!!

Marc said...

Joy: Thank you for sharing my story. If even one life is changed for the better, it's worth it. Thank you for being such an advocate and voice for those who feel they don't have one. It's through people like you that they gain the strength to step into their own divinity and express the Life that they were intended to express all along. Blessings to you. And may all of us have the courage to share our own sacred gifts residing in our hearts, waiting to be let free. Sing your song! The world thanks you for it.

Joy said...


What beautiful words. I am humbled and honored by them - by you. Your courage is inspirational.

Blessings ... Joy

DavidEhrenstein said...

Teriffic story. Thanks Joy and Marc!

Anonymous said...

I think there is something key in that (despite that it is possible to be gay and invisible) people DO know, but do not allow themselves to know.

Orientation is elemental so, of course we can spot those who are like or unlike us. All else is social construct.

It's high time the social construct matched the reality. Thanks for the article. Work takes me to the Middle East--imagine. Hence anonymity.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I wish I'd had a teacher like you when I was growing up in a small town in south Georgia. It would have made my life so much easier and happier!

Joy said...

Thank you for the kind and thoughtful comments.

I was just thinking this morning about the immobilizing impact of unidentified fear. I think the invisibility occurs, because it may make life easier in family structures. Until a someone's phobia is confronted by befriending someone who challenges their sensibilities and family loyalties, it is easier to avoid really knowing anyone who is gay.

Befriending someone who is gay automatically makes you an advocate (or you aren't that good of a friend). Not everyone can do that.

Harvey Milk had it right: "Come out. You must come out."

Thanks for the responses.

Joy said...

P.S. - Well, not if you are headed to the Middle East. Safe travels! ;-)

Alexander said...

An inspiring retelling. Thank you Joy for sharing this.I came across your blog via another blog I read daily. It is so comforting to see that there are people like you in this world who understand what we go through. I find it to be such an inspiration that you dedicate some time in your day to reflect on what you've learned.
And to Marc. I can completely relate to your experiences. I too was shouted slurs in the halls of my elementary and middle schools. Even through high school students still taunted me. I came out to my parents when I was 15, 3 years ago, and i know how hard it was.
Good luck to both of you on all your endeavors.

From the Dominican Republic,

Darryl said...

Thank you Joy for being there for our gay youth! My partner Aaron and I volunteer at "Youth Pride Atlanta" as "Forum facilitators". We see the result of unfettered bullying and cruelty foisted upon youth who are even suspected of homosexuality. Where are the teachers indeed?? Youth are getting braver and more driven with the help of good teachers like YOU..... keep up your good works as well as your own personal quest for justice and truth (it really is a life long process).

ps ... if you want to hear a story, I'll tell you of growing up in the deep South in Catholic parochial schools in Augusta Georgia in the 60's and 70's followed by activism in the 80's, 90's and 00's as a member of a large conservative family! LOL!!!

Mike Dedmon said...

Thanks for this beautiful and educational story. My husband started the "Allies" program (providing safe zones for LGBT students) at Texas State University 10 years ago and was just recognized for that accomplishment.

Based on your last statement, I would recommend the same for you & your school. There may already be a similar program on your campus.

Here's the info on their program.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful and heart-warming story. The best teachers learn from their students. Many thanks to both you and Mark.

Anonymous said...

What a moving story. Thank you both!

Asherian said...

Thank you both. This was a wonderful blog post, certainly informative. I can definitely relate to Marc's struggles, but I was never as forthright as he was. I didn't come out til late college.

Thanks again.

asherian AT gmail DOT com

Anonymous said...

I cried when i read this. Wish you were my teacher when i was growing up!!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Joy. I'm sitting in my office wiping the tears from my eyes.

I came out to a teacher in my junior year of high school while growing up in the rural south. She, along with another teacher at my high school and a professor in my college-level English course during my senior year, provided the adult safe space that I needed, arranging for a place to stay if my father kicked me out when I came out to my parents in September of my senior year. Fifteen and a half years later, I am still immensely grateful to those women, who may very well have saved my life. Teachers like you are exactly who we need keeping an eye out on the youth of our community.


Dr. Stu said...

Wonderful story.

Apart from the bullying and social stigma attached to homosexuality, coming out to yourself and parents are arguably the most difficult steps to realizing this identity. I myself did not come out until after I graduated from college, although I knew my true identity as early as the first grade. It is truly comforting to know that today people are coming out as young as 13. None of this would be possible without our allies and the courage of people who speak out. As a middle school teacher who happens to be gay, I look forward to the opportunity to continue educating our youth about acceptance, tolerance, and discrimination.

Thanks Marc and Joy! ;0)

C H A S E said...

Joy! I've always felt grateful to have had, and still have you as a teacher, friend and mentor in my life. But this story, and the following comments have helped me realize how truly fortunate I am as well.

Thanks for being a voice, my voice--a voice for us all. Keep speaking and singing and writing... and being involuntary joyful. ;)

Do your children realize how awesome their parents are?

Josh Adamson said...

Joy, thanks for sharing Marc's story. It is a story like so many thousands (millions!) of us, including me. If only there were more teachers/Americans like you who could answer your question, "Where were the teachers?" in the face of hatred, bigotry, intolerance, and ignorance, and confront it with such thoughtful grace.

Just as importantly, if only teachers like you were more encouraged to be openly accepting of the LGBT youth of today. It is a shame that so many fear repercussion or rejection for such support (case in point: Constance Miller from Mississippi who was denied the chance to go to prom with her girlfriend, and the teachers and other adults who stood by and watched it happen).

Lastly, thanks to Marc for allowing such a beautiful story to be shared with the world! Congratulations to you both!

Kelly said...


I remember knowing as soon as I read your first post in our class that you were a person I could look up to and respect. You are an incredibly gifted writer and I really appreciate you bringing so many difficult issues out into the open. I enjoyed reading Marc's story and could identify with being the "little gay advocate" sister! :) My own sister is finally finding acceptance on her college campus and I hope she will have the guidance of many incredible instructors such as yourself throughout her educational career. Thank you so much for all that you are and all that you do. You've touched the lives of many in a very positive way!


Angie H. said...

I have known Marc for many years. He is a sweet, loving guy. He was a great friend to me in school. When I got dumped right before homecoming during my senior year (1994) he went with me. I am proud of how far he has come. I will always consider Marc a friend. Love ya Marc!!!