You can listen to the podcast version of this installment on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you podcast.
And all my stumbling phrases
Never amounted to anything worth this feeling
All this heaven never could describe
Such a feeling as I'm healing, words were never so useful
So I was screaming out a language
That I never knew existed before
-Florence & the Machine, All This and Heaven Too
In my Mythology class we spend six weeks discussing Greek heroes. Many of these characters are incredibly flawed, like Hercules who kills his entire family in a fit of rage, or Theseus who lets his adventurous spirit and pride lead him away from his calling. This brings my students and myself to consider them less than perfect, and sometimes less than heroic. Every semester, however, we reach the conclusion that the most heroic among them, as are our heroes in real life, are those who are motivated by passion, love, and hope. The men and women who are not inspired by the fame or the prize, but who see a need and do something to meet it.
When I consider my own heroes and inspirations, I think of the people in my life who live life openly and boldly. My mom is my hero of heroes. Living life to serve and love others, and learn more about herself and her faith along the way. My boss and colleagues have taught me how to boldly teach the future and helped me become the successful young professional I am today. B.T. Harman’s writing has changed my life and my perspective on my own happiness. He showed me that happiness was achievable for someone like me. My students continuously show me what living a joyful life can look like, and teach me more about grace and passion every single day. Although these lessons come from a plethora of sources,They each contribute to the narrative of my success.
Recently I have decided that I want to be a hero for those around me. I am ready to be a person of influence and impact, a source of joy and inspiration. Honestly, I know of no other way of doing that than simply living my life the loudest that I can, being honest and open the entire way. I have no road map for this journey, but I think I can gauge my success by the fruit this life is bearing. The conversations, the messages and phone calls, the opportunities to share my story are all mile markers that I’m making my way in the right direction. And as long as I follow the path I’m on, forging the way for myself and those behind me, I can only anticipate the most beautiful destination.
I’m a high school teacher, which places some interesting boundaries in my life. I’m not just a member of the community, I’m a public figure. Trips to the grocery store can become pseudo parent-teacher conferences, and I’ve had angry parents comment on my social media posts (#awkward). One dilemma I’ve always faced is how to present my sexuality being in a public position in such a small community. Being a teacher is already so tricky: politics are historically a big no, relationships can become fodder for students, and being seen outside of school turns into a start-of-class interrogation the next day:
“I saw you at Kroger!”
“Yeah, I need to eat too!”
So, I knew that if I was going to live bolder I had to figure out what that meant for my career. I also knew that I could never really support my LGBT students if I couldn’t even accept my own queerness. You see, being a public figure, coming out wasn’t just about me. It wasn’t only about accepting myself and moving forward as a proud gay man. Yes, that was the health and well-being aspect, but it was (and still is) also about people around me who are still struggling. Who are afraid to come out. Who have never met a person in real life who identifies as they do.
I understand my role. I am a teacher, not a counselor, and not a parent. I have never and will never overstep my boundaries. Since coming out, however, I have had both young people and parents confide in me, showing me that my range of influence goes far beyond the classroom. I’ve had conversations with friends and colleagues that I never thought would happen. So many people around me just want to know how to love others more. High schoolers want to know that it gets better; parents want to know how to be there for their children. I am discovering that coming out was much less about my own personal comfort, and much more about a new frontier of personal influence in my community.
For example, last December I had the honor of sitting on a panel at Hillenbrand, Inc., focused on “seeing more.” I represented the LGBT community which was a terrifying and exhilarating experience. Me?! I thought as I stared at the email inviting me to participate. How can I represent this community when I’m so new to it?! What felt like an honor on one hand felt like a great challenge on the other. I now had the opportunity to practice what I preach. I said yes.
The panel was an amazing experience as I was able to be vulnerable and open with members of my community, most of whom I know and have worked with in various capacities. I was scared since I knew I was probably blindsiding some of my colleagues and friends (remember, coming out happens throughout life, sometimes on a panel in front of thirty of your peers). This experience, like all the other amazing opportunities in my life, brought new friendships and strengthened existing ones. Old friends saw boldness in me, new friends helped me put my experiences into words.
One of the questions on the panel challenged me to address how a relatively homogenous community can be more inclusive. As I thought about my own little Midwestern town, I was again reminded of how amazing it is. I feel safe here; I feel welcomed, valued, and am continually challenged to grow as a professional. I truly do love it. But one thing I have noticed, and something I brought up to the panel, is that just because someone looks like everyone else, doesn’t mean that they are like everyone else. Just because I’m a tall white male doesn’t mean I’m like the majority of tall white men.
As I’ve written previously, I have the ability to do what's called "passing." This is the ability of a person to be assumed to be a member of a certain group, typically the majority. I find it relatively easy to pass as straight (depending on my outfit, lol). This isn’t always an intentional practice, and it’s rarely ever an act of outright denial of self, for me. It is more so an act of personal preservation. A blending in that makes everyone around you- including yourself- more comfortable. It is easier for others to presume straightness than accept queerness, especially in a homogenous community. Passing, for me, typically manifests itself in how I carry myself, vocal inflections, and even the things I do or don't say.
Passing is not an inherent act of self-denial, but there are certain ways that it can be detrimental to living a life of boldness and honesty, both hallmarks of my personal journey. Instead of saying “hey, don’t use gay as an insult,” sometimes it’s easier to pretend I didn’t hear or am not bothered because that’s what everyone else is doing. Once I had a student’s parent compliment me on wearing dress socks at a drama production (I always wear no show socks, okay!) and they made the comment that “there must be a woman in the picture,” implying that that was the reason my style had apparently improved. Instead of correcting him and telling him that no, there certainly was NOT a woman in the picture, I simply laughed it off, uncomfortable with revealing the truth. I did, however make knowing eye contact with a couple of students (kids know these things!), which is still one of my favorite party anecdotes. Passing can be an act of self-preservation, but for me in this stage of life, it feels like self-deprivation, and I’m done letting it happen.
So, that’s where I’m at. I’m happy- honored- to be who I am, where I am, and doing what I’m doing. This piece lacks a proper resolution because I haven’t reached the end; I’ve just caught up to the present. I’m so thankful that the present is what it is. I’m lucky that my story has bloomed as beautifully as it has. I recognize that that is not always the case, and this isn’t to say I’m done fighting. I have a lot more work to do.
Let me leave you with this: love the people in your life. Love the people you don’t know. Love the people on the other side of the screen. Be the person you needed when you were younger. I wish every day that I had someone like me when I was in high school. Now that I’m older, happier, and bolder, that’s exactly who I intend on being for those around me. I am going to be the person needed of me, a person who will change the world. And this is only just the beginning.
Thank you for reading my four part writing series "Coming Out of Fear." You can catch up on all four installments on my website paulsatchwill.com. Make sure to follow me on Twitter and Instagram to stay up to date with my latests projects.