Opening the Classroom Closet: Sexual Orientation and Self-Disclosure

By Allen, Katherine R. | Family Relations, April 1995 | Go to article overview

Opening the Classroom Closet: Sexual Orientation and Self-Disclosure


Allen, Katherine R., Family Relations


In this article, I address two topics that are relevant to family pedagogy: sexual orientation and self-disclosure. I use my teaching experience to demonstrate how content and strategy--in this case, sexual orientation and self-disclosure--can be combined to teach students something important about themselves and about families. By including lesbian, gay, and bisexual perspectives in the classroom in general, and my own experience in particular, I advance my pedagogical aim of teaching more accurate knowledge about families. I illustrate my observations about disclosing sexual orientation with my experience as a teacher and a lesbian, discuss heterosexism and heterosexual privilege in family studies, share an entry from my teaching diary, and propose recommendations for instructors to use in making their teaching about families more inclusive of sexual orientation. In short, I examine how sexual orientation and self-disclosure are valuable components of impassioned teaching.

I undertake this objective to incorporate more accurate knowledge about families with an awareness of potential controversy and risk. As an out lesbian, I relinquish the safety that the assumption of heterosexuality confers on people who do not disclose their sexual orientation (Freedman, 1990). People who are heterosexual are not presumed to have a sexual orientation. Although being a lesbian in the classroom when most students and colleagues are heterosexual makes me "other" in relation to them, being out also gives me some control over defining what sexual orientation means to me. Coming out enriches the subject matter of family studies, provides students with a positive frame of reference for authenticity, and exemplifies that one can have an academic career as an out gay person (Rothblum, 1993).

By disclosing important aspects of my identity, I invite and model ways for students to understand their own experiences with social locations such as gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. Many students have said that our classroom is the first time they realized that they, too, had a sexual orientation. Students also learn to examine the privileges, opportunities, and oppressions that accompany their race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, and physical ability, and gain understanding and respect for others with diverse experiences.

SEXUAL ORIENTATION AS PART OF A TEACHER'S IDENTITY

In my classes on family theories, methods, and diversity, a major instructional aim is to help students unsettle essentialist categories of social location, and to assist them in understanding the ways in which these identities and structures are social products. As an action-oriented teacher, I want to empower students to not just learn facts but to transform their ways of thinking about and acting upon differences (Allen & Baber, 1992b; Fonow & Cook, 1991). I do so primarily through conversations about personal experiences. I bring my full self into the classroom. When appropriate, I augment the textual material I ask students to read with examples from my own life, inviting students' intellectual and emotional involvement in the course. I share my passionate engagement with family studies to encourage students to learn about subjects that have been marginalized and misrepresented.

One of the many topics I share is that I identify myself as a lesbian. I have been heterosexual, and there are lesbians, gay men, heterosexual women, heterosexual men, and bisexual people in my classes. There are also students with identities that I do not have a language inclusive enough to describe. Although some believe that sexual orientation is a fixed identity, I view sexual orientation, like gender, race, class, and age, as fluid and socially constructed (Golden, 1987; Phelan, 1993; Rust, 1993). Sexual orientation, like personality or the self, is not a fixed, unchanging quality, but a multivariable dynamic process that includes sexual behavior, fantasies, and attraction, as well as emotional and social preference, lifestyle choice, and self-identification (Klein, 1990). …

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