November 17, 2010

The Whole Truth

I find it disheartening to write about problems to which I feel there is no real fix, but this blog is "Our Lives," right?

As much as I'd love to say that I'm open with everyone, that I'm completely confident in being my full self all of the time, and that I never have reservations in disclosing my sexuality, it's not true. I have a closet. It may only exist for fifty minutes out of the week, but it's there.

I spent my last two summers living in Russia on exchange. Why did I choose it? I felt the need to experience a new part of the world, and this program was without cost to me. It was my first time out of America (and flying, for that matter). Russia is far behind in terms of acceptance, so, for convenience and for safety (at our pre-departure orientations, the program advised against coming out to Russians: "No matter the bond you've built with your host family, they'll probably just kick you out."), I was only open with my American peers.

Ironically, I had my first relationship (with a fellow American) this summer abroad, but that's a story for another day.

Enter Russian class, Duke University.

"Do you want to get married?"

My response: "No."

Yes, of course I want to get married someday. I can't bring myself to tell my teacher that, though. In class, we learned two different expressions in Russian for the English phrase "to get married." There is one for those who marry women, and one for those who marry men. His question and my response both contained the "marrying a woman" verb. It isn't exactly a lie. I don't want to marry a woman. However, it's not the whole truth.

The follow-up: "Why not?"

"I like being alone."

A complete lie. It was all I could come up with in Russian on impulse, and I hate that I said it.

Maybe I'm not giving him a fair chance, but I feel that the classroom setting is neither the time nor place to speak out on this issue. Furthermore, I actually slipped up once and made the mistake of answering, "I am not married" using the participle form of the "marrying a man" verb. My teacher quickly corrected me, laughing, waving his hands, and stressing the importance "watching word choice" in that situation. "You don't want people to think . . . you know . . ."

It isn't like I want to strengthen the bond between my teacher and me. I just hate that I feel the need to keep the whole truth inside.

Like I said, I don't know if there is an immediate fix to this. For now, it's simply an annoyance. At least I'm an optimist. After all, times are changing. Look at how far we've come.


  1. Ryan! I can so relate to all of this.

    First, your teacher's response was wrong, and I would talk to him after class the next time, (if it were me) and correct him. I imagine this isn't the first time he's made this homophobic joke, and I'm worried someone closeted might hear it again, and just close that closet door tighter. It's completely up to you, of course, if you feel comfortable, but you might help all of the future classes that come after you if they can avoid this insulting joke.

    Also, as for coming out in a class, I think this is pretty difficult actually. I'm a junior, and the first time I've ever come out in a class was this semester in my Psychology of Gender class. (We were talking about "lesbianism" and it felt disingenous to not acknowledge my own experience.) Nevertheless, I still felt nervous/uncomfortable. I was frustrated with myself for feeling that way-I'm out, right? What am I hiding/afraid of anyway? Well, it's hard to say why I still get nervous about it, but I guess the best reason I can come up with is that I'm not immune to the social stressor of coming out.

    This was a long response, but I wanted to just let you know I've felt very similar. Thanks for this post-it's really great. =)

  2. i second megan's comment - this is a great post.

    i can also relate to what you wrote, seeing as though i've never really "come out" in class. this post had me thinking whether or not i would feel comfortable doing so if the opportunity ever came up. fittingly, today in french we were talking about the stereotypes prevalent in fairy tales and fables, and i came up with an lgbt-related response (how one NEVER sees a woman falling in love with a women, or a man falling in love with another man- this wouldn't necessarily entail coming out, but i felt it was close enough). however, i did feel nervous/anxious/tense about saying it, mainly because i was a bit worried as to how my professor would react. in the end, i brought it up and, surprisingly, she praised my response and agreed.

    thanks for writing this - i wouldn't have thought to bring it up had you not pointed this out.

  3. /sigh.

    I've done exactly the same thing in German, or something very similar to it. Things like, "no, I don't have a girlfriend" and I think I've gone as far as to talk about my future plans to get married in essay stuff.

    Once I think I actually hinted a boyfriend in an essay, but in German, friend and boyfriend/girlfriend are usually the same word and it tends to just get corrected--which I don't necessarily think is discriminatory, because truly, most people are probably making a mistake when they phrase it wrong... I just didn't happen to be.

  4. My German professor once asked our class to write about our imaginary German boyfriend/girlfriend. I was incredibly anxious because I was so unsure what to write about - whether I should just take the easy route and avoid awkwardness, or whether I should be honest and not feel guilty. In the end I decided I couldn't lie, and wrote this long essay about my boyfriend living in Germany.

    And, naturally, my German professor picked a few students to read theirs out loud, and once again, NATURALLY, my professor picked me. Unlike your professor, however, she didn't bother to correct me, and I'm actually really glad I got to have that experience. Although I was blushing the entire time and fumbling over my words (repeating the word "Freund" over and over again, each time decreasing the doubt of a mistake), I think I kind of opened my classmates eyes to these ideas - that they can't and shouldn't just assume the sexuality of everyone they encounter.

  5. Hey Ryan! Woah you're in my Russian class, I've seen your posts before but didn't make the connection even though I sit behind you every Friday. I'm not in the same section with you when you meet our male professor, but I'm sorry you were put in such a position during class. Our professor being an older Russian man, his reaction isn't very surprising, and knowing his personality it's usually better to not take most things he says seriously (I don't know about your section but I think half the class bursts into laughter in mine every two minutes). I understand Megan's point and even though I hate acting on a case-by-case basis, I'm not sure how fruitful talking to our professor would be in terms of changing his perspectives? At the same time, I think he would be understanding and apologize for his comment if you had talked to him about it after class.

    On a lighter note, we're done with that chapter, so I hope Russian class becomes less of a burden for you from now! :)

  6. There are students in my classes who I know to be part of the LGBTQA community, but when talking about LGBTQ issues, they've refrained from coming out. They might say something abstractly, but don't include how they identify. I think it's probably fairly common. But, it's interesting to me that it's so much more daunting to come out in the classroom setting. I mean, if I were to intellectualize it (sorry, CGers), there isn't *much* difference between the classroom and other places on campus. Can we chalk it up to the presence of a professor? Sure, there are professors elsewhere on campus, but when we pass them on the plaza, it's different because they don't have the same "power" as when they're in front of the class. Or if they see your Day of Silence/anti hate speech/etc poster, you're probably not there to know that they saw it. Are there other differences? Is it about students?

    And I'm curious...though the nature of one's comment would inherently be different (as in, a straight student wouldn't be talking about a same-sex relationship, etc), how comfortable do straight students feel talking about LGBT issues in class? Do LGBTQ students generally feel comfortable talking abstractly about the issues?

    What can professors do to make their classes more affirming? How can they invite people to speak up and signal that it will be safe to do so? Coming out in some way would likely do this, but let's keep in mind that only LGBTQ identified professors can utilize this. Straight professors can't.

    And, what can WE as a Community do to let professors know about how we feel and how they could facilitate more embracing settings. Surely, some of them would be welcome to suggestions and would like to be an ally for their students.

    Lastly, I'm happy to share that I've talked about LGBTQ issues in my Spanish class before without any repercussions from my instructor or other students. A friend (another girl) and I had to do a skit and we decided to be two girls going on a date. I also wrote an essay about an LGBTQ-rights activist. [More obviously, it's also come up in my gender and culture class].

    (this might be the longest comment ever. sorry!)

  7. Straight professors can always "come out" as allies. If they don't want to do it directly, they can do it through displaying symbols from the Ally Network. Ally Network members could also include a phrase like "I have participated in Ally Network training and support, celebrate, and affirm all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people" in their syllabus. Queer professors could also do this if they don't feel comfortable coming out as queer.

    Perhaps foreign language professors should be specifically targeted for Ally Network training, because I know other LGBT student who have had similar experiences. It might help if someone from the LGBT Center just sent an email to the foreign language profs explaining the concerns of LGBT students in foreign language classes. Many professors probably haven't ever considered how a queer student would feel in their class.

    What else can be done?

  8. I'm so glad you wrote this! I don't know how confident you are, but I would talk to the professor about homophobic jokes. Even if it is the culture, they should acknowledge that they are to assimilate parts of their personality in to the American culture in order to effectively teach here. Also, you don't actually have to come out to them if you're not comfortable with it, although the point "what you said hurt me" is a lot more effective than "what you said is hurtful"

    I was too afraid to talk about homosexuality in my french classes, but what I did was I wrote an essay about my perfect girlfriend rather than my perfect boyfriend. When my professor talked to me about it, I told her that, while I was straight, I wanted to make sure that at least SOMEONE let her know that there were possibilities. Also, technically, I wasn't lying. If I were so inclined, I don't think that my preferences would change based on male or female partner.

    Sometimes you have to be brave, but I can understand if you're just like "it's only 4 more weeks." I would just hope that if you personally don't feel strong enough, that someone does, and soon.

  9. Wow. Thank you all so much for your stories and your ideas.

    Concerning my own particular situation, I think you're right, Bengisu. The thing is, I became used to hearing all sorts of things like that when I was abroad. It's a cultural difference. My host mother from this summer always wanted to know the gossip: Which American girl I was dating, how I felt about Russian women, and so on. My friend's host brothers, with whom we spent a lot of time, barely even acknowledged that homosexuality of any kind existed. My host sister did once mention that there was a bisexual woman in their city. When I pressed her further, her response was that she didn't really believe that bisexuality was real. She took the "it's a phase" stance. However, she did not seem too judgmental about it. I explained to her the LGBT presence that exists in America, and she was really surprised to hear that it is found outside of television. For me, it's so much easier to be gay in America. The world is progressing, but it has a lot more work to do in some places than in others.

    I don't think he meant any discrimination toward me. Like in Matt's situation, the mistake I made was a common one. He simply handled the situation in the way he is used to doing so, which is, again, a cultural difference. I love the language, the class, and I actually really like that professor. I think what upsets me is that, from being abroad, I've realized what life could be for me if I lived somewhere else. The freedoms I have here are wonderful. Whenever I'm in a situation here in which I feel the need to hide a part of myself, I do it with a bit of anger toward myself.

    After typing the last few sentences in that paragraph, I feel my thoughts may be a little irrational, but I hope you all understand what I'm trying to say.

    Anonymous 7:41, I like your ideas a lot, and I might see what I can do about bringing that up at a future BDU meeting.

    Anyway, in addition to Russian, I'm starting German next semester. Maybe things will be a little different in that class.

    Thanks again for all that you shared. I'm sure there are so many people who have experienced similar situations. This collection of stories really is fantastic.

  10. If I know the professor you're talking about, he comes from a different world.

    It's hard when you learn certain things, its a model and they teach you through repetition and previous paradigms.

    That professor likes to get you to talk, and converse and share. I don't think he meant any malicious. Maybe talk to him about if it bothers you so much.

  11. I love communicating in different languages, and it's always so tricky when it comes to the delicate matters of gendered language.

    I do have stories about the "perfect partner" type assignments. But one thing that particularly caught my attention this semester took place in a Spanish class. There are about 20 of us, and only one male in the room.

    As I'm sure it is in many other languages, the plural form when addressing a group automatically changes to masculine regardless of how many men vs. women there are in the room.

    One day, my prof slipped up and used the "nosotras" instead of "nosotros." She stopped and apologized to the man in our class. We all kind of laughed it off.

    I just find it curious.

  12. It is possible to be gay and a student, without always being a gay student.
    If the topic arises, stick to your guns and don't back down on your beliefs.
    But I find the suggestion that professors include welcoming or heart-warming Ally statements in their syllabi absolutely ridiculous.
    Their role is not to counsel or guide us in our romantic endeavors, but to guide the progression of our intellectual thoughts in their field of study.
    Speeches about gay rights are not appropriate for every setting, and I, for one, am glad that they are rare in my classes.

  13. Pretty much the only time I don't wish that I figured out I was trans much, much sooner is when I contemplate my language classes. I would have been referring to myself as male all the time in class and I don't think I could have borne the constant "corrections."

    English is, in many ways, kind of a dumb language, but compared to languages where every adjective and every verb must have a gender, its near-total lack of gender markers is pretty awesome.

  14. It seems like this issue comes up a lot in foreign language classes for some reason. I was in Spanish class once, and we were required to use the word for boyfriend/girlfriend (novio/novia) in a sentence. When I was asked to read mine aloud, I didn't really have a problem saying novio. The professor, of course, smiled and said "novia," but I shook my head and said "novio" back.

    I think language classes are disproportionally represented in this discussion because of the wide range of topics/sentences that come up. But it's definitely come up for me in other classes too, when talking about family, marriage, etc. No matter how comfortable you are with yourself and with people knowing your sexual orientation, it's always daunting to have to come out to a group of people on the spot. Just remember that in doing so, you're teaching your professor not to assume everyone is straight. Trust me, they will remember the next time. Just be brave and know you're doing the right thing.