Identity Erasure

Posted on January 30, 2020


“Come out! Come out, whoever you are!

Closets are for clothes!

Be proud of who you are!”

In my classroom, every. single. student. was guaranteed, through policy, protocol, and advocacy, their right to free and full expression of their identity, no matter what.

It wasn’t true everywhere at school. I remember how one principal tried to deny students their right to form a Gay-Straight Alliance, standing as an obstacle for months, until the ACLU reminded him that the matter had been settled by SCOTUS decision, which is applicable in Adrian.

I remember when the Gay-Straight Alliance made posters to advertise their first meeting and hung them excitedly around the high school–only to have them torn down by someone who wanted LGBTQ students to stay in the closet. The Alliance members, of course, put up replacements, and the first meeting was a packed house. After security cameras came to school, GSA posters ceased to be disappeared or defaced.

I remember when the Gay-Straight Alliance courageously ventured out to ask teachers if they would like to put up a “safe-zone” poster in their classrooms, to let LGBTQ students know that their identities would be accepted, celebrated, and protected in that classroom. LGBTQ students would know that they were free to be themselves in that classroom.

The students were incredibly brave, asking teachers face-to-face, to show them whether or not they supported their LGBTQ students. They went out and represented themselves and the Alliance with honor and dignity, no matter what reactions they got from teachers. It was beautiful to see students taking direct action to improve the school climate. I was (and still am) so proud of them.

After this first action, the Alliance members reflected on the experience, noting which teachers they didn’t even bother to ask and the reactions of the teachers they did ask. They were surprised by the support they received from some teachers, and they were greatly pleased to discover that the number of teachers who put up the poster was larger than they expected. They felt a sense of accomplishment and PRIDE that they were breaking out of the closet they’d been forced into by a school culture that erased and silenced them. They were thrilled to know that they had more allies among the faculty than they had guessed. I hope teachers know how much it meant to LGBTQ students, especially those still in the closet. It was HUGE! LGBTQ students were becoming visible for the first time at school.

Over the years, more teachers agreed to post the Safe Zone sign, more LGBTQ students were comfortable being out at school, and the zone of safety grew to include the Homecoming Parade, Yearbook, Prom, Homecoming King/Queen Court, restrooms/locker rooms, Graduation gowns, and student records.

Please, readers, join me in applauding the excellent human rights work of the AHS Gay-Straight Alliance, since its founding  in ???? by Michael Vargas, through 2018, my final year as adviser. I know that oftentimes members felt discouraged and disheartened at slight and slow progress when they were at AHS, but when we look at what was accomplished, we can see that the club significantly altered the culture of the high school, and current and future students will continue to benefit from their work.

Wow! Damn! That’s right! Teen power! It’s real. I am proud of all the positive changes that the AHS Gay-Straight Alliance brought to our school. Even more than that, I am deeply and profoundly grateful to have been able to work with such beautiful and powerful, brave and caring human beings. THANK YOU, each and every GSA member.

On the other hand…this happened.

After two and a half decades of working to try to make school safe for every identity, my own identity was erased by an administrator’s directive to “never again openly identify as atheist” to students, and there was no safe zone for me but for my own integrity.

I am an atheist. I believe in ZERO supernatural claims. I taught Mythology for decades, and I have introduced students to stories with hundreds of deities who are portrayed to have supernatural powers (omniscience, omnipotence, etc). In that course, I began each term by explaining that at public school, all deities are equal. At public school, a god or goddess is a character in a story, period. No deities would receive special treatment, whether or not they have living believers. At public school, no one is required to believe in any deities; neither does one’s belief or in a deity give them a right to evangelize. I cautioned students to consider whether they and their families could accept such conditions, as some religious teachers would find it problematic. I gave students the option to drop the class to avoid controversy–in their minds or social circles. A very small number did drop.

The majority stayed and engaged in civil discourse in which all ideas were fair game and all identities were off-limits. The class was popular with all kinds of students, including evangelical Christians. Students learned how to distinguish the difference between their identities and their ideas/beliefs, and how not to view it as a personal attack when someone rejects an idea they hold dear. Students who chose to stay in Mythology class learned to accept all identities and question all ideas, demonstrating sophisticated and nuanced understanding of human and civil rights far surpassing that of many adults.

I’m an atheist, and I am as committed to be OUT as an atheist as I was when I was an evangelical Christian. As a Christian, I never faced any persecution, and I was certainly never required by any employer to deny my religion.

My identity is not a crime, not a danger to society, and not something that can be erased by administrative directive.

I’m out of that closet, and I’m not going back.

Hello, world!

I’m here and I’m clear–

(of supernatural beliefs)!

Note: The featured image is the AHS Secular Student Alliance, 2015