By Albert Samaha
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One day in early May, Michael Soet, the principal of the International High School in Brooklyn, took over the 11th-grade social-studies classes for the day. The juniors had been learning about McCarthyism, and Mr. Michael, as he is affectionately known by his students, saw an opportunity to elaborate on some of the themes of the class by doing something that he had been waiting for just the right moment to do. He announced to his students that he is gay.
"I thought it might fit in with the lesson about paranoia and making assumptions about people just because they are different," Mr. Michael says of the timing. He had already alerted his staff and invited them to participate in the discussion, which several teachers did. He'd also spoken with Brian Ellner, a senior counselor to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and gotten his support. Still, Mr. Michael couldn't help but feel nervous at first.
"I felt the same this time as I did when I first came out as a teacher," he explains. Before he became a principal, Mr. Michael taught history at the Manhattan International High School, where frequent usage of the words "homo" and "fag" inspired him to come out to his students after his second year as a teacher.
"The first time I did it in the last 10 minutes before summer break. I basically told the kids, 'I'm gay. Have a nice summer,' " he says, laughing. "I realized by the kids' reactions that they weren't appalled or shocked. They just had a lot of questions, and I hadn't left them any time to ask me anything." He decided that next time he would give his students the opportunity to have a serious conversation about his sexuality.
New York City's public schools have not always welcomed such frank discussions about homosexuality. In 1991, then- chancellor Joseph Fernandez faced an uproar of protest against including Heather Has Two Mommies, a book about a little girl raised by a lesbian couple, in the school curriculum on tolerance and diversity. Some local school districts refused to assign the book to students, and the uproar helped lead to the Board of Education's 4-to-3 vote against renewing Chancellor Fernandez's contract two years later.
Though it's difficult to say whether schools are more tolerant of LGBT students today than they have been in the past—the Department of Education has not collected data on anti-LGBT incidents in schools, though it says it will begin to this fall—the political climate has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. A new program by the Department of Education's Office of School and Youth Development and the New York City Council called Respect for All, which provides professional training for teachers, counselors, and other support staff in schools serving students from grades 6 through 12, was launched last year without incident. Two of the program's main goals are to serve as a resource for students and staff on issues of discrimination and harassment—including over sexual orientation—and to increase the likelihood of intervention when witnessing biased language, harassment, or bullying.
"The reality is that anti-LGBT bullying and harassment is still a problem in classrooms in New York City, just like it is a problem everywhere," says Daryl Presgraves, a spokesman for GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which helped develop Respect for All. "What's really great about this project is the recognition by the city and the Department of Education that there's still more to learn about addressing anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in the classroom."
According to Presgraves, Respect for All has trained more than 1,000 teachers, and administrators plan to expand teacher training in the coming school year. Respect for All brochures will also be distributed to students and their families in nine different languages. In addition, Respect for All posters will be hung in middle and high schools across the city to remind students of their right to a respectful and supportive educational environment. The brochures and posters will include contact information for students who need help with bias-related behaviors in their schools.
When Mr. Michael first decided to come out to his history students at Manhattan International High School several years ago, he wasn't sure what to expect. The city's international high schools cater exclusively to recent immigrants—students who have been in the U.S. for fewer than four years—and many of the kids come from countries where homosexuality is persecuted or illegal. Mr. Michael knew that most of them had never met someone who was openly gay and resolved that he would give his students the opportunity to have a serious conversation about his sexuality.
"I thought of four or five reasons that it was important to have this conversation," he recalls. "Like the fact that they lived in New York City, and there are people here that have this lifestyle, so when you call someone a faggot you never know who you are insulting. Also, I did it for the one or two kids in class that were probably gay. And for the others—statistically, one of them will have a kid that is gay."
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."