Khaki pants and an oxford shirt. A blazer and short, combed hair. Suspenders and a bow tie.
This is Rachael, a second-year MA literature candidate, TA English instructor and self-identified butch lesbian at the University of Idaho.
On her first day teaching, Rachael Guenthner remembers arriving 20 minutes early, filled with nerves and wearing a bow tie she had to borrow from a friend. For her, the prospect of teaching was filled with the fear that one day her sexuality might place her in the firing line of hate speech.
“I had this vision, thinking about whether or not there was going to be one person at the back of the classroom that said, ‘Big fat ugly dyke, I’m not gonna learn from you,’” Guenthner said. “And, while that’s never happened, it’s still an inherent fear that I have.”
That fear is not a concept exclusive to Guenthner. Shea King, a second-year grad student working toward his MFA in directing, is an openly gay man who moved to Idaho from Humboldt County, California. He said at first, he had reservations about moving to an area that was less LGBT-friendly, but he was excited to teach his theater and speech students how to be honest with themselves and address the things they valued when they felt comfortable doing so.
“(My sexuality) is not something that I hide or that I’m shy about, I think I just try to be more aware of how that might come across to my students,” King said. “Moving up here I had to consider my students and what would make them most comfortable, while also making me feel safe.”
Similarly, Guenthner said her sexuality has never been something she felt she needed to announce to her class.
“It’s interesting that it even seems to be something that needs to be ‘found out,’” she said.
Rather, she believed her students would draw their own conclusions based on her gender expression.
“I dress more traditionally masculine,” Guenthner said. “That’s the aesthetic I’ve been rocking for the last year and a half, and I’m really enjoying it.”
When she began teaching, she realized her wardrobe was full of feminine dress clothes she never liked wearing. She said masculine clothing was always more comfortable for her, and it felt like a more honest and professional way to present herself to her students.
“The reality set in when I became a teacher that 20 to 30 people were going to be staring at me for about an hour three times a week, and I wanted to be comfortable for that,” Guenthner said.
After her first day, when she received positive feedback from her peers about the way she dressed, Guenthner said she immediately purchased more bow ties and, since then, they’ve become a personal staple.
“Bow ties set me apart, because not many professors wear them, and my students really like them,” she said. “They ask me questions about them. It gives them a kind of access point and it gives me an avenue to talk about my choices in my appearance in the way that I portray myself.”
Guenthner said she’s taught her students about the lack of integrity of a clip-on tie. Many of her male students have done their final presentations wearing bow ties to honor her. Once, during her second semester teaching, one of her students went to her office and asked her to teach him how to tie a bow tie.
“It’s definitely one of the more impactful moments in my teaching career to understand that he would be comfortable enough to ask about something like that,” she said.
At a college in Idaho, faculty and staff can often be the first examples of LGBT people that students are exposed to. With this in mind, Guenthner said she hopes that by interacting positively with students, she can have a lasting impact on their perception of the LGBT community as a whole.
Julia Keleher, director of the LGBTQA Office, works to impact the Moscow community in a similar way. Her work includes campus-wide education, reinforcement of community resources and general guidance for those who are curious about any aspect of the LGBT community.
As a butch-identifying lesbian, Keleher said, her sexuality directly correlates with her job and, in a sense, her job is to simply be her authentic self.
“Being in my position has the ultimate freedom for me, because essentially it’s my job to be queer,” she said. “There has never been a time when I didn’t feel like I could express myself fully here, and I know that is a luxury that not a lot of people on campus share.”
In her work, Keleher said she has tried to serve as a good role model, and being public about her sexuality is one way that she hopes to empower students. She said her role as a mentor has allowed many students to come out to her, some of whom she’s never even learned the name of because they’ve chosen to remain anonymous.
“Many times, a student will come out to me, and it’s a really touching experience, because then I get to see them start to attend LGBT events and make friends and start to get involved in the community,” Keleher said. “I think it is, for me, very valuable, because I get to hear people’s stories and help them through something that can be very scary on their own.”
Keleher said another part of her job is to respond to larger national occurrences that involve the LGBT community.
In King’s speech classes, he said his students often present speeches that pose a political opinion that feed off larger national debates. As a gay man, he said he’s had to navigate a way to make sure everyone has a chance to be heard, while also making sure he’s not policing the conversation.
“I’ve had to teach them ways to share their views without being hateful or harmful to others. And I’ve spent a lot of time discussing how to phrase things in a way that is inclusive,” he said. “As opposed to, ‘Hey guys,’ I recommend, ‘Hey everybody,’ or, ‘Hey everyone.’”
King said he’s tried his hardest to eliminate his own biases from his curriculum and, in this way, teaching a speech class during the 2016 presidential election was an exciting and formidable challenge.
“We all have biases, but it’s how we use them that determines if they are damaging or not,” he said.
Guenthner said as a member of faculty and staff, each individual has aspects of their personality and identity they must come to terms with in order to be a successful mentor to their students, and she believes sexuality and gender expression are key parts of that process.
“It’s not necessarily a blessing or a curse, it’s just one more aspect of identity that we commodify in different ways in our teaching personas,” she said.