“Dude, You’re a Fag!”
On Being a Gay Music Teacher in the South: Perspectives from 2000 to Today
By NAfME Member Webb Parker
My assumption is that you read this title and had one of four reactions:
- Discomfort: Seeing the word “fag” in print caused you to recoil a bit.
- Empathy: A phrase similar to this has been hurled at you or someone you care about.
- Questioning: You asked yourself, “Why would NAfME publish this? Is there a political agenda? A biased editor? Or, is this a scorned author looking to vent?”
- Apathy: This subject matter doesn’t affect you.
I found myself a member of each of these categories one day while teaching an undergraduate course during my first year of collegiate teaching. In my Choral Methods class, I play a game with my students called “Any Question” near the end of the semester. The rules are simple:
- Take a blank note card.
- Write down any question you’d like to ask me. (The question does not have to relate to teaching, music, the class, or the profession.)
- Turn in the card without writing your name on it.
I then read and answer the questions aloud in front of the class. It’s an exercise that I feel makes me real and vulnerable to my students.
Most questions are about the profession.
- What do you do with difficult parents?
- How do you handle the death of a student?
- How do you balance work and family?
Sometimes they are about those parts of life we never take classes about.
- What is a mortgage?
- How do I start an investment portfolio?
- When can I retire?
Occasionally the questions are whimsical.
- What’s your most embarrassing teaching moment?
- Have you ever flubbed a performance?
- Where do you get your shoes? (I love shoes and have quite the shoe collection!)
And, once, a question left me momentarily speechless.
- What is it like being a gay high school choir teacher in the South?
Start Where the Students Are
Though my sexuality was by no means a secret, it was also not something I advertised or spoke at length about with my students. I answered the question as honestly and authentically as my spinning brain would allow: “I don’t know.”
I was not out as a high school teacher. I would have been fired. Immediately. I wasn’t comfortable with my sexuality then. Not to mention how my sexuality complicated my relationship with my family, friends, and faith.
I went back to my office and thought . . . a lot.
- I was uncomfortable: To what level was I willing to be “real” in my pedagogy?
- I was empathetic: Of course, I can answer this question. I am a gay teacher in the South. I know what it’s like.
- I was questioning: My experiences are mine. They don’t belong in my pedagogy, do they?
- I considered apathy: Who cares? I’m not unique.
Then, I began to wonder, “Who asked the question?” Anonymity makes the game more authentic in the questions my students are willing to ask, and I didn’t want to disrespect that aspect of the game. So, rather than asking “Who?” I began to examine them as a whole.
- 4 identified as female. 9 identified as male.
- 9 Caucasians. 3 African Americans. 1 Asian American.
- 10 seniors. 3 juniors.
- 1 soprano. 3 altos. 6 tenors. 2 basses. 1 trumpeter.
- 7 identified as heterosexual.
- 5 identified as non-heteronormative. All male.
- 1 whose identity I didn’t know.
- 12 who identified as Christian.
- All born and raised in the South.
Considering my students in this way completely changed my philosophy of teaching. Though I have continued to wrestle with the initial question of experiences of being a gay teacher in the South, I did come away with a profoundly simple philosophy of teaching:
I teach unique human beings.
I must start where they are.
There is no “standard” human. They all enter my classroom with their own unique experiences. Asking a student to leave any part of who they are outside the classroom door is requesting of them an impossible task, irresponsible pedagogy, and a negation of that student as a whole person.
Choosing not to set aside a portion of who I am, I chose to answer the question, “What is it like being a gay teacher in the South?” to the best of my abilities and academic training.
During my session at the NAfME In-Service Conference, we will discuss:
- My personal experience and how it shaped my own pedagogy
- The experiences of non-heteronormative, young teachers
- How the above experiences can inform pedagogy in teacher preparation
- How the above experiences can inform pedagogy in the music classroom
Themes to be discussed include:
Inclusive Language – Discoverable Identities – Common Struggles – Empathy
So, to which category do you belong?
To the uncomfortable:
Seek to work through discomfort to find understanding. Ask questions.
Embrace your discomfort. Share your experiences.
To the empathetic:
Your story is valuable, needs to be told, and will continue to live, long after you have expired – but, only if you tell it.
To the questioning:
Allow your questions to lead you out of any bubble that envelops you.
To the apathetic:
Human experience is your classroom.
Seek to understand those to whom you cannot relate.
Whichever category you’re in, I hope to share experiences and insights that will aid in enriching your own understanding of the “non-normative” – whatever that is. I certainly hope you’ll join me for the NAfME In-Service conference in November!
About the author:
NAfME member Webb Parker is Assistant Professor of Music Education at the University of Southern Mississippi and co-founder of the Pedagogy of Style Conference (www.pedagogyofstyle.com) and the Southern Institute of Music Education (www.simusiced.com). He conducts the Southern Miss Women’s Choir and is Chorus Master with Mississippi Opera. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Webb Parker presented on his topic, “’Dude, You’re a Fag’: On being a gay music teacher in the South. Perspectives from 2000 to today,” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!
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