Are you gay, Mr Freeman?

‘Are you gay, Mr Freeman’, asked my eight-year-old student today.

‘Why do you ask?’, I responded.

‘Well, Janine* in Grade Four said you were and I wondered.’

‘Oh’, I said, ‘Well there is nothing wrong with being gay.’ And with that, I changed the subject.

The truth is, this simple question of just five words made me freeze. I felt instantly uncomfortable, emotional and then the shame set in and then I felt shame for feeling ashamed.

For the record, I am an out and proud teacher when working with High School and University students and I am a proud activist for my LGBTQ community. I am due to speak to my High School students during Pride celebrations next week, but being asked this question by an eight-year-old stopped me in my tracks.

Shame and frustration

After this brief encounter with this very sweet girl, I felt huge amounts of shame and frustration bubbling inside me.

I was frustrated that this was even a question that I had to deal with and frustrated that my heterosexual colleagues (through no fault of their own) are able to be so carefree with how much information they choose to divulge with their students. They can — and do — discuss their children or their partners/spouses. My shame came from the fact that even after twelve years of being out, of fighting for myself and for my LGBTQ family, I still couldn’t bring myself to telling my primary student that I am gay.

In my school, I am one of only a few openly gay teachers and both have experienced minor instances of casual homophobia. One of my student’s mum’s apologised profusely to me at the beginning of the year, telling me how sorry and embarrassed she was that she told her son I was gay.

The Myth of “The Other Side”

I will be speaking to the high school students about being gay during Pride. During the planning meeting, the heterosexual teacher who founded the school’s LGBTQ club and I were discussing how to encourage allyship among heterosexual student and they suggested I discuss the concept of ‘coming through the other side’ to demonstrate how far I have come in terms of my own personal journey.

But the point is though, you may never fully make it through to ‘the other side’. There isn’t actually ‘an other’ side. It is just you, being more you, in a world that still defines the sides for you.

The emotional scars you carry with you after enduring the pain of being closeted do just not disappear when you come out.

Internalisation

I knew I was gay (or rather I knew that I was different) since I was a teenager. I knew that I was drawn to men and that girls were my friends but that was it. Despite knowing that I was gay, I couldn’t bring myself to utter the words ‘I am gay’ until I was 20. I struggled during my teens (as many LGBT people do) with self-loathing and low self-esteem. I was in and out of therapy from when I was sixteen to thirty. I hated being gay and even at one point (after being verbally abused on the streets of Glasgow) I considered conversion therapy.

At this point I have to state that apart from a few minor aggressions I haven’t faced a huge amount of direct homophobia, relatively speaking. My friends and family were and are supportive and I have always had allies. But in my case the opposition came from within; I internalised it. I was a gay boy who grew up in a straight world (long before the Stonewall campaign of ‘Some People Are Gay, Get Over It’). The only representation of gay men that I saw growing up were Will & Jack from Will and Grace or Stanford from Sex And The City. I remember feeling the deepest shame whenever Jack came on screen. I felt that my family knew that I was like him (which in fairness, they probably did), but at that point, my sexuality wasn’t something to be celebrated. All I saw around me (and still do, to be honest) was heterosexuality. The first time I saw myself represented on TV was in 2014 in a TV show called Looking. I was 27 years old.

I grew up in a world where ‘that’s so gay’ and ‘don’t be gay’ were the most common utterances in the school playground and that coupled with almost no representation led to a deeply ashamed and hurt young man.

During my final year at university, my mental health plummeted and I had trouble completing my final exams. I just could not accept my sexuality. At that point I wasn’t even identifying as gay, I would claim I was ‘same-sex orientated’ — as if somehow that set me apart and made me slightly more ‘normal’. It wasn’t until January 2009 when I watched the film Milk that I finally began accepting my sexuality.

Activism

I began to delve into LGBTQ history to learn about the amazing heroes and heroines that came before me, who fought for my rights: Harvey Milk and others like Martha P. Johnson. I realised that I was a member of an incredibly special community that, despite being small in numbers and deeply persecuted, had contributed to societies in amazing ways. I felt particular pride at LGBTQ Jews — like Harvey Milk — who managed to overcome both antisemitism and homophobia to find their place in the world and contribute to it.

As an activist and a teacher I want to be the role model to others that I never had. I never had someone say to me ‘it’s ok to be gay’ — and that damaged me. I want to inspire and empower young people to be their best and to achieve their best. I have to pat myself on the back and say in some ways I think I am succeeding. Standing up in front of a class of twenty students (one-third of my School’s cohort) and telling them that I was gay and discussing the story of Josef Kohout, a gay Austrian man who was imprisoned by the Nazis was a defining moment for me. At long last, I was standing up in front of young people and saying this is who I am and I am proud of it.

But that is why today shook me so much. I didn’t feel proud, I didn’t feel like shouting my sexuality from the rooftops. And that is obviously my prerogative, however, there is a difference in maintaining my privacy and feeling ashamed. Today I felt ashamed.

You may be unaware; we are hyperaware

I wanted to share this with you because I think straight people — including straight allies — need to know this. In some ways, my life is harder because I am a member of the LGBTQ community. I have to think about things that my heterosexual friends and colleagues don’t have to think about. This is heteroprivilege.

That a heterosexual person can kiss their partner goodbye in the street without considering who is around them is a privilege. That they can book a hotel room with a double bed and never fear that they will be refused service is a privilege. Seeing yourself represented in every form of media from movies to music is a privilege.

I am not for one second blaming heterosexual people, they can’t help their sexuality just as I can’t, but they do have a responsibility to be aware of this privilege and to help break down heteronormativity. There are a variety of ways they can do this but creating spaces where LGBTQ people can express themselves and tell their stories is one important way to help people feel heard.

Coming out is not a one-time thing

Being an out LGBTQ activist, teacher and lecturer is a wonderful thing, I get to show young people directly that they are just as they were intended to be, but that it isn’t always easy. I have to come out every single day, and the constant question of ‘should I be out or not?’ is exhausting and it also puts enormous pressure on you to always be an advocate for your community, when perhaps sometimes you just don’t have the energy to.

The simple question of ‘Are you gay, Mr Freeman?’ and my emotional response made me realise that no matter how much you try and how hard you work to accept yourself, you retain just a tiny bit of that little child who was filled with the most intense self-loathing which can reappear when you least expect it and there’s something incredibly sad about that.

Even writing this piece felt somewhat shameful. It can be difficult to be out and proud and also admit that sometimes you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable in certain situations. Feeling ashamed made me feel like a fraud, that I was somehow unfit to advocate for our community because I wasn’t ‘through the other side’. I know that this not rational, but it is also, unfortunately, a sign of internalised shame.

As I said, next week I will speak to 60 High School students about being gay and I will stand up and say that I am proud of being gay (which I am), but I also want them to know that there is ‘no other side’ and we are still working to create a world where young people never feel the shame that I felt today. We have made progress, but we can’t kid ourselves that we are anywhere finished the job. We have to keep working, we have to keep fighting. No matter how tiring or emotional it is.

We owe it to ourselves and our children.

*Names of students changed for privacy.

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Ben M. Freeman

Ben M. Freeman is a Jewish educator and author of Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People.