By Andrew Roblyer
When I first sat down to write this piece, I had never really asked myself what role I thought that homeschooling played in my life with regard to my sexuality. I knew what role I felt Christianity has played, but in my experience homeschooling isn’t synonymous with Christianity of any type, even conservative fundamentalism. And as I have created a virtual pile of crumpled up attempts to put my thoughts into words, I’ve been confronted over and over again with the fact that my homeschooling experience is, just like everyone else’s on this site, unique to me.
In our family, homeschooling was a way of structuring our studies; the overall way we were brought up had more to do with our faith than with our choice in educational styles. I know that if we hadn’t homeschooled, we probably would have been at church almost as often, I would have been just as introverted and nerdy, and many of my issues with faith and sexuality still would have manifest themselves in my life.
In other words, I realized that I can’t blame “homeschooling” or even “the homeschooling movement” for the majority of my struggle in coming to accept and love the person that I am. What I can (and want to) do is explore the ways that my experience as a homeschooler accentuated that struggle. In the end, I hope that this piece will outline some of the challenges homeschooling brings for people like me that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans*. (* Why the asterick?)
I didn’t know what “homosexual” meant until I hit puberty around age 13. But once I was informed of its meaning, I distinctly remember a thought crossing my mind: “That’s what I am.” At the time I didn’t fully comprehend the implications of that realization, but I knew that it wasn’t a good thing.
In many ways, I grew up a stereotypical “gay boy,” interested in cooking and reading and playing house with all of the girls in the neighborhood. I studied ballet and loved theatre and choir. I designed my dream house in my head and loved interior decorating shows like Trading Spaces. I played with dolls and stuffed animals. All of the “signs” were there, but really the only thing that mattered is that I never once looked at one of my female friends and developed a sudden case of the butterflies. Instead, I crushed on the boys at Scout meetings or youth group or children’s choir.
To their eternal credit, my parents never stifled my creativity or my passions. I remember several lectures about my limp wrists and walking like a man (no hip-swaying), but those were more about external appearances and protecting me from the comments that they heard far more than I did. And despite having a father who was in the military, I was never subjected to parental chats about “manliness,” because my parents were far more concerned with my character than any external trappings.
But from the moment I learned what “homosexual” meant, I knew that I would never truly be the person they wanted me to be, because I knew that I was inherently flawed. And as is often the case with things like this, once I knew what the word meant, I began noticing it everywhere. But in the conservative Christian circles (including homeschooling support groups) I was a part of, it was rarely something I heard in its entirety. Instead, it was like something just out of the corner of my eye, a fleeting shadow in the midst of a conversation. It was that-sin-which-must-not-be-named.
Even though nobody wanted to be the one to say it, it came up over and over in conversation, often in the form of discussions about “manliness” and masculinity. What was and wasn’t appropriate for men to do, how men should dress, how men should behave. I was once asked, in high school, to have a discussion with two younger boys about their “effeminate behavior” and remind them that it was how “the homosexuals” behave. And it was in moments like that, when the shadowy topic stepped squarely into my field of vision, that the fear was the strongest.
I often equate growing up gay to growing up in a warzone, where bombs fall all around you day after day after day. Eventually the abject terror you feel when one lands nearby fades into a constant clenching in your stomach that you don’t even realize, because while you can’t entirely relax, you can’t afford to run at full alert at all times. I saw and heard so many gay people attacked and condemned by the people I grew up with that my stomach was perpetually clenched, terrified that their rhetoric and doctrine would be used to attack me if they ever found out.
I did everything I could to try and “fix” myself, including looking into electroshock therapy, though thankfully I had to have a parent’s consent and there was no way I wanted to tell my parents. Eventually, after a failed attempt to turn myself straight by dating my then-best-friend (a woman) in college, I reached the end of my rope.
I fell into a deep depression, was suicidal on multiple occasions, and through it all was desperately trying to reconcile my faith (and thus the large majority of my friends and family) with my sexuality. Eventually, through the grace of God and the support of my parents, I came out of the closet. It was not a firm step; it was more of a feeble stumble. But it was a freeing experience, and one that was filled with a peace and understanding that I have come to know as the peace of God.
Since then, my faith has become stronger, but my human relationships have drastically changed. Many of the people I knew when I was growing up are people that I voluntarily disconnected from when I came out, terrified of how they would react. After all, I knew people who verbally and publicly advocated the death penalty for people who identified as gay. And I stopped teaching in the homeschooling community (I was a debate coach), because I was scared that the incorrect but prevalent rhetoric I heard so often in that specific community linking child molesters to homosexuality would be used to try and accuse me of hurting the students I worked with. Thankfully in the time since, I have found people, both former homeschoolers and non, to support me in my faith and my sexuality
So which pieces of my struggle are related to growing up in a conservative Christian environment and which are related to being homeschooled? This distinction is important to me because, again, the form of academic education I received was, in many ways separate from the spiritual education I received, and I think that many of my struggles would have taken place even if I had been public schooled. But there are some differences.
1. Homeschooling allowed for a more insulated environment. While my faith and my academic structure were separate, the support groups and social activities we engaged in as a family were almost exclusively groups that were conservative Christians and homeschoolers. While there is always the potential for cliques in public or private school environments, you are exposed to a wider array of students and of teachers, simply because of the sheer numbers. As a homeschooler, I interacted with the same group a lot and had fewer opportunities to meet and interact with different people.
2. Homeschooling’s smaller social circles meant that word traveled fast. While this is true in any contained environment, the lack of anonymity that might be possible in a larger educational environment mean that it was much harder to justify having conversations about topics that made people uncomfortable, such as sex and sexuality. For this reason, any and all sexual topics were taboo and “dirty.” This created a significantly sex-negative environment that still has repercussions for me today.
3. Homeschooling’s all-encompassing nature gives little reprieve. While my parents always endeavored to teach us to think first and foremost, the constant presence of both family and other homeschoolers meant that you had little time away from those influences. This was positive in some ways, but as a result could leave you with little opportunity to process and deal with issues related to those people you were around for so many hours of the day. This is, perhaps, one of the greatest drawbacks I see to homeschooling, and the precise reason that so many parents I knew chose to homeschool: tight, constant control over their children’s lives and educational experiences.
4. The homeschooling environment was so repressed in so many ways that my “eccentricities” often went unremarked on by many of the people I interacted with. Perhaps my parents received more concerned comments, but the contained environment in which I grew up in many ways explicitly rewarded my “sensitive” nature while implicitly criticizing my “manhood” and “manliness.”
Many of the other parts of homeschooling that I might connect to my struggle to reconcile my faith and my sexuality are, in my opinion, more strongly linked to conservative Christianity, so I’ve left them out for now.
In the end, would not being homeschooled have made my coming out easier? I don’t know. In some ways, I think so, in that I would not have felt so insulated and tied to a relatively small number of people who collectively made it known that my sexual orientation was unacceptable. My parents have been so incredibly supportive and loving during my coming out process, but I sometimes struggle to differentiate between the things they specifically taught me at home and what the homeschooling community as a whole contributed to my development.
This is why I am so grateful for efforts like H.A. The isolation and insulation created by homeschooling is so powerful that it can be dangerously enticing to parents who hope that their children will live in a certain way. If the potential for that isolation is not balanced in some way, either from inside or outside of that community, the results can be disastrous.
That is the reason I felt it was important to both write this story down and put my name on it: because I know that there are hundreds and thousands of homeschooling youth struggling with the same questions I did. They are probably feeling isolated and insulated and alone, just like I did. They are likely severely distressed at the thought that they have to choose between the (relatively few) people in their lives that they interact with regularly and being true and honest to who they are.
It is for them that I hope my story (and those of the other H.A. contributors) can help raise the questions that need to be asked to help make homeschooling a better environment for all.