The first time I heard the word lesbian used as an insult I was in the first grade. I had a 90’s style boy’s bowl-cut, and had just soundly beaten a third-grader on the tetherball court. “Well, you’re a lesbian!” she squealed, much to the delight of her other ponytailed friends. Decades later, I find myself an openly gay high school teacher, a co-founder and advisor for the Queer-Straight Alliance club, and informal mentor to a handful of young men and women new to the LGBTQ+ community. Turns out, my long-maned nemesis was, in fact, correct. Lesbian, I am.
The issue of queer visibility in any workplace is a sensitive one; it is especially so in public schools that are subject to myriad federal laws, and where adult employees are teaching, talking to, working with, and otherwise cultivating relationships with minors. Outing oneself as a queer educator demands that one straddles the line between personal and professional; by choice, work life is saturated with home life. Conducting myself in the workplace demands that I have a public relationship with truth that many of my students are not yet close to having.
This public relationship, in real, tangible ways, often puts those who choose to engage in it in danger—of rejection at best, and violence at worst. As such, when closeted queer students entrust a visible educator with his, her, or their sexual or gendered identity, various ethical considerations must be called into question. The primary ethical consideration that has recurred in my experience, particularly since the inception of our school’s QSA, is whether or not to lie or falsify information to a parent in order to protect a closeted minor’s identity.
Here, I will argue that if schools place primary value on student well-being (intellectual, physical, emotional, and otherwise), then they have the duty to lie for their closeted students in order to protect them. Teachers reserve the right to omit or falsify information that may potentially “out” a student to his, her, or their family. This argument hinges on the premises that student well-being is intrinsically valuable to schools, and that schools and school personnel must act in ways that promote well-being; sharing privileged information may in fact put well-being into jeopardy.
In normative ethics, a theory can be characterized as either deontological or teleological: deontological theories posit that the rightness or wrongness of an act depends on the nature of the act itself. In other words, one should always partake in certain acts, and never partake in other acts. On the other hand, teleological theories posit that the rightness or wrongness of an act is dependent upon the consequence of the act. They hold that the rightness or wrongness of actions is contingent on the action’s consequences. The result of the action is what deems an action right or wrong–not the action itself. The primary distinction between the two theories is whether or not context is taken into account to determine morality; deontological theories hold that certain acts–such as lying or stealing–are inherently wrong, regardless of context, and that certain acts–such as truth-telling or not stealing–are inherently right. Teleological theories wait for results before reaching a verdict.
Most schools seem to, wittingly or not, operate under ethical theories that are more teleological than deontological. The actions of staff, students, and administration are deemed as right or wrong depending on what the outcome is. The question for many is: how do we know which consequences are right, and which are wrong? The answer therein depends on what the school sees as intrinsically valuable. In order to judge an action based on its consequences, moral agents (here, schools and staff) must make the determination of which outcomes are seen as good, and furthermore if their actions promote those outcomes.
Most schools place a great deal of value on student well-being—physical, emotional, intellectual, and otherwise. Under a teleological theory, actions are right to the degree that they promote student well-being. Somewhat paradoxically, lying falls under this criteria, specifically for closeted queer students.
In my time as a teacher, I have been asked to lie on a number of occasions: Students have asked me to write notes home that said they were getting homework help after school when they were not. Parents have asked me to pass students when their credentials for earning a C- were questionable. Requests to truth-bend in any workplace may be more commonplace than one may wish to believe, and in a school, these requests are not limited to staff, but also include students. In almost every one of these situations, agreeing to dubious ethical requests (i.e. direct requests to lie or falsify information) are wrong, because they do not, in the long run, promote a student’s well-being. But there is something different about a queer student who asks me to lie to their parents for them.
This semester, three of my students who wanted to attend Queer-Straight Alliance after school asked me to either write a note home, or call home and lie about their whereabouts from 4-5 PM: I was being asked to tell their parents they were getting homework help or volunteering for an after-school event, and not that they were participating in a club intended for LGBTQ+ students and their straight allies.
All teachers have responsibilities that are intended to promote the well-being of the student. They include, but are not limited to:
- Academic responsibilities: Providing quality instruction, sharing academic progress with guardians, providing and advocating for necessary academic supports
- Physical safety: Following disciplinary protocol and emergency protocol that ensures bodily integrity of students
- Social-emotional safety: Creating a safe and non-threatening environment for the student regardless of gender identity, religion, race, sexuality, or income level
As such, teachers are often required to disclose information about their students to the guardians of the child that directly impact his or her well-being. If a child is failing a class, acted out, or is in need of extra supports, telling the truth and sharing the information with the guardian allows for shared responsibility in promoting well-being. On the other hand, lying about any of these incidences (ex: telling a parent that a student is “fine” in class, when they are in fact, failing) may alleviate short-term stress and awkward conversation, but lead to more detrimental long-term outcomes.
As a surrogate for the school they work at, the teacher’s actions must effectively parallel the values and practices of the school, and teachers both know and understand this upon agreeing to work in a particular institution. It may seem that truth-telling should always be at the forefront of teacher consideration, especially when interacting with families. However, the decision to potentially out one’s student involves a factor of safety that sharing other student information does not.
In thinking of my first-grade year, I now understand that a six year-old does not learn to lace her words with hatred on her own volition, but under the guidance of those who are entrusted with her care. For a child, playground justice is delivered through the words which home has taught her. If home has taught her that “lesbian” and “gay” are words that are marked by inherent wrongness, and whose utterance should only be intended to harm, then one can imagine that home–for many queer students–is not a safe space. Sometimes, only school can play that role.
As the place where children and teenagers spend most of their waking hours during their formative years, schools have the potential to more directly, and with more efficacy, impact a student’s well-being than anywhere else. The charge to protect the well-being of our most vulnerable transcends traditional notions of right and wrong, and must embody a close examination of both the reasons and consequences underlying what we tell whom. Most importantly, we must ask ourselves—for what reason are we telling the truth?
There is a fine line between modeling truth-telling and putting our children in harm’s way. As the foremost models of appropriate and ethical behavior, teachers and other school staff who are asked to lie by their queer students face multiple considerations:
-Refuse to lie, with the intention of modeling honesty
-Refuse to lie, with the intention of modeling that sexuality is not something to be ashamed of
-Lie, with the intention of protection
When we—as staff—are not faced with threat of violence, it is easy to sit atop an ethical “perch” and choose either of the first two options, both of which embody good intentions. It is easier still to engage with abstract lessons on morality because we are not under direct threat. While truth, in its purest (and sometimes most dangerous) form, may trump falsities in everyday ethics, when a teary-eyed student approaches us with requests to lie, we must consider their conditions above and beyond the life lessons we aim to teach.
The extent to which we are actually fulfilling the very things we see as good must be our sole consideration when asked to lie, or when encountered with the chance to lie for our queer students. Our charge cannot be honesty for honesty’s sake, but rather contingent honesty and thoughtful falsity. For it is through this falsity that we are often provided the rare chance to shelter.
Image courtesy of Jglsongs, Flickr Creative Commons