IT HAPPENED TO ME: I'm A Lesbian Teacher In Rural Illinois And Every Day Is a Struggle

I am alone as the only open lesbian/gay person in my school, dealing with this in a rural community where Christianity is rampant and pro-life signs can be found on every corner.
Publish date:
August 26, 2015
IHTM, teaching, lgbt issues, Discrimination

I can't do my job without being who I am. Who you are is in everything you do. I am so many things: I am a teacher, I am bilingual, I am married, I am married to a woman, I am a lesbian.

“I am a lesbian” is the part that sticks out the most. It’s there facing my students head on, and therefore facing their parents, my colleagues, the whole school. It’s paralyzing when so many people confront you with their opinions about you. When you don't fit their idea of what is “right” or “appropriate.” When what is “appropriate” becomes about your life and your life is then made to be inappropriate.

Another school year is about to start. I can't take the idea of having to stick up for myself day after day, maybe not to that extreme, but it sometimes feels like a daily job. I'm tired. Let me correct that—I am exhausted.

I don't want to go back there. I don't want to be anywhere in the school system facing this, dealing with "this." This GAY thing.

It was my 3rd year of teaching 5th grade dual language when I finally said the words "I am a lesbian." I’d mentioned things before that made it clear that I was in a relationship with a female. But I think the actual word, “lesbian,” is what gets to people.

A colleague, who was "supportive" of gay rights, told me that she always looked at the word as dirty. “OK,” I said, and left the room.

The day after I said “I am a lesbian” in my classroom my students came in with notes and hand-written signs that read, "We still love you even though you have cancer."

"I don't have cancer," I said.

"We know, but we still love you."

I left it at that. I wasn't offended because they were trying to figure it all out in their own heads, and they are taught from an early age that being gay is like a disease. So it made sense to me why they had gone there.

I am alone as the only open lesbian/gay person in my school, dealing with this in a rural community where Christianity is rampant and pro-life signs can be found on every corner.

It’s always something, like, "Why don't you call your wife your husband?" And when I give the answer, the next day it is the same question all over again.

Then there are the parents, like the father who decided to confront me at a parent-teacher conference. "My son tells me you have a ‘wife.’ Do you think that is appropriate? I’m a Christian." He went on and on, and I finally stopped him, saying, “I would like to talk about your son's math problems."

He kept going on about my marital life and how it is offensive. I told him if he wants to talk about his son, then this conference can continue, if not, it is over. He went back to proclaiming his Christian values, stating over and over how he is a Christian.

I got up and called for help, because he wouldn’t leave. I found the teacher's union representative to help me. Fear swept over me, knowing that I may or may not receive support. The school principal came in and I immediately felt small, like a kid in trouble walking me down to the office.

The principal stared at me from behind his big desk and told me that I need to learn how to “handle these situations.” That these issues will come up because of my “lifestyle choice.” Making his privileged opinion clear.

I told him I DID handle it, that I tried every way to focus on the student, but that the parent would not stop talking about my marriage. The principal told me that unless that father was calling me offensive names I needed to try and finish the conference and that he would gladly sit it on it. My voice was silenced.

I left and went to another teacher's room, laid my head on the table, and bawled my eyes out. All of the confrontation had gotten to me, and I couldn't hold it in anymore.

I do have two colleagues at school with whom I can confide in. They support me, and tell me I can do it, and don't let this break you.

But after a while it just does. It breaks you down. I’m exhausted by the knowledge of knowing that this year means a whole new set of kids, with a whole new set of questions, which quite frankly I am tired of answering.

The negative comments, attitudes, and facial expressions, the non-acceptance, and the tolerance of bigotry is wearing me down.

That being said, there have been many positive experiences that have come from me being open. I am a visible LGBTQ role model and have helped many kids who are being bullied. I push for visibility and use my voice when necessary.

My wife has even come into my classroom to do a garden lesson, and afterwards they said, "Ms. Cruz’s wife gave us these aprons," to other kids, the same as if she were any other teacher’s spouse.

But I also realize that my positive experiences are the everyday norm for the white hetero couple.

It becomes a slap in the face to say, “It will get better, you can take it.” Well no, I can't. No matter where I go there will be somebody that wants to take my "lifestyle" on. If it was so easy to just be you, there would be a lot more open teachers, people, visibility.

As I am writing this I realize how much courage and strength activists have for exploring themselves, for taking the time to write about the experiences of race/ethnicity/orientation/ gender/etc. This is just a glimpse into it all.