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I thought I was out and the closet dragged me back in

I joined my high school's gay-straight alliance when I was 14 and became its co-president the next year. In college, I led the Queer Student Union and in 2005, my full-colour photograph graced the front page of the local newspaper for National Coming Out Day.

In fact, for the better part of a decade, I worked either as a student organiser or professional activist and, later, as a board member for a national LGBTQ youth non-profit. It is no hyperbole to say that I marched around wearing rainbow flags because on several occasions I did just that.

After college, being queer was practically my job. I went to work for Campus Progress — now Generation Progress — where I was a mentor to college activists. I was very “out” at Campus Progress and talked about queerness in my day-to-day job, referencing my activist experiences when relating to students and collaborators.

While my identity and self-understanding continued deepening and shifting over the years, sometimes dramatically, I was used to being out and was comfortable with it.

But with the move from “professional gay”, as many friends call it, to professional writer and college professor, things changed.

I left my job to pursue a longstanding dream and enrolled in a graduate programme for creative writing. During graduate school, I had some creative-writing teaching gigs, and after graduation, I worked full time as a college professor for three years. As a teacher, I went back into the closet.

Why? For one, I was insecure about my authority and credibility. In my role at Campus Progress, my identity was central to my job and my expertise was obvious from my years as an organiser. But who was I to lead a course on creative writing, journalism or composition? I worried I had not published enough or read enough. I was fairly young, so I still got mistaken for a student. And my first teaching gig was facilitated by my university, not a progressive activist organisation such as Campus Progress, so I felt the need to maintain a level of professionalism. All this added up to nervousness.

So I began making disappointing choices. I began to dress for work in ways I thought were less visibly queer by hiding and playing down my gender nonconformity. With the ways queerness and gender variance are stigmatised in society, wearing men's clothes or exposing body hair, even unintentionally, made me feel like I would come across as juvenile.

Displaying some version of professionalism was a way to justify my role as a professor, but it made me more closeted in my job. Even when colleagues spoke freely about their spouses and partners, I felt nervous mentioning my partner of several years.

Anything that indicated I was not straight felt like an overshare. Being queer and coupled was inherently “Too Much Information”, even when straight colleagues had photos of their spouses in their cubicles, even when straight people wore wedding rings, even when straight colleagues used gendered language that revealed who they were dating.

And while I didn't talk about my personal life with students, I still worried that if they accidentally found out something about my queerness, I could get in trouble. Would some student complain to administration that I was inappropriate? Maybe a student who received a low grade would accuse me of being biased? While I lived in New York state and had some legal protections, I still stayed more guarded than I wanted to.

The political context and backlash against increased queer and transgender visibility lurked in my periphery — although I know the people most affected by these realities are trans-women of colour.

I remember when a student, a particularly engaged one, followed me on Twitter in the middle of the semester. My short Twitter bio listed “LGBT stuff” under the topics I write about, and as soon as I saw the e-mail about the new follower, I panicked and deleted those words. I literally erased a piece of myself from an online profile, hoping I had done it before he had a chance to read the old version. A cursory Google search about me would reveal obvious queer affiliations, but for some reason, the label on my biography made me super-uncomfortable.

I would go home every day after teaching to the apartment I shared with my girlfriend and talk about how embarrassed I was, but I felt that as a young female professor, I needed to be extra cautious. I took solace in my “still majority queer” friends circle, where I could dress and talk how I had become used to dressing and talking.

It is hard now to imagine doing any of this because, thankfully, things changed.

In one of my last semesters of teaching, I co-taught a graduate-level writing course. I was intimidated, especially since many of my students were older than me. I did have two years of teaching under my belt, some work experience as a journalist and a number of clips as a freelance writer, so I had some confidence in my writing expertise. But I was still nervous, which translated to being closeted.

After the last day of class, my co-professor and I went out for drinks with the students. I worried this was unprofessional, but the tone of the course was very friendly and collegiate, and the other professor was somewhat of a celebrity in the field, so students were eager to get to know him. After the happy hour started to dwindle, the student who had followed me on Twitter sat next to me on the picnic bench and said: “Hey, you know I'm queerspawn, right?”

For the uninitiated, “queerspawn” is a term used to describe a person with LGBTQ parents or guardians. The student did not identify as queer but was a member of the larger community and a strong ally.

He wanted me to know that he saw me, that he could tell I was queer, that he sensed how hard I was trying to hide that part of myself when I put on my teacher “costume”.

I blushed and said no, I didn't realise he was queerspawn, but that I was grateful to know. In this way, he gave me space to come out and we spent a few minutes talking about why I was so oddly closeted in this part of my life, even though I wasn't closeted in other spaces. He also said he noticed the “LGBT” had disappeared from my Twitter profile. I shook my head in disbelief for being outed about my self-closeting. But he wasn't trying to shame me; he was trying to encourage me. And it worked.

I quit teaching in 2014 and now work as a managing editor at an education non-profit. I have come out in countless ways, small and large: dressing in the gender-queer outfits that feel best to me, bringing a trans significant other to a work holiday party, joining an LGBTQ affinity group and recruiting other LGBTQ people and friends to work at my supportive organisation. I feel more relaxed, more at ease. And I have learnt that coming out is not something you do just once. It happens over and over again. It has to — as we keep navigating new spaces and learning more about ourselves.

While I do not teach any more, I think back to that moment, to a student flipping the roles and giving me permission to be myself by letting me into his story. It helps me remember to be myself, even when I'm working in a job or context that isn't explicitly LGBTQ-related. I am able to bring more of my whole self to work now, and for that I'm grateful.

•Tanya Paperny is a writer and translator in Washington, and the managing editor at Bellwether Education Partners

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Published October 12, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated October 12, 2016 at 8:38 am)

I thought I was out and the closet dragged me back in

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