By Steve Weinstein
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The following spring, Mr. Michael again gathered his ninth graders in a circle and said that he had something important to tell them. This time, he followed the announcement with 45 minutes of questions and answers.
"A lot of the questions were about gender roles," he recalls, "like, 'If you're dating someone, who cooks?' Also, they had really interesting, rational questions like, 'How do you find other gay people?' 'Do you wish you were straight?' 'What did your parents say?' 'Do you want to have kids?' "
After answering their questions, Mr. Michael ended the discussion by saying, "Whatever you think about being gay, I want you to remember that there was one gay person in your life who made you laugh, and helped you with your English, and taught you something about history." Several students made a point of shaking his hand or thanking him for treating them like adults. The next day, Mr. Michael went back to his lesson on ancient Greece without incident.
When Mr. Michael came out to his ninth-grade history classes the following year, Ian David Aronson, a filmmaker making a documentary about the school, was there to capture it on camera. He ended up turning the footage of it into a separate 22-minute DVD entitled Did You Know That Mr. Michael Is Gay? The film comes with a teacher's guide for educators who want to start a dialogue about homosexuality and tolerance in the classroom.
In the movie, the students first appear shocked by Mr. Michael's announcement—their eyes widen and one boy says "What?", though he is promptly quieted down by the other kids. Mr. Michael then explains why he decided to tell them and encourages them to ask questions. The students take advantage of the invitation (first question: "How do you feel now that you told us that you are gay?"), and Mr. Michael answers potentially awkward questions like, "Who's the man and who's the woman?" (both people share cooking and household chores, he explains) and "Do you think that you would change if you met a girl that you really love?" (Probably not, but you never know because life is funny.)
Three years ago, Mr. Michael became the founding principal of the International High School in Brooklyn. As the principal, he felt much more apprehensive about telling students about his sexuality because he thought that parents might be more concerned about a gay principal than a gay teacher. "That's why I waited three years," he says. Before coming out, he instructed his staff to refer any problems or complaints to him directly because, he says, "I didn't want to put them in an awkward position."
"I didn't think it was awkward at all," says Emily Bristle, the school's coordinator of special programs. "It was definitely a good thing because some of the students had their own ideas that he might be gay. They asked me a couple of times directly and my answer was, 'You have to go ask him yourself.' It was good for the kids to know that it wasn't anything that he was ashamed of."
So far, there have been no complaints from parents, and students interviewed for this article reacted positively to Mr. Michael's decision to come out. "I have no problem with him being gay," said Jimmy Esperance, a 16-year-old from Haiti. "It was a good thing that he told us he was gay because we might not have trusted him as much if he was hiding it. It's better to tell."
For his part, Mr. Michael plans to continue to have frank discussions with students about his sexuality. "I came out to my students for the same reason that I came out to my family," he says. "These are the people that I care about the most and spend the most time with. I want them to know who I really am."