This blog is not like others I've done. I'm basically sharing my homework with you, because I feel the topic of my assignment is worth sharing. My task was to interview someone who is gay, asking him or her to describe any difficulties that occurred while growing up, attending school, and coming out to family and friends.
Many people generously volunteered to be the subject of my paper, but when it came time to choose, Marc Wheeler, now a working actor living in West Hollywood, Calif., seemed the full-circle choice. This homegrown Iowan was the first openly gay student I ever taught. I realized I didn't know much about what life was like for him during the years he was a student in my classroom.
It was time to learn.
We talked for two hours one night, and I learned a lot that will help me as I teach others who happened to be born gay. I have always respected Marc for his willingness to openly share who he is with the world. I hope you do too.
Marc Wheeler is likely not the first gay student I have ever taught; however, he is the first student I taught who openly identified himself as gay. In fact, I am fairly confident that I taught students born with a same-sex orientation before Marc came along in 1997 – whether any of us knew it at the time or not. In fact, a publicized medical study* estimates the prevalence of male homosexuality as between 2% and 10% of the population, thus supporting my suspicion. That study, published in 2004 by the Journal of Theoretical Biology, reported the estimate along with disclaimers about the difficulty of calculating such a statistic. The problem is basically two-fold: 1) Homosexuality is defined in different ways, and 2) The varying degree of acceptance among differing cultures affects the ability to collect data. By the time Marc, a 4.0 GPA student, was ready to attend college in the late 90s, his identity as a man who happened to be gay was something he was ready to define and accept. However, his parents were unaware of his sexual orientation and related identity struggles.
Interestingly, Marc’s dad may have had suspicions that were not admitted aloud, as he seemed to think that having his son attend Waldorf College would keep him away from people who were gay. That might be why his father, who Marc described as “a conservative, Christian, Republican, fundamentalist,” asked the college admission counselor during Marc’s college visit if Waldorf “had a gay problem.” He didn’t want his son being persuaded into a lifestyle that he regarded as sinful. Marc, embarrassed by his father’s question, reassured both men that being around gay people was not an issue that concerned him. In that moment, Marc privately thought of what he wanted – a place where he could live as who he believed himself to be: a man who is gay.
After years of repressing emotions that had nowhere to go, Marc felt “ready to burst” into a new life; and so, two days after he arrived on campus, he began to openly identify himself as gay. He used the occasion of meeting new people at theatre camp to finally express feelings of attraction to other males. The admission was something he had feared happening in elementary and middle school, for at that young age, Marc believed identifying himself as homosexual would mean – according to what he had learned from his experiences in churches (i.e., Pentecostal, United Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran) – that he would “burn in hell.” In fact, the first time Marc heard the word “homosexual” in late elementary, he secretly looked through a dictionary at home to verify the meaning. He learned it was someone who is “attracted to the same sex.” Taken aback, he thought: “That simply can’t be. I love God. I cannot burn in hell.” Fearing damnation, Marc hoped that simply would not come to be, for he already found males physically appealing.
Marc’s earliest introductions to anything regarding homosexuality were universally negative: the condemnation he felt from the church; remarks made by family members; references in health classes to AIDS and “the homosexual lifestyle”; and comments made by a male history teacher about a nefarious dictator who had been believed to be bisexual. When the teacher mentioned bisexuality, he added an explanation that sounded like a distasteful aside: “And, you know what that means – you are attracted to both boys and girls.”
Absent of positive adult support, Marc felt he could not come out until college. As he described it, his coming out was an inevitable, necessary step toward self-actualization, and he understood that part of the process meant redefining his relationship with his parents. In a way, he needed to introduce himself to them as who he had been all along – their first-born son who happened to be gay. He chose to tell his mother first on a weekend home from college. She asked him to not tell his father. She told Marc that she wanted to break the news to him. It took her nearly a year with consistent prodding by Marc. During that year, she sent occasional care packages to her son full of Skittles candies and other things that depicted rainbows, a symbol of gay pride. Marc remembers getting a lot of Skittles from home that year, his mother’s way of silently showing her love and support.
His father’s reaction when he finally learned of Marc’s sexual orientation perplexed Marc. On another trip to his hometown of Polk City, Iowa, Marc learned that his mother had told his father, yet his father made no indication of having heard. So, Marc looked for occasions to be around his father and to strike up conversation, testing his father’s emotional temperature, yet his father never took the lead. Finally, after nearly a week of uncomfortable exchanges, Marc initiated the topic: “Dad, did Mom talk to you about me?” His father responded, “Yep, and I’m not happy about it.” In the ensuring conversation, Marc’s father shared his belief that Marc had fallen into a gay lifestyle out of a desire to be accepted into a group of students at college. He believed that for Marc to be accepted into this group, he had to become like them. Marc attempted to convince his father that there was no such group; that he simply was gay and always had been. When his father threatened to remove him from Waldorf College, Marc asserted both his identity and his independence by refusing to allow that to happen. He had found a place where he could safely prepare for a career while learning things about himself that he had not been able to before.
Marc wondered how his parents could claim that they had no idea he might be gay. His reflections of childhood include memories of annual performances in a lip-syncing contest held in the summer by the city of Polk City. Beginning at age nine, Marc looked forward to entertaining crowds while dressed as either a male or female entertainer and willingly took on the female role when teamed with his brother for a male/female lip-syncing number. Performing became a socially acceptable way to express an identity that felt more comfortable and more authentic. To be clear, Marc did not identify as a transvestite or a cross-dresser. He simply appreciated the freedom to express characteristics more often aligned with those identities than those of hyper-masculine males.
Because I have always known Marc as a male who happens to be gay, I was not aware – until this paper – of the intensely personal identity struggles he navigated, particularly in relation to his father. I was aware that his father was having a hard time reconciling Marc’s sexual orientation; however, I wasn’t aware of how long it took and how isolated Marc felt during that time. The ability to have conversations with family members about important topics is a valuable part of belonging to a family unit. As I teach, I will now be more aware of the personal pain and toll that is exacted on students who are not only far from home, but also emotionally isolated from people who define key relationships in their lives. Children depend on primary relationships to help them form their identities. I hope to become even more sensitive to the difficulties that face young men and women who come to an awareness of their same-sex gender orientation without the full support of their parents or siblings.
Marc told his siblings – a younger sister and younger brother – when he told his mother. His brother’s reaction: “Yeah, I figured you were.” His sister stated that she knew, too, determining that the man Marc introduced as his friend at the time was more than a typical friend. Marc described his sister as “a little gay activist” and shared that she was and continues to be his most ardent source of family support. His exact words: “She TOTALLY had / has my back.”
Even with that source of support, Marc’s family – in many ways – became the students he knew through his major courses and theatre activities. He regularly engaged them in conversations about what it meant to be a gay male in an era where good ole boys were terrorizing and then horrifically killing gay males like Matthew Shepard. On the one-year anniversary of that murder, Marc sent an email to all faculty, staff and students, asking them to visit a web site created in Matthew’s honor and to become more aware of the injustices faced by those who are gay. I still have a copy of the email response I sent to him in 1999, thanking him for the courage he showed through his personal activism. The fact I printed and kept our exchange is a testament to the impact his life had on mine. He was a pioneer at Waldorf College, an institution of higher learning whose Gay-Straight Alliance was honored by the Iowa Pride Network in 2009 as the best college GSA organization in the state – 10 years after Marc sent his all-campus email.
What I will remember most about this conversation with Marc, however, are the stories about other children calling him “faggot” or “gay” beginning in elementary. Most striking was when, at the end of 6th grade, he was on an orientation tour and a large, athletically built, senior male stared across the cafeteria at him as he walked with his tour group, and then loudly yelled out, “FAGGOT!” All eyes looked toward Marc who – embarrassed and humiliated – could only shake his head “no” and attempt to protest this negative slur for an identity he could not yet accept. I thought: “Where were the teachers?”
Marc helped me understand the extreme difficulty present in those moments. Teachers might be insensitive to the harm that occurs from name calling, and it takes great courage for the victim of the slur to make the offense known. As Marc explained, sharing news of the incident is practically an admission of its truth at a time when the student might not yet be ready to bear the consequences. “When children identify someone as gay,” said Marc, “they may well be right, but it is so difficult to admit, because you are not yet ready to accept all that goes with it.” I want to be a teacher that any student would be comfortable coming to. I want him/her to feel that he/she can rely on me for support as he/she determines what it means to be who he/she is. To help, I will continue to support GSA events and create a classroom environment that upholds all students as valued members of society, while including lessons that highlight the harm of discriminatory language and actions. Thank you, Marc, for being my teacher.