Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Coming out in Niterói

One of my students came out to me in class yesterday.

We were in the middle of the first-10-minutes “how was your weekend” conversation part of the class. He was telling me about his trip out of town and then chirped “Can I trust you?” To which I shrugged and replied – “Who am I gonna tell?” (except maybe everyone who reads my blog. I was a therapist for years. I’ll let you in on a trade secret: confidentiality is a myth.)

Then he told me he was visiting his boyfriend. Cute! He was all smiles filling me in on his weekend adventure (plus a quick reference to the dreaded conversation he has yet to have with his father.) I had actually just been thinking that very morning that perhaps this guy (only 18 y.o.) was gay. Really. My gaydar works even across cultures.

I have a personal theory about when LGBT folks come out. It is my experience that being in the closet is so uncomfortable, troubling, personally shaming and lonely that we come out at the FIRST POSSIBLE MOMENT we feel it is safe to do so. In that light I’m proud my student felt safe enough to share his story with me.

Anyone who knows me (and Luiz) knows that we are ‘out’ 100% of the time. It has been more than 30 years since I’ve seen the inside of a closet. Luiz and I have long since forgotten how to hide ourselves. What’s weird is that here in Brazil (older, our peers) gay people speak of the need to be closeted, yet I have NEVER experienced a negative consequence of just being myself (knock wood). In fact, I brought up my being gay during my job interview at FISK school saying that if so much as one child made a homophobic remark toward me I would be out the door. I have no patience for that. The manager assured me there would be no problem (and there wasn’t).

In the case of my students (now they are all adults) they know pretty quickly that they are dealing with an out gay man. My office contains photos of Luiz and I, etc. plus I do not switch out pronouns when referring to my husband.

Most importantly, I think, I do not assume my students are straight. If we are talking about meeting new people or going to clubs, or whatever, I do not limit my speech to just the male-female paradigm. In doing so I make room for the LGBTs whom I may be talking with to be themselves with me. No shame. No judgment. In fact – affirmation.

So I assume my student felt like he could share his excitement about his weekend with me (perhaps I am one of very few people he can do that with) given the safety demonstrated in our relationship.

When I was teaching at FISK my gaydar went off around two of the teenage students there. Again, my speech was always inclusive and uncensored. Before long both of them (separately) came up to me after class and shared stories that were essentially intended to let me know they were gay. They used to beam when I spoke in ways that were clearly inclusive of their reality.

Anyway, yesterday was a warm reminder (here at the end of gay pride month) that our personal behavior has consequences, and often times those consequences are good.

[For the record, I have changed some details about my student to honor his/her request for privacy.]


Danielle said...

Hooray for your student! Hooray for you! Must have been a very nice and rewarding moment. :) :)

I have to say though... I'm jealous! Is that dumb? I have 2 pretty obviously gay students, but neither of them talk about their lives with me.

I have one private student that I've been teaching for over a year and I'm pretty positive that he's gay, but he just won't talk about it with me. :( I make a point to do the pronoun thing, too, to always say things like, "someone's boyfriend or girlfriend" instead of "your girlfriend", and I mention that I lived in San Francisco and everything.... :( I don't expect him to necessarily be like "guess what! I'm gay!" but to be comfortable enough to tell me stories that perhaps would show it, because I wouldn't care. :(

Alexandre tries to comfort me by pointing out that the guy's family is very religious, so maybe he just doesn't talk about it with anyone.

I have another older student who I'm pretty sure is gay, but he's in a group of three with a really macho guy who makes gay jokes. I make a point to discredit the gay jokes and say they're rude and inappropriate, but I guess it's a little more obvious why this guy keeps quiet about his personal life. However, this student works with Alexandre at the hospital, and he told Alexandre how much he loves me and my classes.

It's just so sad that so many people here feel like they're not allowed to be themselves (like you said). It's pretty commonplace (especially here in Hicktown) to make jokes about gay people and to say that gay men aren't really men and other equally ignorant crap. Too bad the whole world can't be like the Bay Area. ;p

Jim said...

Thanks Danielle. I don't think it is dumb to want to live in a community where people are free to be themselves. We are definitely a long way from the Bay Area!

Your students may find it simply unbelieveable that you are hip to their reality. Darn that closet and the ways it screws with people's minds.

Good for you for interrupting the homophobic remarks of your student. So many people just let them pass - and it eats away at the LGBTs among us.

Fabio Bossard said...

Nice post!
I'm glad to say that things have been changing. I came out 5 years ago and I had a big support from friends. My generation (I'm 31) is not close-minded about this. The newer generations are even more open. But it all depends on where you live also.

Rachel said...

I always imagined that gaydar would be cross cultural. Maybe France would be difficult ;)

Great post and good for him! I can imagine that Brazil is a tough place to come out.

Jim said...

Fabio - thanks for the reminder that this closet thing is also a generational thing. I had a boyfriend many years ago who used to always say we just have to wait for all the older people to die off and we will get our equality. Not sure it's totally true, but we would definitely be closer.

Rachel - I think the toughest place I've been for getting a bead on folks was Turkey. It seemed like ALL men were gay - except the taboo was so strong it was mind bending. Men in the baths would wash each other, men in the bars would hug and sing to each other, men in the clubs would dance with each other (women were not allowed out of the house after dark!) But supposedly NOBODY was gay.

Yeah, right. What about those guys we hooked up with that one time...