Teaching Outside the Closet

By Jeff Mayo

Stage lights illuminated us. I began waving my baton to cue the piano and then my students, who began singing “For Good” from Wicked. As the song states, my students changed me for good. Yet, enveloped by their beautiful singing, I was haunted by the harsh words from colleagues, administrators, and students at this school. Everyone watching saw a conductor leading students through a choir concert. My students saw a leader who always encouraged them to live as their authentic selves. But, all I could think about was the truth I withheld from them about my own identity. 

When I started teaching, I worked in a small private school and made the conscious choice to lie as I signed my contract. I agreed to “not live a lifestyle contrary to the teachings” represented by the school’s faith, which meant actively hiding that I am gay. Carefully, I limited access to who knew about the closet. I had a rough time there, but I made some incredible connections with students who are now teachers themselves. 

Then, I came to Matchbook Learning, a public charter school within Indianapolis Public Schools’ Innovation Network in Haughville, and began as the K-8 music teacher. I meticulously read through the contract and breathed a small sigh of relief when I realized that signing didn’t mean lying. I peeked out of the teaching closet. 

As I came to know my colleagues, I cautiously became myself. I stopped trying to act straight, which I had done by changing my speaking voice, being aware of my clothing, and monitoring how I moved my hands.

But then, during a music lesson, inside my own classroom, students attempted to upset their classmates and make fun of each other. I heard “f****t” yelled multiple times while we were drumming. As a gay man, this word is extremely derogatory, and its impact reached further than students might have intended. It made me question whether I was truly safe to live as my authentic self. Even still, I slowly had to formally out myself to my administration as I asked for guidance about representing myself without creating any unintentional discomfort. At one point, our now-CEO connected me to an Indianapolis school leader who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

During my conversation with this school leader, I felt fully seen for the first time in my life. My professional and personal selves were no longer divided, and I was given tips on how to come out naturally to students. Weeks later, I debriefed with my administrators, who gave me express permission to come out to students. 

Soon after, I had that opportunity. I’d finally heard “You’re so gay”, “that’s so gay,” and “you f****t” hurled across my classroom one too many times. 

I pulled the two students aside and asked if they knew the meaning of the words they were using. I compared it to how I, as a white man, will never say the n-word because it is an intracultural word that is okay for reappropriation within Black and African American culture. Even then, it is a non-academic language that we do not use during the school day. Through that approach, I was able to express to students that f*****t is a derogatory term used against gay men. “Well, nobody in our class is gay!” the students said. And for the first time in my career, I told them: “I am. I am gay. That word is not acceptable.”

I dreaded what could happen next.

But what they said surprised me.“Well, you need to tell everyone that you are gay! They need to know it’s not okay to say these words!” I instructed them, “I am not going to tell everyone. But, if you want to tell your classmates, you can.” Without hesitation, they told everyone. Among the giggles and questions, over the following months, students all gradually learned my truth. They even started correcting each other when classmates said “gay” or “f****t”.

The wave of acceptance from my colleagues, students, and administration was overwhelming. Soon after, I began dancing, singing, and laughing in the hallways more frequently than before.

Growing up, I never knew a gay adult, and anytime I encountered a gay person, those around me never had anything positive to say. Over time, students who were discovering their own identity within the LGBTQ+ community confided in me and now allow me to walk alongside them. Humbly, I have realized I am the representation I never had. 

Within one week of my students embracing me with acceptance, I saw some heartbreaking statistics on my Twitter feed, posted by Good Morning America. The statistics exposed that only 

  • 28% of LGBTQ+ youth “definitely have an LGBTQ+ role model”
  • 27% of LGBTQ+ youth “feel like they can be themselves in school”

Matchbook Learning is an extremely accepting community of students, staff, and administrators. For that, I am eternally grateful. Students in our school have role models and are encouraged to be themselves. My mission within education is to ensure every child knows that they matter, are valued, are important, and that who they are will always be enough. 

Here are actions you can take to foster an LGBTQ+-inclusive community:

And these are resources you can use to support LGBTQ+ youth:

Jeff Mayo (he/him/his) is currently an Instructional Coach & Director of eLearning, serving the Haughville, Indianapolis community, with Matchbook Learning at Wendell Phillips School 63