Drew Coyne is one of Staples High School’s most popular and beloved teachers. The US History Honors and Advanced Placement Economics instructor graduated from Cornell University, then earned a master’s in education at Harvard University. He was nominated for Westport Teacher of the Year.
The day after the presidential election, he was overwhelmed with emotions. In his classrooms, students had a variety of feelings — despair, excitement, anger, fear, elation, defensiveness and more.
Like any good teacher, he seized the teachable moment. He asked them to write down their thoughts.
They asked if he would do the same. He did. Here’s what he wrote:
I remember a time when I Asked Jeeves if being gay would pass. Would liking boys just go away, or could I will it away? Was being gay wrong?
I asked. I waited. And waited as Jeeves moved at a glacial pace. The more pressing the answer, it seemed, the longer Jeeves needed to search for that elusive response.
Jeeves came back with some answers. This is “normal” one site said. Most boys experience this for 3 months. It will pass.
“Awesome,” I thought, feeling relief that it was just some speed bump on the road toward normalcy for a kid from small-town, upstate New York.
But I kept reading. The church website, a reliable source to a teenager in the ’90s, said that if the “symptoms” lasted any longer I would need medical help. There were cures. Medicines and “therapy” promised normalcy. There were ways to make me “healthy,” to make me straight.
My defense mechanisms kicked in. My walls went up. I would hide this and protect myself. And, so, a great 10-year masquerade began.
—– —– —–
Flash forward to this week. I’m numb. As Florida turned red, Ohio flipped, and the Blue Wall of Michigan and Wisconsin rusted over into an ominous red hue, my stomach sank. And in that moment, unexpectedly and unconsciously, my walls — emotional defense mechanisms from my youth — resumed their guard.
As I drove to school, even NPR’s words couldn’t reach me. My walls, designed for protection, were back. They took energy and focus. I lost the ability to listen as America’s new trajectory was announced to people like me.
Entering Staples, I braced myself to lead. My students responded to reflective prompts: This morning I’m feeling… or The Westport Bubble…
As we shared, my oft-optimistic students were different. One wrote, “This morning, I’m feeling scared and worried for our economic systems.” Another said, “I woke up and panicked. I got in the shower and cried.” One scribbled, “I am thankful that I am a wealthy, white male because, realistically, I’m going to be OK. But for others, even checks and balances won’t protect them.”
While a majority of my students were despondent, others found joy. One reflected that “I am feeling optimistic, yet somewhat surprised. I can’t wait to see these changes.”
During the day, teenagers wept openly. They cried because they were afraid for their rights as women. They cried because a student’s adopted black brother saw racism triumph in his eyes. They cried for a lost cause after canvassing in Pennsylvania.
I cried because for the first time in their lives, their walls were up.
—– —– —–
Only later did I recognize my coping mechanisms, reflect on my identity, and understand the election’s repercussions.
In 2007, still closeted as a college junior, I ventured off Cornell’s campus and, for the first time, lived beyond upstate New York. In Washington, D.C. I took classes and began my first internship for then-Senator Clinton. The Hill transformed me by helping her address systemic problems with the VA, navigating the appropriations process, and seeing her tireless work ethic. Those moments and the people have forever informed my vision.
But it was another moment that helped me tear down the walls that kept me in that dark, lonely closet. On P Street a gay couple pushed a stroller with their child past me. That’s it. For so many, this isn’t the event that catapults a gay man out of hiding. But it did for me. It was profound because it was the first time in my life that being gay was viewed as normal. Piece by piece, a wall began to fall.
—– —– —–
Arthur Golden writes that “Adversity is like a strong wind. It… tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that afterward we see ourselves as we really are, and not merely as we might like to be.” The 2016 campaign symbolizes those winds that have left me whiplashed. They have revealed a vulnerable, jolted and, at times, insecure gay man.
And in this moment of vulnerability, I think I know why.
Back in those Jeeves years, I learned to protect myself, to shield myself from politicians who told me I was wrong. I learned that this was far from a wholly partisan issue. In 1993 the Religious Freedom Restoration Act had 170 congressional co-sponsors. While originally intended to protect religious minorities, conservative politicians used those laws to carve out methods to discriminate LGBTQ Americans.
Candidate, eventual congressman and future vice president Mike Pence embodies a political generation that told me I needed to be fixed. During his 2000 campaign, he was one of many who encouraged federal funding for conversion therapies, including shock therapy.
His website stated that “resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” The website continued, “Congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage.” And “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexual’s [sic] as a discreet [sic] and insular minority” that can be protected by similar laws afforded to women and ethnic minorities.
Today, Mr. Pence and like-minded leaders have swept into power in a wave of angst at the status quo. I understand their suffering — and am privileged to not worry about where my next meal is coming from, or if my heating bill is paid. But those leaders who have promised economic change for America’s downtrodden will also advance alt-right social policies that destabilize minority group protections. Indeed, the right-wing National Organization for Marriage is already spelling out a wish-list for President Trump, including repealing marriage equality.
These efforts that are unfolding remind me that, to many Americans, I am less of a citizen. As such, it does not make this transition easy. Indeed, it is a transition not toward a new America, but one that I knew as a teenager. Only now do I realize that Mr. Trump has already built a wall. It is a wall I knew for years and one that caused great suffering. Today, while not nearly as high, my wall is up.
And I fear that Mr. Trump’s accession is doing the same in my classroom. How many students who are questioning their sexual identity will see the nation’s role models telling them they should be fixed or undeserving of equality? How many young women in my classroom will have to know that a man accused of sexual assault was supported by 53% of white women? How many immigrants will feel like they are not welcome, regardless of their status? How many religious minorities must fear hate?
So, as I cope, I am tasked with choosing how to dismantle the emotional wall that Mr. Trump’s campaign built with such ferocity. Today, I don’t know how to surmount his creation, but I will be resilient. I will treat all of my students with kindness and love. Still, I worry, as an educator and gay man, that his campaign has already succeeded in building a wall in so many of us even before he has assumed the mantle of the presidency.