LGBT — and free

One of my favorite high school teachers died. Here is what we didn't know -- or thought we didn't know.

I have a weird habit: every morning, I check the New York Times obituary pages.

Call it a professional hazard. Or, perhaps I am looking for people that I know who have made the listings.

That is what happened several days ago. At the very bottom of the listings in the Times, I read the name of one of my former high school English teachers — a teacher whom I had particularly loved and respected — Bob Yesselman.

In his classroom, I learned to love Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot, especially “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He had also been a director in our high school theater program, in which I had been active. He cast me as Tiresias, the blind, transgender prophet in Sophocles’ classic tragedy “Antigone.”

That experience not only inspired my love for theater, especially Greek tragedy; it also imbued me with the meaning of civil disobedience (the theme of “Antigone”) and the need to put sacred ideals over and above the demands of the state.

And, yes — Mr. Yesselman was Jewish. He was not at all observant, and he was a little cynical about my growing fascination with our tradition. Nevertheless, he might have looked the other way, once or twice, when an assignment was late because I had been on a Jewish youth group weekend.

My teacher has died.

And here is what the obituary made clear: that he had been active in the dance community; a pioneer in AIDS activism; and that he had had a partner, who also died.

My teacher had apparently left high school teaching, and had pursued other, perhaps deeper passions.

Back in high school, some of us probably thought, or suspected, or “knew” that he was gay.

But, back in late 1960s Bethpage, New York, that word did not exist.

It was more like “fag”. Or “homo.” Except we had no real idea of what those words meant. I do not think that we knew anything about homosexuality. Those words were reserved for any male who did not live up to some kind of external masculine ideal, like playing sports.

So, our teacher was gay. And, back in those pre-enlightened days, it could not have been easy to be a gay high school teacher.

Not in a working class Long Island suburb. Probably not anywhere.

And so, my late teacher’s obituary in the New York Times reminded me. For centuries, gay men and women had to hide who they were, lest it imperiled their careers, their family lives, their physical safety  — their very existence.

I am guessing that there came a moment when Mr. Yesselman, who loved teaching, might have found that the emotional price for self-erasure was simply too high.

And/or: he decided to move his passions into another place.

I am writing this for two reasons.

First, because I have always respected people who make personal and career changes — people have done a personal or professional reboot, a control-alt-delete on their lives.

In the words of the great Yiddish song, “The Partisan’s Song,” which my family members sang in the Vilnius ghetto: “Never say that you walk the final road.”

There is no final road. You can always re-adjust your GPS.

Second, especially in the wake of the Orlando atrocity, and in the very shadows of the various Pride parades, I pray that we will continue moving towards a place in our culture where people will no longer have to deny who they are, and whom they love.

I respected and admired Bob Yesselman. I respected his teaching.

And even though, decades ago, he had left the world of white chalk dust, and attendance rosters, and lesson plans — what I learned in his classroom, and his life journey continue to teach me.

May his memory be a blessing.

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