Today I received a rather direct question involving something I've been uncomfortable addressing in my classes.
(After me asking kids to introduce themselves, including ages.)
Supernerd: How old are you?
Me: I'm 24.
Clown: Are you married?
Clown: Are you dating anybody?
Me: (smiling sweetly) That's none of your business.
And it isn't their business. When I was trained back in 2007 to teach drama camp at an inner city YMCA, I was taught that kids are always going to ask about your personal life, and that you shouldn't ever answer. You're a teacher, not a friend. I'm of two minds about this. First, it's an innocuous question and there's nothing sinister behind it. The YMCA also wanted to teach me that giving a hug was bad, and how to properly touch a child so they can't go back and say you sexually abused them. That's stuck with me for a long, long time, particularly because I come from a theatrical background where hugging and physical contact is a huge part of the environment. I'm always careful with how I touch kids at my science job because of it. Kids come up to hug me and I wonder what their parents would say. I'm always hesitant; there's such a brouhaha over child abuse and what is (inappropriately) construed as sexual. I think our culture of lawsuits and media-fearmongering has made parents hyperaware of the idea that everyone is out to get their kids, and they're teaching their children to be hyperaware and afraid, too. Being aware is one thing. Being obsessed is another.
Along the same vein is the relationship question.
It's an innocent question. Sometimes it comes up indirectly with parents, sometimes it's asked directly by a student. I'm not comfortable answering. First of all, it really isn't their business. It's not relevant, no matter how innocent. But more importantly, here's the deal: I'm a lesbian. I'm in a two-year monogamous relationship with my partner. We live together. We have three cats. No matter how boring this is, no matter how un-sordid this is, I don't feel comfortable telling this to children. I don't want their parents calling my company, asking how they can allow a lesbian to teach their children, or how I brought up sexually inappropriate conversation. If I casually mention that I have a boyfriend or a husband, that's normal. If I say I have a girlfriend, it's inappropriate.
I'm not saying I have to bring it up. I don't want to. My life isn't their business. The answer to "Do you have a boyfriend?" is "No." The answer to "Are you dating anyone?" is either "Yes" (which brings up more questions) or a cheeky "That's not your business" (which doesn't).
It isn't that I have a hankering to discuss my personal life with kids or with parents. My problem is that I don't feel comfortable mentioning it. Mentioning one's homosexuality in front of a child carries a negative stigma. It's sexual, it's inappropriate, instead of an offhand mention that doesn't need to be brought up again. It suggests that there's something wrong with it. It makes me feel ashamed and secretive.
I feel particularly bothered by this incident: I was teaching acting class for a summer youth theatre, where my students are between the ages of 13 and 15. A slightly older crowd than my science-class fare, where budding sexuality is coming out.
Me: (Giving opening spiel)
The Weird One: (Somewhat out of the blue, I don't remember the leadup. Finger raised in proclamation!) I'm pretty sure that one of the kids in here is gay.
Kids: (Giggle, look toward me! OMG! How will I respond to that, how outlandish!)
Me: That's not necessary. That's not your place to say. It's nobody's business but theirs. (Etc.)
I stand by what I said. It isn't his business, and nobody has the right to "out" anyone else, especially at such a young age ... and particularly when "gay" isn't really understood and carries such a negative connotation, particularly to middle-schoolers. However, it really bothered me. This was weeks ago and it's still nagging at me. I said all of that and I stand by it, but I also know that one of the kids in my class might very well actually be gay. I don't know this; I don't know if he knows this or even thinks about this. And yet ... if he is gay, if he is questioning his sexuality in any way, or if any of them have questions ... what does that say to him, or any of them, that I treat it like some kind of taboo and secret issue? It's not my business to out a child. That's private. However, it's bothering me that I didn't say that being gay is an okay thing. It's bothering me that I didn't say, "Hey, who cares? I'm a lesbian, so what? Does it make a difference? Does it matter to you?"
But I was too scared that it would matter. I was too scared that it would be deemed inappropriate or invite giggles and discomfort and scrutiny, even with this group of kids. At this youth theatre, I know these kids. Half of them have me friended on Facebook. If they've read my profile at all they know I'm gay. And even in that environment I felt affected by this sociological stigma that any mention of homosexuality, even when it has nothing to do with sex itself, is somehow inappropriate for children.
I might not believe this, but I know that plenty of other people do. It keeps me scared. It keeps me feeling like I'm hiding something from parents, something that some of them might want to know, something that might affect their opinion of my ability to teach children. What would they do if they knew a dyke was teaching their kids? Would it make a difference? Would they care?
I like to think they wouldn't, but the fact that I don't know keeps me from the most casual mention of my partner. Sure, it's none of their business, but why does it have to feel like my dirty little secret?