HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Being Out at Work

by Dr. Susie Tanchel Issue: Diversity

Coming out at work was one of the scariest things that I have ever done; I was frightened that I was going to lose my job because I am a lesbian. At that time I was chair of the Bible department and knew of no other Jewish school that had a(n out) gay or lesbian chair of a limudei kodesh (Jewish studies) department.

I love the Jewish high school in which I work and would never want to do anything to harm it. Before I came out, I was anxious that when I revealed the truth about my sexual orientation others would view me as harmful to our school, whether in terms of recruitment or retention. I also walked around school frequently wondering whether certain teachers and students would still respect me if they knew about a crucial part of my identity. Despite my intense fear, and with some sleepless nights, I chose to come out to our Headmaster; in the final analysis, this was the only acceptable option. The most compelling reason behind my decision was that which guides hundreds of my decisions as an educator: I wanted to serve my students better. This required being authentic in my community and true to myself. Since hiding takes so much energy, being in the closet meant that I was not as good an educator as I should have been. Despite fears swirling around in my head and in my heart, I came out. I have never regretted it.

Still the path has not always been an easy one. I have had to endure some uncomfortable conversations, including one in which a teacher said to me, “Susie you are a sinner, but we are all sinners.” While his words stung, I could see in his eyes and hear in his tone how he was struggling to hold both his caring for me and his deep allegiance to halakhah (Jewish law). We continued to discuss Judaism and homosexuality in many conversations, and our friendship was strengthened by the new honesty. Indeed this teacher continued to invite me for Shabbat lunch with his family, and now my girlfriend was included too.

The students, too, had to grapple with having a lesbian TaNaKH teacher. An Orthodox student relayed to me how when he first learned of my sexuality, he had wondered whether he could still learn TaNaKH from me. In the end, he determined that I “was not perfect,” but none of his other teachers were either. He decided that he could still learn from me because “had learned Rabbinics from teachers who did not observe Shabbat and (I) knew a lot of Torah.” I feel badly that he had to grapple with this issue, but in the end what mattered was my subject matter knowledge and what kind of teacher I was, not my sexual orientation.

To this day not everyone in my school community thinks that living a gay life is (halakhically) acceptable. But no one at school - not a single faculty member, administrator, student or parent - has ever treated me with anything but deep respect. I understand that differences of opinion need to co-exist, and I also know that all teachers need to feel accepted and comfortable in the school in which they work in order to do their best work.

Having ‘out’ teachers at a school can also be a positive, as they can serve as invaluable resources. Over the years, administrators, teachers, and even some parents have approached me with questions or a need of assistance in working with a gay/lesbian/bi-sexual student. Moreover, each year, a few students who are struggling with their sexual orientation find their way into my office. I do not seek them out, but they come seeking a supportive adult Jewish presence in their lives. Many of them are scared about how those around them will react when they learn the student’s truth, while others have already suffered painful experiences. Some wonder about how to reconcile their sexual orientation with their commitment to Judaism. Having a safe space to go is essential for helping these students grow into healthy adults. Too many gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual Jewish adolescents feel isolated, alone, and unaccepted. I work to provide these young men and women with a place in which they are can express their fears and their dreams. I also implicitly function as a role model for them by offering one possible way of living a committed Jewish life. This, hopefully, opens up different possibilities for how they might choose to live their lives.

Several years have past since I first came out. Looking back, I realize that the far majority of my interactions with students, faculty, and parents are no different from those before I came out, except each feels radically different to me. I no longer have to use some of my energy to hide; I no longer live in fear. I feel accepted and strengthened, and thus am a more productive and better contributor to my school.

When I recently got married, my simcha was treated like those of my straight colleagues. The faculty had a small celebration in our honor, and my TaNaKH class threw me a surprise party. These events meant a great deal to me as they symbolized my full acceptance into a community that I hold so dear. As our school treats heterosexual and same-sex couples equally, offering them the same benefits and privileges, my partner is a recognized member of our school community. This is part of what makes it possible for me to continue to work at my school and to grow as an educator. My erstwhile fears have been replaced with an acknowledgment of all parts of my identity. I feel deeply blessed to work at an educational institution that believes that each person is created betzelem elokhim (in God’s image) and deserves the opportunity to realize his or her potential. ♦

Editor’s Note: LGBT people can opt for invisibility. Unlike Jews of color, LGBT Jews can mask “gayness” in ways unique in the diversity community, and in fact, many opt to do so while others feel compelled to do so. It is both possible and likely that there are unseen LGBT people in your school – students, parents, and faculty. The question becomes, are they closeted from you or because of you, and what can your school do to be a more welcoming place?

Dr. Susie Tanchel is the Associate Head of School for Jewish Education at Gann Academy, located in Waltham, MA. Dr. Tanchel can be reached at stanchel@gannacademy.org .

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Diversity in day schools usually goes well beyond the denominational spectrum that falls under the rubric of pluralism. It includes socioeconomic disparities, gender and sexuality, color and ethnicity, and other differences of religious practice and customs. In this issue, authors recommend ways for day schools to become sensitive to a range of diversity, to welcome all students and teachers and find ways for them to validate these identities within the school community.

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