Boston, LGBTQ, reflections

Cultivating Rooms to Come Out Into

The night started with champagne. A toast to celebrate our collective accomplishments and time together over the last 10 years of taking over straight spaces and making them inclusive for queer folks one night at a time at the Guerilla Queer Bar event. It was the mission of The Welcoming Committee (TWC) “and we couldn’t have done it without you,” we were told. I was surrounded by 30 or so queer friends all whom I had met during our time as volunteers for the organization. There were many other loved ones missing. They had moved from Boston or couldn’t make the event for some reason. About two weeks before that Friday night last week, I made a very financially irresponsible decision to get a plane ticket from Chicago and head to Boston for the celebration. After all, after starting to hang out with The Welcoming Committee over four years ago and becoming part of the family, I decided to come out to my parents. I wouldn’t have missed this reunion for the world.

I hadn’t been missing Boston, in truth. After leaving a bit over a year before, looking back on Boston and comparing it to Chicago left a bitter taste in my mouth. I felt that a lot of things were wrong with the Boston and the queer community therein. It was very white, very cisgendered, hypersexualized, full substances, and not very friendly. Regardless, while I was there I made myself a fixture of the gay community in the bar and club scene. At first, everything was wonderful. Boston was the first city I was ever out in and I enjoyed being in the scene immensely. The booze, the boys, and the Beyonce all flowed freely. I was very loud and very proud. A friend’s parents referred to me as “the Gay Mayor of Boston.” But by the end of my time, the community-at-large that I tried so hard to embrace felt caustic. I felt unloved. I had to get out. It was one of the many reasons I decided to leave a place I had called home for 5 years.

Now, I’m not saying that TWC had all of the problems of the Boston gay scene fixed. In fact, I think over the lifetime of the organization there were a lot of the same issues. Additionally, it was only a handful of nights each month. But what I always loved about it was that it was a group of people who were trying make the world a more inclusive place for people under the queer umbrella. It endeavored to do so with a diverse group of individuals that believed that everyone deserved to be included and that everyone could be a part of the family. We made a lot of mistakes. There was so much more we could have done for queer people of color or individuals who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming. But we tried. We talked about it. We asked questions. We gave out hugs. We spread love like glitter. And by the end of each night, everyone who did show up was covered in it.

So that night, after the toast, I danced with long time friends, made new ones, and reconnected with old faces from across Boston who showed up for the party. I even got to spend a good part of the evening hanging out with a guy who was nice, smart, considerate, and very handsome. At one point I went to the dance floor stage and stared out at the crowd. There were a sea of bodies of all shapes, sizes, genders, colors, and orientations. They were all folks who believed in TWCs once simply stated mission of “Equality Tonight” and they were reveling in it.

The next morning I read a text from the handsome gentleman from the day before. It read: “Thanks for asking me to hang out tonight. You’ve got a lot of people here who love you and it was nice to meet them.” And it wasn’t until that moment that I realized how right he was. How lucky I was to have so many great people who cared about me and for whom I cared as well.

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I have thought about writing this post for a long time. At first, I wanted to entitle it “Why I No Longer Want to be Part of the Gay Bar and Club Scene.” This year has been one of the gayest of my life, as far as events go. I went to Boston Pride, Chicago Pride, Market Days, and Southern Decadence. After it was all said and done, I was disgusted by the people that I perceived as part of the “mainstream” gay community. So many of the problems that I saw in Boston were actually everywhere. In some places there were even more exacerbated. People were less about love and more about making it. I was discouraged. Over the last month or so, I backed away from the gay community as a result. I haven’t been to Boystown in a while. But, after this visit to Boston and my time at the TWC party, I realized that I don’t want to run away from the community. I do want to be a part of the scene, but a scene like the one I experienced that Friday night. A scene full of people who are loving, accepting, and welcoming for who you are no matter what. It was the scene I had been missing. The scene I had been looking for.

Now that I am out, I have a different understanding of why there might be reluctance from some to come out. We live in a world that has made progress towards gay rights and acceptance of those who identify as queer but we still have so much more to do. When someone comes out, one of the first things many people choose to do is go to a bar or club. It’s one of the easiest access points to the gay world. Sadly, in many of those spaces what they enter is a world with dark rooms and people meddling in substance abuse, hypersexuality, body shaming, racism, heteronormativity, and other societal norms that model themselves after the world at large. Knowing what I know now, if the “mainstream” gay community was where I’d have to come out, I might be inclined to stay in the closet a little bit longer myself. If you choose to be a part of that scene, things can get harder and more complicated. It’s not all smiles and Madonna. The mainstream is not always welcoming. Just because we are all gay doesn’t mean we all act like family. You have to learn to find your place even once you think you’ve finally arrived home.

I know there are some of you reading this and saying “there are plenty of other spaces in the queer community–don’t look for satisfaction and bars and clubs.” There is definitely truth to that, but I think it misses the point. These “mainstream” spaces are supposed to be all of ours. In fact, decades ago they were the only places queer people could go. But the lesson I learned that night was not about the space itself, but about the people who cultivate it. After all, TWC didn’t just take over bars and clubs and the magic was always there.

What are we as out queer people doing to create spaces and communities that people should want to come out into? What are we doing to let all of those who fall under LGBTQQIP2SAA+ umbrella know that it gets better, for all of us? What are our straight ally friends doing to help foster and further those spaces? If we are going to encourage people to come out and be who they are, we need to prepare rooms–literal and metaphoric–that are deserving of them to come out into.

So, this is my love letter of thanks to my TWC family and all the people around me–straight and gay–who have built and continue to build rooms that I am welcome to enter. You make coming out mean something. I promise to do better for all of you, out or working your way there. Because it’s not the act of coming out itself that has power, it’s knowing that once you do come out, you have arms to hug you, to accept you, to love you when you finally do.

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Boston, Chicago, Growing Up, LGBTQ, reflections

What is pride to this gay black man?

When was the first time that someone called you beautiful and you believed them? You really heard them and took it in. Do you remember?

I remember it was in 2011 when I was 23. I had just moved to Boston after having come back from living out of the country. It was the first time that I had lived in America as an adult. I was in a new city and I was ready to explore what it meant to be gay even though I was not fully out. I did not have any gay friends in the city, so, wanting to get started on my adventure, I went alone to the first gay bar I ever went to when I was in college–a place called Paradise. It was early in the evening, much earlier than one should ever show up to a gay bar I would learn. I sat at the bar, ordered a drink and stared at my phone, dejectedly. After a few minutes, I heard a voice say “You’re very handsome.” I turned to see who it was, my heart racing, and noticed an older white man who was sitting at the corner of the bar not too far from me. I scoffed. I wasn’t being dismissive as much as I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say. “What, you don’t believe me?” “I’m not sure,” I said. “Well, I’ll tell you. You’re really, really beautiful. You should know that.” And for some reason, for the first time, I believed that he was telling the truth. I’m not sure why. I ended up becoming good friends with this older gentleman. He was a regular at the bar and I saw him there over the years that I frequented Paradise. I always gave him a hug. We sat and shared stories. He gave me a lot of advice about the gay community from his many years of experience. He told me about the way things were “back in the day.” And, while I never told him how much those words meant to me, I never forgot what he said. For that, he and Paradise always have and will have a special place in my heart.

Fast forward four years to New Year’s Eve 2015. I was on the dance floor in the basement of Paradise with a group of friends whom I had brought together during my time in Boston. My crew. We were dead-center and dancing like our lives depended on it. I was in the middle of my graduate school experience and, as a result of growing up a little, I was in a point in my life where I felt more confident and self-assured than I ever had felt before. We were nearing the countdown to 2016.  Lights were flashing, parting the fog. Practically everyone was shirtless. And, as I looked around through the darkness, I started to notice that all of my friends are paired up with someone whom they were undoubtedly going to kiss when the clock struck. In fact, it seemed like almost everyone in the basement had someone to kiss. In truth, I wasn’t there for that and so it didn’t bother me too much. But…I’m beautiful…right? Suddenly, it turned into one of those moments where time stopped. As the countdown began, I looked around the basement and noticed that there was something different about me. There was something itching at the back of my mind that might explain why I was the only one who was alone…

I realized I was the only black person I could see in the room. 3…2…1…Happy New Year.

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I focused the bulk of my coursework in graduate school on race/ethnic identity. Through my studies, my eyes were opened for the first time to the idea that everything in our country is impacted by race. Consequently, I started to see everything through race- colored glasses. It made me very sad and very mad. It still does. As I look back on my experiences as a gay man, starting at that first night in Paradise, I can’t help but see how the intersection of my sexuality and my race have colored so many of my experiences:

I remember how often I was the only person of color in queer spaces in Boston. I remember how often I heard in conversations with white guys that they thought I was handsome “for a black guy” or that I was cute but they didn’t “date black guys.” I also remember hearing the opposite: “I’m really into black guys” or “I only date men of color.” I remember how neither seemed to bother me that much at first.

I remember when I first got on dating apps, I noticed how people would put “no blacks, no Asians” on their profiles. I would ignore it and pursue any way. There was a time that I didn’t list my race on dating apps because of it. I messaged a guy on an app and when he asked me what my race was I lied. He stopped the conversation because he knew I wasn’t telling the truth. He told me “you should never have to lie about who you are to get anyone to like you.” I have no idea who that person was, but thank you for saying that to me all those years ago. I always list my race now.

I took a break from dating apps for a while after my New Years experience but have since returned. Now, I entirely dismiss people who list any race-based criteria. But I’ve noticed that I still have to stop myself from swiping on people of color without actually looking at their profile. Mainstream standards of beauty in the gay community–white, fit, young, hairless–have inundated me just like they have so many others. It is something that I try to consciously work against all the time. I try to slow down and look at profiles to see if I really am attracted to the person, whomever they may be. Still, I am surprised when someone whom I find attractive actually finds me attractive back. I worry that if he is white, he swiped because he is fetishizing me and my blackness. I am not as surprised when a person of color finds me attractive. I worry that people of color swipe on me simply because I am black and not because they actually want to get to know who I am. I worry they too are fetishizing me for my blackness. I may quit dating apps again soon.

I remember the first time that I went to an event hosted by The Welcoming Committee in Boston. It’s a group that takes over traditionally heterosexual spaces for a night and makes them into queer event spaces. It was the first time that I felt at home at a queer event. I had the honor of being a volunteer for the group and eventually I helped to run it for a short time. TWC was my first queer family and was where I made my first black gay male friend. While we are not as close as we used to be, the mentorship and advice that he gave me all those years ago has stuck with me. I still think of him as an example of what it looks like to full y live ones truth. TWC was the reason I eventually had the courage to fully come out on this day four years ago.

I remember finally fully ccoming out to my parents and my dad saying “You’re 24, you’re not ugly, and you don’t date; we knew you were gay.” One of my favorite dad quotes to this day. I remember my parents making it clear to me that all they have ever wanted was for me to be happy, to be true to who I am, and to be safe. I came out to my sister first. Over Thai food I stumbled though the words, “I’m gay.” She looked at me blankly and said “Nothing surprises me anymore.” We laughed and continued lunch. I remember thinking I wish I had come out sooner; the people who I was most afraid of turned out to be my biggest advocates, as they always had been.

I remember moving into a new place in Boston and having a gay roommate for the first time. He was a slightly older, extremely muscular Nigerian man and he acted as my first gay sage. I was in awe of his attitude about the gay scene. He was confident and took no bullshit from anyone. They either wanted him or didn’t. He surrounded himself with good people. I wanted to be like him.

I remember meeting the individual who would become my first gay best friend. I had never had a close friend with whom I could talk to about what it was like to be gay. We went everywhere together. He helped build my confidence in ways I never imagined were possible. He was hilarious. We were a mess together. Eventually, we had a falling out over things that gay boys seem to always falling out over. Looking back, they were silly mistakes. We have since made up but I doubt that we will never be as close as we were for many reasons. I look at who he hangs out with now, a wonderful group of guys…but they are all white like him. I don’t hold it against him, but I wonder if he notices. My current best friend is another gay guy. I don’t know anyone who can make me laugh as hard or gross me out as much as he can. He is Latino. And, despite all the time that we have spent together, we rarely talk about what it means to be gay men of color in a white dominated gay scene. I wish we would more. Maybe we are both too scared and too scarred face the reality amidst our joy.

I remember my friends asking me “Why do you always seem to go after pale, skinny, white dudes?” and me not having an answer until I came home to the predominantly white neighborhood I grew up in and looked around. And then I thought about where I went to high school and college; both elite white institutions.

I remember the only two serious relationships that I have ever had. They were both with white guys. The first one was the first time I was crazy about someone. He was goofy and ambitious. He loved to eat and had good taste. But he wasn’t fully out. I never met his straight friends or parents. He always jokingly talked about how much he liked Latino men. Despite the incredible amount of time we spent together, he told me that he wasn’t ready for a relationship. But, I Iiked him so I was okay with all of that. We ended up “breaking up” after a full summer together right before I started grad school. He said it wasn’t fair that he wasn’t ready for a relationship and that I deserved someone who was. I was heartbroken, but he was right. A few months later I learned that he had started dating someone officially. When I found out who it was, I was surprised to learn that the guy wasn’t Latino. He was white too. He is now more out than ever, albeit still not fully. And despite his claims of liking men of color and having friends who identified in that way, all I ever see him in pictures with are white guys. I can’t help thinking that my skin color had something to do with why we couldn’t be together.

I was a bit more balanced when it came to the second of the two. I had a few more experiences under my belt and approached the relationship in a more jaded fashion. I fell pretty hard for him too. He was extremely smart, passionate, and compassionate. He also had fantastic taste, this time in music. Unfortunately because of extenuating circumstances, we had to end our relationship as well. A few months ago,  he lampooned me for having “Ivy League grad” in my dating profile. I tried to explain to him that I felt compelled to have that detail my profile because without it people would look at me and assume I wasn’t smart. On top of that, I was proud of what I had accomplished. Looking back, I see how problematic my thinking was. I know people shouldn’t associate the color of my skin with being anything but excellent and if they do I shouldn’t be around those people anyway. I have since removed that part of my profile where I can. Still, I wanted him to understand why I felt compelled to have it on my profile in the first place. I wanted him to understand that black people are seen as lesser than and these apps exacerbate that discrimination. He proceeded to compare the judgment and dismissal that I receive for the color of my skin to the way he gets treated because of the size of his penis. I was crestfallen and, in an odd turn, couldn’t find it in myself to continue the conversation. He didn’t understand why that comment was so problematic. We haven’t talked about that subject again.

I still have never had an “official” boyfriend.

I remember that before leaving Boston, inspired by one of my graduate school classes and wanting to cocoon myself around other gay black men, I started a group called the Men of Melanin Magic. The group still exists today. We used the same model as The Welcoming Committee initially. The first event drew 40+ people. I was excited by being around other black gay men. I though it felt good. At the events, however, my friends who helped me start the group would always note how I wasn’t acting myself. They wondered why I wasn’t being gregarious and making friends with everyone like I usually do. “People find you attractive! Have you gotten any numbers?” they would ask. I hadn’t. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I know now that my reticence was based in my fear of being judged. In conversations, without knowing me or having any prompting–sometimes without me having said anything–guys at the events would say “You look like someone who only dates white guys.” I was afraid of not being seen as “black enough.” So, I stayed silent. I know that I cannot generalize these experiences to all gay black men, but it has always been hard for me not to. Even now, when among a group of people with whom I should feel kinship I feel like they are all strangers.

I have since made black gay male friends, but there have been many moments where I felt as though some of them were trying to provide with me unsolicited counsel. I felt as though they were trying to hold a mirror up to me to help me “see the error of my ways.” That they wanted to explain to me that there was a way that I should act and a kind of guy I should date. There was a kind of “wokeness” that I should be at. That I should have recognized “all of these things before” and that “I would get there someday.” I remember just wanting to do whatever I wanted to do and be me without any “shoulds.” Maybe they were just trying to help and that I was too afraid to admit that they were right.

I remember how excited I was to move to Chicago. By the end of my time in Boston, I felt like it was a insidious, hyper-racialized place. Moving to Chicago has been a great change for me. That is not to say that it is not hyper-racialized. But, because there are simply more people of color, the gay scene feels slightly different. All gay bars here have a few more black people in them. I’m not alone. In fact, there are gay bars that are heavily frequented by people of color. A year in and I have yet to have someone say to me “you’re cute for a black guy.” My new job has also afforded me the opportunity to travel the country and see new gayborhoods in Houston, San Francisco, and Atlanta. These are all places that have a wider range of queer spaces and more people of color than I was used to in Boston. I have felt much more appreciated in all these places.

I remember being in a straight bar with a new gay friend in the south suburbs of Chicago and being the only black person in the bar. I brought it up to him in passing. He said to me, frustrated, “We are all having a good time, why do you have to bring up race? No one else is thinking about that.” I was.

I remember a recent date I went on a date with someone in Chicago. Things were going well and we were holding hands as we were about to hop on the train. As we started to kiss, a black man who was sitting at the train station looked at me and said, “Man, do you really have to do that in front of me? Can’t you go somewhere else? I don’t want to see you two do that.” My date was livid and proceeded to call the man a “nigger.” I was mortified. He grabbed my hand and pulled me on the train. He commenced to rant about how he hated when people were homophobic. When I finally caught my breath, I asked him how he felt that it was okay to say “the n-word” at all, particularly in front of me. He said he didn’t mean anything by it. He would never call me that. That I wasn’t like that guy. Dumbfounded, I continued on the date, hoping for an opportunity to explain to him how wrong his thinking was. I never got it and I wish I had jumped off at the next stop.

I remember celebrating my first Chicago Pride as a full out gay adult this past June. It was a magical to be able to feel as though I could finally be my true self in a place I have always called home. The day was full of great views, energetic dancing, and love. So much love. I was surrounded by friends, new and old, throughout the day. I felt beautiful.

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So what does this all have to do with pride? Most of these stories are sad memories sad, not happy and full of revelry like the celebratory LGBTQ month of June promises. I know that in many of these instances other factors besides or in addition to race were at play. There is always more than one side to a story, though I don’t know how much that matters. Impact trumps intent. I try not to hold grudges and I do not think that any of these people who made me feel the way I feel or felt are “bad.”  I know that there were many points in these stories where my leaving the situation or listening to signs that I picked up on would have saved me grief. Of course, it is easy to say all of that in hindsight. I acknowledge that these vignettes show many of my own insecurities, self-loathing, internalized racism, and blind spots. In many cases, I am complicit in the racism I am experiencing. At the same time that I may blame others for some of these actions and events, I am not trying to pass blame on anyone for my own flaws. I am trying to work on all of them daily. My journeys from being a gayby (read: gay + baby) to a gaydolescent and from not seeing color to seeing it everywhere have not been easy ones. They have been full of missed opportunities, heartbreak, and mistakes. I’m starting to think that’s okay. I’m starting to think that it’s how I learn best.

To be clear, I have had many, many glorious moments as a gay black many in the years before and coming out fully four years ago. However, after this Pride month, I started to think more critically about what pride really means. The word and the month. When I started to reflect on my experiences, these stories rose to the top. Through putting the side by side I noticed something. Looking back on all of these stories, there was a threaded theme of being seen or not seen–for the right or wrong reasons. I have spent the large majority of my life not being out and running away from who I am. Now that I am out, figuring out what it means to be gay has not ended. My recent recognition of the racialization of my experience as a gay man has only further convoluted and complicated things. And while I am certainly not always sad, this recognition makes me sad a lot of the time. But, as a singer once said, “it’s okay not to be okay.”

So I share these stories, not because I want sympathy or I because want anyone I have mentioned here to feel bad. I relay these stories to say that that these things happened to me and, as a poet once said, “still I rise.” I tell my truth in an effort to be seen by those like me who have had similar experiences and feelings and have never voiced them before. I myself have never told anyone many of these stories. I want those who feel invisible in similar ways to me to know that I see them. I want to understand. I want to find a safe space. I want to help and be helped. I want to help those who don’t see to consider opening their eyes. I tell these stories to be seen because deep down I AM proud of who I am, where I come from, and where I am going in spite of my struggle. For me, pride–the month and the feeling–is about being visible. Unabashedly so. Through the good and the bad. And, on this the fourth anniversary of my coming out, I wanted to write it all down so I wouldn’t forget.

I remember going to the final block party of the Boston Pride celebration the day we all woke up to find out that the Pulse massacre happened in Orlando in 2016. I remember crying and crying, not only because my gay family had been attacked out of hate but because this event reminded me that gay people of color can’t even find safe spaces within the walls of their own community. None of us were safe and I felt even less so as a black man. Still, we raged on. I remember running into one of my professors from graduate school at the block party. He admitted that he was a bit out of place, that people his age did not typically attend this event. He explained that after he woke up and cried in his husbands arms, he called his friends and told them that they had to show up to this event regardless of their age or their fear. He repeated to me what he said to them: “We have to let the world know that they can kill us and we will still be here.”

I’m still here. Can you see me?

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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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