Mr. Britt, are you … a homosexual … or something?”

In the sixth century BCE, a Greek chorus member named Thespis stepped out of the pack, uninvited, and began speaking on his own. Conversing with others. Dialogue.

Now, he’s this kid. This wild, squirrely sixteen-year-old menace who just stepped out of the pack. Two points for bravery.

If I say yes, they can fire me. Hell, they can fire me for showing up to work. They can fire me for writing this essay. Not only is North Carolina an at-will employment state, there’s no law prohibiting private employers from hiring and firing on the basis of sexual orientation—though there is a law, passed last year, that prohibits local governments from passing anti-discrimination ordinances to prevent that. Welcome to the Tar Heel State.

The kids look at him like he just pulled down his pants and pissed all over the Encyclopedia Britannica. “What is he doing?” their gaping mouths seem to inquire. Nobody is supposed to actually ask that. Whisper about it, write notes about it, text about it, yes. But never say it out loud. To the teacher.

I am stupefied. Eyes wide, mouth open, fists clenched. I hope I’m not drooling. I cannot breathe, let alone respond. After four years at the chalkboard, this particular assignment is somehow both long overdue and far too early. One of them is actually asking me.

Conventional wisdom has always been to keep your personal life out of the classroom. Which seems logical enough. But nobody really means it. They’re fine with that framed picture of Mr. Meh’s wife and kids, Ms. Ugh’s anecdotes about her kids’ extracurricular activity, and Mrs. Blah’s cross-shaped Christmas cookies. When your district-mandated mentor says “personal life,” they mean yer sinnin’: abhorrent fetishes like atheism, queerness, and science. The only framed photos on my desk are of feline partners, not human ones.

“Mr. Britt, are you … a homosexual … or something?”

This was my first teaching job. It was at a small, rural, public high school in central North Carolina. I knew I would never come out to these people. Maybe a teacher or two—the ones that I socialized with—or an abnormally tolerant secretary. Never the principal (she’d get rid of me), a student (they would mock me), or a parent (they’d accuse me of pedophilia).

I’m the quintessential Gay Teacher. You remember him. He’s kind of awkward—either too animated or too stiff. Speaks an octave higher than he should. Has a colorful and orderly classroom. Flits around his purple dry erase marker like a magic wand. Drama club. Sweaters. No ring.

Who else is supposed to give our Thespis a picture of what a gay man looks and acts like? His straight teachers? His family? Friends? Queer Eye? You? If I, a queer teacher, am not willing to help write the narrative of what a queer teacher is, then I’m not doing my job, as a teacher or as a queer person. If I normalize my sexuality, I humanize myself.

But that freaks kids out. Ever see your teacher at the mall? Meanwhile, the government, which I pay to protect me, fights tooth and nail to destroy the lives of queer people and our families by impeding our ability to live freely. I live in a state where queer people have no hate-crime protection. Where an NCAA boycott has bigger political impact than the cries, pleas, and shouts of the people. A state that pays me $25,000 less than I could make elsewhere.

“Mr. Britt, are you … a homosexual … or something?”

I think about why I’m here. I’m here because, when my mom came to pick me up from my first day at kindergarten, I flung my Ninja Turtles backpack into the seat, leaped in behind it, and declared, “I wanna be Ms. Gibbs when I grow up!” Meaning: I want to be a teacher.

I’m here because no other boy in rural Knightdale skipped dam-building to grade papers from a game of “school” that morning.

I’m here because I sunk every dime I have into a master’s degree in special education, and I’m not qualified to do anything else.

I’m here because answering this kid’s question is hard, and it shouldn’t be. I cannot let it be. I’m not here to tell kids what they already know. I’m here to blow their minds. Wake them up. Tell them the things they don’t know they don’t know. And where better than this red state, where I’ve lived all my life, to find minds in need of opening?

They’ll say I’m brainwashing children into having gay sex. They’ll say I touch little boys. Nobody thinks more about pedophilia than a conservative Christian.

“Mr. Britt, are you … a homosexual … or something?”

Like a well-trained politician, I pivot.

“Well,” I stammer, “I don’t see why that matters. Will my answer affect your ability to finish this math problem?”

Since that day, five years ago, I have had only one rule about discussing my sexuality at school: I will not go out of my way to out myself, but honest questions get honest answers. Occasionally, some plucky tenth grader will ask if I am in a relationship. I say that I am. They ask what her name is.

I give my best Cheshire cat grin, tilt my head, and—with more than a little sass—I reply, “Their name is Al.”