Instructor's Corner: To Be or Not to Be Out in the Classroom: How Teachers Decide
Deciding whether or not to come out to students can be a complex decision for lesbian, gay, and queer (LGQ) members of the teaching community. In their study, Tim McKenna-Buchanan of Manchester University, and Stevie Munz and Justin Rudnick, both doctoral students at Ohio University, explore the various strategies LGQ individuals use when deciding whether to disclose their sexual orientation/identity in the classroom.
The lead author of the study, McKenna-Buchanan says he constantly navigates this question in the classroom. “It is a constant negotiation and tension,” he says, “and I don’t think there’s a right answer, but I wanted to explore the questions.”
Past research on the disclosure of sexual orientation, the authors write, treats the matter as a “do or don’t” question, describing the tensions LGQ teachers face in deciding whether or not to disclose their sexual orientation in class. However, this study demonstrates that the negotiation of a teacher’s sexual identity in the classroom is much more complex than disclose or conceal. According to the authors, “Coming out in the classroom is a messy and flexible phenomenon,” with some teachers deciding to come out to all students, while others choosing to both disclose and conceal—coming out to some students but not to others.
For this study, the researchers interviewed 29 individuals: four identified as lesbian women, 17 identified as gay men, three identified as queer men, and five identified as queer women. Twenty-five of the participants were white, two were black, one was Asian American, and one was Hispanic.
The study was framed using communication privacy management theory, which establishes the criteria people use for deciding whether or not to disclose their personal information. These criteria include cultural expectations, gender, motivation, context, and risk-benefit. The authors do explore whether participants use these criteria when deciding to reveal their sexual orientations, but they also look beyond and discovered a more fluid process that was not as simple as deciding to reveal or not to reveal. Often, they found, teachers use complex strategies to help them decide how much information to share, and with whom. These strategies include selection, reciprocity, ambiguity, deflection, and avoidance.
While communication privacy management theory suggests that people either conceal or reveal private information, the interviews in this study revealed that the study participants use unique strategies for deciding whether to share private information.
Selection. Using this strategy, participants decided on an intentional and direct verbal or nonverbal disclosure of sexual orientation. A teacher might use nonverbal signs such as safe-zone signs, pride flags, or equality signs. Some teachers use intentional dress or gender performance as intentional expressions that start conversations around sexual identity. Cory, a 32-year-old, white, gay graduate assistant from the western United States said, “I basically told them the first day, 'I’m gay, and sometimes I’ll talk about gay topics, like things on television, gay characters, things like that.'”
Reciprocity. In other cases, participants chose to disclose their sexual identity in response to a student’s own disclosure, or as a response to a request for personal information. Steve, a 48-year-old, white, male full professor in the eastern United States, said, “There was a kid from one of my classes [who] ’ran into me’ across campus…and he just wanted to talk. I’m totally fine with that. If [students] ask, I will be direct with them. I really like to promote the open environment that we have here.”
Ambiguity. Whereas in the above examples, a teacher might have overtly disclosed his or her sexual orientation, using ambiguity as a strategy means that a teacher might have chosen to send ambiguous messages that could be assigned multiple interpretations. These types of messages reduced the vulnerability the teachers experienced in front of their students. Robin, a 34-year-old, white, lesbian assistant professor in the southern United States mentioned she consistently referred to her significant other as a “partner” instead of by name, and that she avoided using gendered pronouns.
Deflection. With deflection, LGQ teachers actively redirected discussions about their sexual orientation. Some teachers felt sharing their “emotional state” wasn’t appropriate. Dan, a 39-year-old, white, gay, male associate professor on the East Coast, discussed redirecting a conversation about his sexual orientation: “In one of my classes last semester, a student was like, ‘Hey Dr. [Dan], you have your own website,’ and pulled it up for the entire class to see. And there was my picture with an ‘about me’ statement that I do LGBT research, and I was like ‘Oh, yeah, look at it for different options for layout and design.’ And they were all like, ‘This is really cool!’ I just focused on the layout, and no one mentioned anything [about my sexual orientation].”
Avoidance. Finally, some of the teachers interviewed for this study said they would rather avoid the subject altogether. “I just don’t talk about myself much,” said Steve. “So…I’m not going to talk much about my sexual orientation.” Ronald, a 33-year-old, Asian American, gay, male graduate teaching associate in the central United States, said he would rather not put himself out there in front of students he had just met. He also said his sexual orientation was of no relevance to class content and therefore was not important to disclose.
From a practical standpoint, this study revealed that the decisions of when, how, and where to disclose sexual identity to students are very complex. As long as students and teachers continue to communicate about their identities in the classroom, LGQ teachers will need to consider if, when, and how to approach the topic of their sexual orientations.