I’ve always been loud — loud of voice, loud of opinion, loud of heart — and in 2007, when I divorced the father of my son after 16 years of marriage and began a full-throttled relationship with a woman, my coming out was pretty loud as well. I told my friends. I told my siblings, my parents, the cousins hanging off all the limbs on the trunk of my extended Cuban family tree. I told the fish guy, my hairdresser, the maître’d at my favorite French restaurant. Yes, I came out everywhere — except at work, where I started to practice the art of lowering my voice.
It wasn’t as if my job was in jeopardy. I am fortunate to work for the first public school district in the Southeast United States to grant protections to students and staff regarding sexual orientation — pretty progressive, considering the protections were put in place back in 1994, long before LGBTQ+ equality was even a whisper in the public forum. Still, I kept my status on the low because I knew how my revelation would go down. At that point, I had spent the previous 6 months fielding increasingly personal questions regarding my “change in status:” If you’re a so-called lesbian, why did you marry a man? Is your son, like, real? I mean, how was he conceived? What do two women do in bed, anyway? Does it even count if you can’t get pregnant? What if the baby ends up gay because of you?”
The only thing more outrageous than the microaggressions attached to those questions was that I answered them at all. I answered candidly, openly, in the absence of boundaries, my responses a sort of begging — an entreaty to be understood, accepted, validated, forgiven.
I wasn’t alone in my thinking either. At a party, a similarly closeted-while-at-work friend of a friend offered me her take on teaching while gay.
“The kids know I’m a dyke. I mean, how could anyone not know? But they don’t know-know because I won’t confirm or deny, which means they don’t really know,” she paused. “And it’s not like I’m lying. I’m just not saying, you know?”
Yeah, I did know.
A week before, a huge bouquet of flowers had arrived at school for me, and my southern belle of a department head brought them into my classroom with a twinkle in her eye and a question on her lips.
“Glory be! Who sent you these gorgeous flowers? You must have a new beau. What IS his name?” she asked, to which I smiled and buried my face in the flowers that smelled faintly of my lover’s skin lotion but did not respond. I left her hanging in my silence until her smile slipped a bit, and she backed out of my classroom, her eyes on my face just in case I should change my mind and spill my guts, until she finally retreated calling “Bless your heart!” as she left.
I knew it was bullshit. My fellow lesbian teacher and I were lying — to our colleagues, to our students, to ourselves. It was a truth that was really driven home when I accepted the position as my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club sponsor — a group created to foster community among students in a safe space where connection is encouraged and change affected through representation and advocacy. I am their champion, I told myself, and began to raise my voice again. But that was bullshit, too. I wasn’t a hero; I was a coward.
Week after week, I empowered students to live their truth, to love themselves, to love whomever they chose to love, to start letter-writing campaigns and clothes drives, to volunteer, to laugh and talk and share, and to be brave as I stayed silent, erased by my own pencil — my own hand.
If you’ve ever been around erasers, however, you know they leave smudges, and some kids come equipped with laser-sharp vision that hones in on the detritus. Which is what happened when she rolled in all attitude and gold hoops and surveyed our meeting — the sharing circle, the trust exercises, the Safe Space poster, and rainbow flag on my wall. She fixed me in her gaze, pointed right at me.
“What about you?” she said. “What’s your deal? You’re just listening to these kids talking about how they’re gay, or trans, or an ally or whatever, and you’re all quiet. What about you? How do you identify?”
The room went still, every eye trained on my reaction, every ear tilted toward what I’d say next as I stood there, facing down the barrel of a question designed to bulldoze my defenses. I could have told her to mind her own business. I could have shut her down in my teacher’s voice, shamed her, and asked her to leave my class. But instead, I did what came naturally; I told her the truth.
“I am a happily partnered lesbian, with a family and a life I am proud of. I identify as a daughter, mother, sister, teacher, leader, human being. I also identify as the only adult in the room, which means my private life is off-limits, and that’s all you get to know,” I said.
“Cool, good to know,” she answered. “I’m gay too.” She nodded her head.
“And by the way Prof, your eyebrows? They’re on fleek!” And she winked and helped me shed the last vestiges of my shame.
I turned loud again, and my voice carried. In 2008, the year I took over the club, there were 10 names on the GSA roster. By 2012, we were up to 84 members. In 2015, we changed our name to Safe Space — an act that spoke to inclusivity and representation in the name of out transgender and gender non-binary students. And in August of 2016, emboldened by the Obama administration’s issuance of guidance to public school districts that provided that LGBTQ+ students were entitled to protection, including the right to use the bathroom that aligned with their gender identity, I facilitated a faculty workshop to help disseminate those new guidelines to my coworkers.
I admit to feeling a touch of hubris as I led that workshop. I admit to feeling gleeful as I schooled some of my coworkers on the use of pronouns and names and locker rooms and bathroom accessibility. I admit to trying to shame the most closed-minded among them as I talked about suicide and homelessness rates and equal access to healthcare for LGBTQ+ youth. Suck it up, buttercup! is what I thought as I projected my loudest smile onto every frowning, eye-rolling, intolerant face in that room.
But, oh, how I’d pay for my arrogance. That smile would come to whip around and ricochet back in my face when, on November 9th, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States of America.
It didn’t take long to be silenced again.
Less than two hours after Trump was sworn into office, all mentions of LGBTQ+ issues were removed from the official White House webpage. Less than a month after that, newly-appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos overturned the Obama-era guidance regarding transgender students’ access to bathrooms and locker rooms, rescinding all protections previously enacted. In short order, the Trump administration saw fit to reject complaints from transgender students; suggest that it was acceptable for schools to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students while accepting tax-payer funds; refuse to rule out federal funding for schools that discriminate against LGBTQ+ students; and to rescind Title IX rules related to schools’ obligations to address sexual harassment, including sexual violence — just to name a few things.
My students were despondent, and in their despair, they looked to me for answers, for guidance, for a model of how to stand up in the face of blatant bigotry and injustice. Muzzled by dread and rage, I could not answer. My voice, I realized, was no clarion call for equity and basic human decency; it was barely a voice at all. So I stopped talking, stopped sharing my opinion, stopped representing. That first Trump year was also the first time that my GSA/Safe Space students did not march in our city’s annual Pride parade since I had taken the helm of the club. I told the kids it was because I had failed to file the field trip paperwork in time, but some of those kids had been with me for four years and knew that I didn’t forget things like that — ever.
They knew what I would not confirm or deny: I was afraid, and that fear diminished me. And they knew that, too. Word spread quickly — their lioness was without a roar, and the following year, the club roster was halved. The year after that, we lost half of the half, and by the time we locked down in March of 2020, we were down to 10 members — a full circle trajectory that was just bitter, not at all sweet.
As I write this, the pandemic rages on, and the Safe Space roster stands at zero. I am back to work, but I meet most of my students through a screen, and it is difficult to foster connection on a spotty WiFi. I’ve been tempted to resign as the Safe Space club sponsor in order to focus on what has seen me through the worst of the Trump years — time with my wife and son, virtual happy hours with my friends, poetry readings, the bird song that fills my garden, the writing project that just became a book that is alive in the world.
Quitting would make my life easier, to be sure, but who would it make me? Once again, it comes down to a question only I can answer. Who, exactly, do I want to be? The coward who bowed to fear and covered up her life with a smile and rainbow stickers or the banshee heralding her warning with the best tool in her arsenal: her loud and steady voice?
I am tired of being afraid. I am tired of keeping my voice at a decibel level only those close to me can hear. I am tired of keeping my head down, of keeping my opinions to myself. I am tired of disappearing. The one thing I’m sure of is that the answer I seek will never be found in a well of silence.
I found myself clutching a Biden-Harris campaign sign in my hands for 10 minutes the other night. I stood there debating whether or not I should put it in my yard. I was hesitant, reluctant, very clear to the fact that some neighbors with similar signs had had them defaced, their houses egged, their tires slashed by people who have forgotten the way our democracy works.
Did I dare invite harm onto my family simply for the sake of outing my political ideology? Lay low, I thought, that’s the safe bet. But then I heard her. After so many years, she was still pushing me toward my better self. What’s your deal? How do you identify? I heard her, and I jammed those metal stakes deep into the loam of my front yard.
When I was done, I walked in the house and yelled for my wife and son to come see what I’d done. They heard me and came quickly. It turns out, my voice still carries.