Reflections On . . . “Coming Out” (or “Bearing Witness”?) as a Teacher

By Seán Henry

Updated / Monday, 02 November 2020 11:32

“Sir, are you gay?”

Not the question a struggling substitute teacher, lacking in confidence and already considering packing it in, expects to hear one week into the job! And yet, this was precisely the question I faced in my budding days as a religion teacher.


Coming out as a teacher can be a strange and complex business. On the one hand, it can be a potentially transformative act, a kind of pedagogy. It can shake the foundations of the assumption that we are all “straight” and can also build disruptive forms of solidarity with other queer and/or trans staff and students. On the other hand, coming out can be deeply exposing, where one’s sense of self is laid bare for approval, dismissal, indifference, or rejection by others. In this imbalance of power, coming out can itself reinforce the privileges of heterosexual and cisgender norms, as it is the queer and/or trans “other” who has the onus of coming out placed upon them to begin with.

What interests me in the discourse around coming out as a teacher is how the image of “coming out” itself is often used. The image can have a deceptive straightforwardness about it, where the teacher actively moves in a unidirectional way from the space of “the closet” to the space of “being out”. However, as anyone who has come out can tell you, coming out is very rarely so simple, let alone always so deliberate.

Indeed, the act of coming out in classroom contexts can at times be less a matter of spectacular reveals, and more a matter of happenstance. Coming out can often arise from a blasé remark around a nondescript cultural reference, for example, to a chance encounter at the local Pride parade. Furthermore, we can be “out” to some people, and not to others, sometimes deliberately, and sometimes not. Reactions can also vary, shifting from avoidance or dismissiveness to awkwardness or joy, at times within a single moment!

In light of this complexity, I wonder whether there is another language that we can draw from in imagining how teachers might navigate their own sexual and/or gender identities in the classroom? Is there a register we can use that taps into the potentially positive opportunities afforded by “coming out,” without at the same time falling into unoriginal metaphors that risk flattening how messy and unpredictable such terrain can be?  In reflecting on this, the language of a teacher “bearing witness” to their sexual and/or gender identity comes to mind.

Some readers might balk at the idea of “bearing witness,” not least because of its religious connotations. Indeed, while being interrogated by Pontius Pilate, Jesus says “I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). While I am not suggesting that bearing witness to one’s sexuality and/or gender is in some way Christ-like (though you will find some theologians who see the divine-human relation as very queer indeed!), I am arguing that the language of bearing witness to oneself is helpful as it side-steps the tendency to understand these questions solely in terms of a linear narrative that moves from “closetedness” to “outness”.

When one bears witness to oneself, one lives and breathes what is important to them on their own terms each day. Bearing witness is not always and necessarily a matter of declarations, but can also involve moments of passivity and silence, where one simply “sits with” and is one’s truth without apology or caveat. Such passivity becomes provocative, even life-changing, in its “matter-of-factness,” in the person’s refusal to grant their potential critics power over how the truth they bear witness to is to be articulated and/or lived out each day.

Put differently, in “bearing witness” to their sexual and/or gender identities, teachers can live their lives in classrooms with integrity, an integrity defined neither by being “out” nor “in,” but by simply and irrefutably being there (at times visibily and at other times less so). Bearing witness is not a mainstreaming project: it does not seek to undermine teachers’ coming out within a logic of “we’re all the same”. Rather, bearing witness to oneself as a queer and/or trans teacher is a way of relating that assumes that none of us are the same, and that it is precisely this that allows us to be ourselves, together, in the world.


“Sir, are you gay?”

My response: “I don’t think that’s relevant here”.

This continues to trouble me. For a whole host of reasons.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Dr Seán Henry is an Assistant Lecturer at the Department of Education, Maynooth University. He teaches courses in philosophy of education, sociology of education, and inclusive education. His research interests cross the areas of educational philosophy and theory, social justice and inclusive education, and religious studies and theology. Before pursuing doctoral studies, he completed a Bachelor of Religious Education with English at Mater Dei Institute and a Master of Science in Equality Studies at University College Dublin. His Ph.D. dissertation, funded by the Irish Research Council’s Postgraduate Scholarship Scheme, was entitled “Queering Religious Schooling: Teachings, Values, Rituals”.