I often fail to provided this example. I use the excuses of my own Catholic background and the Muslim community where I did my early teaching to keep me silenced and closeted.
At our holiday party this year, a young person I worked with from 3rd grade to 5th grade came through with her mother, one of our organization's earliest advocates. The kid I used to teach was now fifteen and about my height. The three of us chatted with a new employee.
"And what about your life outside work?" the mom asked. "Are you married?"
I took a quick, stabilizing breath. I was already out to my colleague. "I have a partner," I said quickly. "We just bought a house up in Mt. Airy."
The mom's face betrayed a flash of recognition; the teen just smiled, a little knowingly.
Can I teach children to be queer without talking about my own love life? More importantly, over a decade into my career, have I done so?
Once again, Johnson's definition of queer: "And so what defines queer, finally," he writes, "is not what one does in bed but one's stance toward the ancient régime, the status quo, the way things have always been done, the dominant mode, capitalism."
While I haven't shared my sexual identity with youth, I have built my teaching on queer values: recognition of individuals' strengths and skills, respect for self and neighbor and insistence upon equity.
The highest point of queer success and romance, in Johnson's view of history, has come through creative endeavor.
To be born bent, however that manifested itself, was once to be forced to look within -- to explore and express, in Gide's words, 'what seems different in yourself.' This embrace of the gift of our essential difference was the wellspring of queer creativity -- for evidence, read or look at Walt Whitman, Henry James, Sherwood Anderson, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf, Gloria Anzaldúa, Marsden Hartley, Audre Lorde, Agnes Martin, Baldwin, Baldwin, Baldwin to name only a few of the eminently civilized writers and artists who understood commitment as well as or better than any people taking marriage vows with the knowledge of no-fault divorce waiting in the wings. Their lifelong, selfless practice rooted itself in their fecund, uneasy difference: their queerness. These queer writers and artists took unbreakable vows to their art, dedicating their lives to showing us, their audience, the human condition.Being queer no longer forces one to look within, as LGB people and relationships become more a part of mainstream culture. Queer youth of the new generation aren't plagued with the self-doubt and double consciousness that ruined so many queers of previous generations. The brave like Carson McCullers and Audre Lorde stood out precisely because of what was stacked against them.
Emma González, survivor of the Parkland shooting and gun control advocate, is the new queer. When she emerged on the national stage, I saw my students in her. In Philadelphia youth programs, I'd been witnessing comparable self-assuredness, clear thinking and queerness for years.
If it is queer creatives who have shown us our past, complete with its hypocrisy and oppression and brave striving, then it will be the queer children, who have declared themselves in charge, who will light our way into an even braver future.
Johnson has a vision of this future. "In place of our age of irony," he writes, "I imagine an age of reverence, chosen in full embrace of the knowledge of science, even as it grounds itself in the calm conviction that we live and die in mystery, that all human endeavor must begin and end in respect, for ourselves, for one another, for our fellow creatures, for our wounded, beloved Earth. Let us all become queers."
Dear Fenton Johnson, I've been talking to the children and it's already happening. With their noses buried in their phones, they've been processing the world in which they find themselves more quickly and more adeptly than any generation before them. And they don't like what they've found.
Returning to the writers and artists, Johnson writes, "Through their art they showed us that the solitude we so fear, that we will do anything to escape, even marry -- that solitude is an illusion, a scrim preventing us from seeing how we are all one, we are all in this boat together."
Generation Z, as these children who have grown up immersed in technology are called, knows we're in the boat together, and they see it sinking.
What if they, this Generation Z, are actually the dream of the Internet, as it was promised when we first logged on: all of the information to the power of all of the people?
What if they can develop, earlier than any generation that came before them, the ability to differentiate truth and falsehood, block out the noise and find a path to change?
What if they do grow into an entire generation of Baldwins and Woolfs, learning from the vulnerability and wisdom of the queers who came before but empowered to rise up and create a more just world?
Thank God, the children are all right. The children are queer.