Chicago, Education, Growing Up, LGBTQ, reflections

On Being in the Closet at St. Ignatius

I distinctly remember one gay teacher while I was a student at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School in Chicago. Or, at least we all thought he was gay. He taught Spanish and was unapologetically flamboyant. I never had the pleasure of having him as a teacher, nor did I ever have a teacher who was openly gay until graduate school–I cried when she said it in passing on the first day of class. I don’t know if the Spanish teacher ever came out to students or ever said that he was gay. Frankly, it was none of our business. Even without the “official” confirmation, the students loved him. It was said that he was one of the best Spanish teachers in the department. In particular, the students loved that he was gay. However, students weren’t seemingly obsessed with the fact that he was gay because it was some kind of celebration of identity. They loved that he was gay because of the novelty of it.

I have vivid memories of male students making a sort-of-game out of approaching this teacher. He gave any student a hug when the student asked, and I remember watching male students dare each other to go up to him to get a hug. The male student would always approach timidly and reluctantly while his pack of friends stood back and giggled behind their hands. I wonder now as I wondered then if that teacher knew the spectacle those students were making out of his identity. I saw this exchange happen frequently during passing periods in the hallway. I have one particularly clear memory of a male student getting a hug and then promptly brushing off his clothes and skin as if to say he was wiping off the contact he had just had. He was a popular student, making his actions all the more “important” and the embrace all the more “egregious.” Everyone thought it was hilarious. The message that action sent has stuck with me over 10 years later. I can see that student’s face as he grimaced, wiping away this teacher’s homosexuality like it was contagious. I still know that student now. At one point that student was a teacher himself. I hope he gave hugs to kids that wanted them when he was a teacher. I hope no student ever wiped off his identity, his love.

I never got one of those hugs. I both thought it would be weird since I was never a student of this teacher (though he would hug anyone who asked, pupil of his or not). Moreover, I tried to avoid anything that might lead to the assumption that I myself was gay since I was terrified of the truth that lie latent within me. I now wish I had gotten one. That hug could have been affirming for him and affirming for me in a time when I felt like something was wrong with me; a time when I felt suppressed, confused, and invisible.

I have other vivid memories of a time when this particular teacher was sick. He was out of school for over a week and many students were dismayed. His class was highly liked. “Did you hear about [the teacher]?” I remember being asked by a classmate. “Yeah, he’s out sick, right?” I said, wondering why my classmate brought up this teacher to me in the first place–we took French together, so my classmate knew I wasn’t in his class. “Yep,” my classmate now whispered. “People are saying it’s because he has AIDS.” My heart dropped. Back then, I knew so much less about HIV/AIDS than I do now. We certainly weren’t educated about it fully as students in our limited sex education classes. Regardless, the rumor spread like wildfire. We never found out the truth of it, and, again, it wasn’t our business in the first place. But I remember that all students–boys and girls, who were usually lined up to hug this teacher–were more reluctant to get hugs from him after he finally did come back. There was a little less joy and love in the hallway then.

The culture around homosexuality itself was virulent. We were never taught anything about sexual orientation. The word “fag” was thrown around cavalierly by many students from neighborhood, who made up a sizeable population of the student body. I did everything in my power to not be considered gay. So, for a long time, I didn’t have friends from my own neighborhood as a result of my fear. In fact, I never really had close male friends from my neighborhood in my class. I was always too scared. Instead, I preferred to hang out with students a year behind me or ahead of me. Many of my friends were from the suburbs or the Northside. They seemed a bit more “progressive.” My bias as the Northside of the city being a more “gay-friendly place” still remains today in part because of this trauma.

I still remember all the crushes I had on my fellow male students, whose affections I knew would never be reciprocated. I recall being depressed for a good portion of my sophomore and junior years and not knowing why. I had no desire to dance with my female dates at some of the first events I went to. In fact, I was scared to. I still feel bad about making my dates feel rejected when really I was rejecting myself. I didn’t learn how much I loved to dance until later in life. I now take classes from time to time. I know the guy I would have asked to prom (though my prom date, who was a wonderful young lady, was the absolute best). He would have said no, of course, but it would have been nice to have felt as though I was in an environment that would have supported my action.

Years later, I have heard from some queer friends about how they were able to come out during their time in high school. They would tell stories of how included they felt or, if they weren’t, how they learned to carve out their own space. In doing so, they were able to date at a much younger age and make authentic friendships with people who knew them and loved them for who they were. I didn’t have that experience then and I wonder how I might be different now if I had. I wonder how much bolder and more confident it might have made me at an earlier age.

You know that you have truly been inculcated when even you are afraid to come out to yourself because you are convinced it’s bad or wrong. I will never fully know or be able to quantify it, and I am not blaming the school for the ills of society at large, but I do wonder what role St. Ignatius played in keeping me in the closet for so long. I definitely know the culture and community at the school played some role, or at least staff could have done more to make me feel supported. Yes, I know that the incidents I named that are so firmly burned into my memory were perpetuated by my fellow students, but that culture was only allowed to happen because there was no explicit messaging from the school against it. It is just as important to note what is taught explicitly as it is to note what is taught implicitly or not taught at all.

The recent article on the firing of a St. Ignatius teacher has brought these memories to the forefront of my mind though I have reflected frequently on what it was like to be in the closet at St. Ignatius. I do not know all sides of the story to explain why the teacher, who seemed to be well respected by staff, well-liked by students, and was on his way towards tenure, was fired. He claims that his firing had to do with his sexuality. The facts in the article state that a student found the teacher’s dating profile on OkCupid, spread around pictures, and that student, along with other students, harassed this teacher on social media. There were more developments, but when the issue was said and done, the students involved received small disciplinary slaps on the wrist. The teacher ended up canned.

I understand that I do not have all of the details and I plan to seek them out from all sides before jumping to conclusions about this being a wrongful and discriminatory termination. I understand that religious schools have exemptions from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which allows religious institutions to discriminate in regards to the hiring and firing ministerial staff (or, in this case, staff that teaches religion), so even if this teacher was fired because of his sexuality, the school may be within their right to do so. I understand that Catholicism does not condone or endorse homosexuality (though the pope, a Jesuit himself, has expressed the need for more tolerance and less judgement of individuals who identify as gay or lesbian), and that we live in a country where individuals and institutions have the right to believe whatever they want to believe. But I also understand as a former educator and proud, fully-out gay man the importance of modeling for young people. The failure of the school to model proper behavior in this situation is what I am most concerned about. Modeling can literally save lives.

Data from the most recent report from the CDC on risk factors for youth shows heartbreaking statistics on how much worse rates of bullying, physical dating violence, and suicide attempts  are for high school youth who identify as LGB versus youth who identify as heterosexual (about 2 times, greater than 2 times, and greater than 4 times, respectively). There is research that shows how having an adult who is a role model can help to lower rates of risk factors for LGBT youth. There are data that show that explicit anti-discrimination statements and gay-straight alliances also help to reduce suicidal thoughts and attempts for queer students. St. Ignatius, to my knowledge, does not have either. And now, this incident–whatever the reasons behind it–shows all students, but in particular those students who may be struggling with their sexuality at St. Ignatius, what could potentially happen to people simply because they are gay. It also shows how there are little to few repercussions for those who perpetuate discriminatory actions towards gay people.

What kind of modeling is this for young people? For a school whose motto is “men and women for others,” these actions by the students and the response by the school do not seem to uphold these values. As I said, it is totally within the rights of a Catholic school to not condone homosexuality. You can believe whatever you want to believe. But as an educational institution that holds itself to the standard of teaching God’s love, the school is obligated to teach respect for all people, to decry bullying, to promote justice, and to protect its young people, regardless of beliefs or identities. This is a failed teaching moment. Or, at least, the lessons taught were not ones of love.

This incident brings to mind other questions and comments that I have around the difficulty of being a gay male teacher in general, but for me, that isn’t the focus here. Despite how problematic this situation might be in regards to HR and publicity, I imagine that this teacher will be able to land on his feet. I do not say that to diminish the gravity of his accusation or the pain that he, his loved ones, his peers, and his students must be feeling right now. I say it because I can tell he is a good teacher. I can tell that because of his public response which focused on the kids and their learning, despite all this other noise. He will most likely get another teaching job if he so chooses, and I really, really hope he does.

Who I am worried about is the student like me who is walking the halls of St. Ignatius feeling even less supported and loved than they felt before because of this incident. That student who is even more scared about being bullied. That student who doesn’t know if St. Ignatius is the place for them. That student who is wondering if there is a place for them anywhere. That student who wishes there was a teacher like them who could give them a hug and tell them that it does get better (and, if that student is reading, it does get better–I promise).

I want answers for that student and I plan on holding the school accountable. I want to not only know more about this incident but more importantly what are the next steps? I don’t go there currently and I am hurting, so I know members of the community more directly involved must be as well. How does the school plan on rebuilding a community that is broken over this? What kind of professional development is in place to help staff appropriately and proactively mitigate situations like this? What curriculum is in place to teach students to not just be allies but “upstanders” in situations of bullying and discrimination? How is everyone being taught to have dialogue and work across difference, particularly when it comes to issues that are not aligned with one’s beliefs? There needs to be explicit programming around teaching students and staff respect for all people, including individuals who identify as gay.

To be clear, I loved attending St. Ignatius. Despite the concerns and negative experiences I have expressed here, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the institution. It is a fantastic school that provides a high-quality education and was full of caring, passionate teachers. I write this as a concerned alum who wants to see the school I love grow and reflect the values it espouses. As such, I plan on being a firestarter and a resource for change. If you are interested in following up with me, please feel free to reach out. I want St. Ignatius to do better for that kid like me. Because, at the end of the day, creating an environment where that kid feels safe, valued, and loved is the type of work that truly embodies what it means to be a person for others.

Andrew Rayner
SICP Class of 2006

Note: Members of the SICP community have written a petition to the administration asking for policy and structural changes at the school to promote a safer environment for people who identify as LGBT and for people of color. If you feel so inclined, please sign the petition found here. Thank you.

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