Monday, July 25, 2011

Coming Out to Students: Risk and Liberation

- by Deborah Schwartz

This chapter explores the liberatory power of coming out, but also its risks. It may be of most interest to therapists and educators, as we grapple with decisions about self-disclosure in general, and regarding social group memberships that are associated with privilege and oppression in particular. Although the chapter focuses on disclosure of sexual orientation, the concepts it explores are equally applicable across a variety of memberships, particularly those that may not be immediately visible to others such as hidden disabilities, religion, class, etc. Also, while the coming out dilemma can feel especially tricky in hierarchical power relationships (therapist with client, teacher with students, etc.) this piece may also appeal to anyone who is faced with the choice to disclose or not.

The chapter was authored by a dear high school friend of mine. Interestingly, we did not disclose our sexual orientations to one another until years after high school - me because I was not out to myself yet, and Deborah because she was at the beginning of her identity development as a lesbian and was not out to her peers. Our reconnection in adulthood, including our connection as queer identified Jewish women, has been a blessing. This chapter will appear in the book "Our Stories Ourselves: the Embodyment of Women's Literacy" which will be available for purchase at It is preprinted here with permission.


When I taught adult basic education at the Archdale Family Literacy Project in Roslindale, Massachusetts, I kept a journal. More precisely, we—the ten women students and myself— all kept journals. Our medium was stacks and stacks of green steno-pads. In them, we tried to tell the truth about our lives, though the students started noticing gaps in my story. They challenged me not to hide myself from them. Following are several edited entries from my own journal, which tell the story of coming out to my students. Most are from my experience with this class, but I also included two entries from two other classes I taught concurrently.

March 3

They are writing frantically in their journals. S writes about driving the rats out of her apartment. C writes about playing her music as loudly as she likes. L writes about her grandmother— about living with her in the mountains and drinking her coffee so black that it stings her eyes before she swallows.

When J reads, she interrupts herself to tell us that she’s getting evicted because her oldest son Tom came home with some guy named Eddie who lit a joint in the hall then walked into her apartment with the lit joint and now the housing authority has the right to evict them.

C responds, “Even in this lousy project, you still have some rights.” She is on her feet: “Do you know how often they’ve threatened to evict me? Just for playing my music after church on Sunday afternoon?”

C is smart and community-minded. She has set up this protocol of letting the neighbors know when she’s going to be playing loud music. Half the time, they say it’s fine and half of those times she invites them over because “it’s no fun to dance alone,” and the other half of the time, she shares chicken with them and then they change their minds, and half of the time they end up watching TV together. “All those halves don’t add up,” B notices.

“They add up,” responds C. “Believe me, they add up.” Everyone laughs. The classroom is a world of words and stories and noise and quiet while we’re writing.

We have authority over our lives for this brief time. The crocus doesn’t just come up in the spring, but has the purple-colored chutzpah to bloom through the hard, cold earth. These women are like that. They give me bravery, but what do I give them? Room, that’s all.

April 23

“Read what you wrote, Deborah. You always make us read what we wrote,” J notices that I skip passages when it’s my turn to read. I remind her that its ok to skip passages, or to not even read at all.

“But Deborah, you never tell us anything about your life, or at least anything good,” which I know is a code word for anything interesting.

“Well nothing all that interesting happens in my life,” I counter.

“Are you kidding?” replies C. “You come in here some mornings and you look like a train hit you. You and your double latte! Then some days you come in looking like a shining star. You have a life too, just cause you’re a teacher doesn’t mean you can hide behind that. Jesus, you know what color each of our bedroom walls is painted. We don’t know anything about you. Nothing that counts anyway. You take a risk, Missy, and read!” That’s what C says.

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