I don’t remember the exact moment I decided I wanted to become a teacher, but I do know that I was in third grade. Third grade was a magical year for me.
My teacher crowned me, a kid who was sensitive and deeply feeling, as her “hug monitor.” She had endless stacks of blank, white books in which I could write and illustrate my own stories, and she slipped me books that she thought I would love. Her firm insistence and encouragement helped me learn multiplication despite my blossoming hatred for math, and the way she loved me completely changed my life. I decided that I wanted to do the same for others, and at 23 years old I became an English teacher.
Middle school is a different beast than elementary school, but I was an educator, just as I’d always dreamed. I genuinely enjoyed planning lessons, grading papers, reading books and hanging out with middle schoolers. My first years were spent in Stockton, California ― a far cry from the small, conservative town I’d grown up in. After seven years in that district, I made the switch to teach in my hometown ― Rocklin, California ― and secured a job at the middle school I attended.
It was a wonderful homecoming, and I immediately fell into a busy life at my new school. I threw myself into life on campus: helping with activities, joining committees, leading the English department and working absurdly long hours because I loved it.
By all accounts, I was successful. I won “Teacher of the Month” multiple times and connected with students. I loved my colleagues and formed deep friendships that extended beyond the classroom. I was challenged by my peers and given opportunities to learn and to lead. I often referred to my school and job as my “retirement school” and planned to finish out my career in that district.
While I was professionally successful, my personal life was undergoing some rapid changes. After years of knowing in my core that I was gay, I had finally come out to everyone in my life, a shift from the shadowy years of secretly dating women and telling no one. Suddenly, I was free to be truly me in nearly every area of my life.
The only exception was at work. I was not yet ready to tell my students the truth about my life and, besides, there wasn’t much to tell. I wasn’t dating anyone, and I had never been one for offering up a ton of personal information in the classroom, preferring instead to let students believe that I was a lonely cat lady. All of that changed in the summer of 2017 when I met the woman I would marry.
My now-wife and I fell in love quickly. Like any deliriously happy millennial, I started posting photos of us on Instagram, which I’d kept private from the prying eyes of students, save for a few that I’d known well who wanted to keep in touch as they moved on to high school and beyond.
I could have never imagined what would happen next.
One morning, as I arrived to my classroom, I heard students whispering and talking. During a break that morning, one of my favorite students knocked on my classroom door and asked to speak to me privately. I welcomed him in, and he nervously fiddled with the straps on his backpack and told me that kids were spreading photos of me with a girl and saying that I was gay. He said it was a rumor and he thought I should know. I thanked him, and then shut my door and cried.
As the day went on, I heard more and more whispering, and as the weeks went on, it intensified. Students found the YouTube channel of videos I had to create as part of my master’s degree work, and started leaving hateful comments. I got hateful messages on my social media and I heard my name around campus more and more. When a student stood up during a presentation about her ideal utopia and announced that in her utopia, there would be no gay marriage and my entire class exploded into laughter, I lost my confidence that I could be in the classroom anymore.
I had asked our school counselors and my principal (all of whom I had once considered personal friends) for help and support as soon as the issue began, but was not supported in a way that felt helpful. Instead of my concerns being addressed, I was told that this was “drama” and that it would “blow over.” My boss suggested that I speak to the student I was told had started the rumor, and he denied it vehemently. I spoke individually with students who’d I’d heard were being especially vicious, and was accused of “targeting kids” by parents who “didn’t agree with my lifestyle.”
Despite my increasing requests for help and my insistence that I needed them to step in, school administrators did not seem to grasp how severe and disruptive this harassment was, and how deeply it was affecting me. A place that had once been so safe and happy became full of anxiety, sadness and fear. I felt stripped of my joy and my purpose in life. Moreover, I felt lost as a person.
Being a teacher had been my identity for so long, and suddenly that part of my identity was under fire. I knew that navigating a shift to being out publicly at a school in a conservative town would be a challenge, but I couldn’t have imagined how violated I felt when my choice in the matter was taken away. I wanted the dignity to come out when I felt ready, rather than being fodder for gossip.
This situation made me question who I was: If I wasn’t a successful educator, who was I? I found going to work to be incredibly challenging because I didn’t know what I would face when I went in every day or how I would be spoken to and about. I didn’t have the support and comfort of feeling like my administration had my back; I felt so desperately alone and scared of what would happen next.
When a student stood up during a presentation about her ideal utopia and announced that in her utopia, there would be no gay marriage and my entire class exploded into laughter, I lost my confidence that I could be in the classroom anymore.
I saw my therapist and my doctor, and they felt strongly that this situation was no longer safe. Eventually, I was forced to take a mental health leave and my union assigned me a lawyer to deal with the ramifications of my situation. Despite our best attempts at mediation, we could not reach a deal that felt fair. I left my district because I felt I was not guaranteed to be safe or protected.
The media coverage around my story was substantial and suddenly, my story was everywhere. While there were many supportive people in my life, as well as supportive students and community members, the silence of the majority of my colleagues from my school and district was notable. It was heartbreaking because, while most had been supportive when I came out, when it came to defending my right to be out at work and standing up for me as my name was tarnished, they stopped being my friend, choosing the safety of their job and relationships at work over what was right.
I spent years building close-knit friendships with people I loved and cared for so deeply, only to have them stop speaking to me or even acknowledging me, despite never hearing the story of what was actually happening. It was the most devastating part of the situation for me, and I am endlessly grateful for the few who chose to stand by me.
I went on to be hired in a new district, just 15 minutes away from my old one, with much more progressive ideals. At my district orientation, I heard talk of equity, LGBTQIA+ teachers and student support, and efforts to actively dismantle racism ― a far cry from where I had worked before.
I was different, too. I made a commitment that starting in this new district, I would be fully out as an educator and from the first day of school, I would tell students exactly who I was. During my introductory presentation, I showed students pictures of my dogs, my nephews and my wife. I did it without fanfare, and the reaction was minimal.
The ripple effect was significant. I am the Rainbow Club advisor on my campus, and each week 20-30 students who are gay, lesbian, transgender, non-binary or allies show up to eat lunch in my room and connect with other students like them. I’ve had the chance to sit on panels and share my experience of being a queer educator. My room is decorated in a rainbow theme and my shelves are stocked full of books that reflect all experiences, including queer ones.
I know that I am the first openly gay adult who many students will encounter, and while that feels momentous, most of the time it just feels normal. I hope to show them that while I may be gay, English class remains mostly unchanged ― we still read, do grammar lessons, have lively debates and write more than any of them would prefer to.
The impact in my personal life extends far beyond work. While I was once shy and kept my true self hidden, I am now out and very proud about being exactly who I am. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that once I officially came out as gay, I came out in other ways as well. Where I once threw myself into a quiet life as a teacher, I now live a fuller, more confident life as a writer and a stand-up comedian who speaks openly about what it’s like to be a queer person.
Teaching was a safe way to do important work, but the reality was that it was easy to dedicate myself to a job that was so focused on others because it enabled me to hide from myself, and to ignore the truth of who I really was.
Teaching in a small place kept me small. Teaching in a place where people valued the safety of the known over what was right made it impossible for me to be me. By expanding and changing ― and by coming out ― I allowed all of my humanity to arrive and be present. It also changed how much energy I put into my job. I don’t spend all of my free time locked in my classroom anymore, but I also bring a complete person to school. I am not a teacher who is creative on the side ― I am a creative person who happens to be a teacher. This means I am no longer on every committee or part of every team, because I value the opportunities to be my full self outside of school.
There is endless pressure in teaching to give one’s entire life to the profession. Teachers talk proudly of how late they stay working, how many weekends are lost to grading and even how their summers are filled only with training. While I do still work very hard, I absolutely refuse to be defined by my profession. I learned that while I may pour my life into education, at the end of the day being an educator is still a job, and it is imperative for my well-being that I am a whole and complete person beyond who I am in the classroom. I deserve to be fully human while at work and to be human outside of it.
Teaching in a place where people valued the safety of the known over what was right made it impossible for me to be me. By expanding and changing ― and by coming out ― I allowed all of my humanity to arrive and be present.
While I still desperately miss my friends and connections from my other job, and while I still feel sad and angry about how I was treated, like most horrible things, I learned so much from my experience. I ultimately decided not to pursue any further legal action, because it was never about money or consequences: it was about choosing my true self over who I was professionally.
By being exposed, harassed and outed, I was given a chance to become more of myself and to grow and change. I learned about who I am outside of my job and the importance of being fully myself. I like to think that my presence in the classroom, and my refusal to hide the fact that I am gay, helps students learn that they can be fully themselves, too.
Amy Estes is a queer comedian and writer living in Northern California, where she spends her free time obsessing over her dogs, watching her murder stories and drinking iced coffee, preferably with her wife by her side. Her work has appeared online at McSweeney’s, Belladonna Comedy, Slackjaw Humor and Pulp Magazine. She regularly performs stand-up in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas, and for the middle-schoolers she teaches during the day. You can see her on stage and read more of her writing by checking out her website at amysgotjokes.com.