Brian Rieper is an elementary school teacher in Toronto, Ontario, where he works for the Toronto District School Board. “It’s the biggest publicly funded elementary school board in North America,” explains Rieper. “It’s huge.” He and his husband, Chris, who is a teacher at a Catholic school, are parents to a 2-year old daughter, which has made them reassess their decisions around being out at home and at work. “Once we became parents, what it means to be out really changes,” he says.
For Rieper, that meant changing how and when he told his fifth-grade students about his personal life. We chatted about how he handles that, his husband’s very different experience, and how being around kids all day has made him think about the future.
Our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Fast Company: Do you tell your students that you’re gay?
Brian Rieper: Yes. This is my sixth year teaching, and it’s the first year starting my [school-]year out. I’ve always been out to my colleagues in the administration, I’ve always had a “positive space” poster up in my room and wear a wedding ring, and I have a “family Pride” rainbow button on my school keys. But coming out to my students has been different each year. This year, for the first time, it was something that I said within the first five minutes of meeting my students.
FC: What made you want to come out to your students so quickly?
BR: There are two things kids in school want to know: What your first name is and how old you are, and if you get that out of the way, they kind of don’t care. So this year I said, “My name is Brian Rieper, I’m 33, this is my sixth year teaching, my fourth year teaching grade five. I have a daughter, she’s 2, and I have a husband named Chris, and he’s also a teacher.” That just allowed us to have a conversation and then move past it.
I started working at a new school last year, and it was my first year working as a parent, and having a child forced me to . . . well, I just don’t want to be closeted, because I never wanted there to be any element of shame around being a two-dad family for our daughter. I started last year with a picture of my family on my desk. It felt pretty brazen, but of course 10-year-olds only look so far outside of themselves [laughs].
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It was not until April of last year where I said something about “being a gay man” because we were talking about government. I shared my experience of applying for our daughter’s birth certificate, and how I had to sign as the mother, because even though Canada recognized same-sex marriages in 2002, you still have to register as mother and father.
My kids ended up writing formal letters to our provincial leader [asking for that to be changed], and we got a response back from her, which was great. But that was my big moment, and they didn’t care that I was gay. What they cared about was the injustice of it, which was really cool.
The administration fully supports me. Last year, for example, one of the biggest issues that my students took on was the issue of all gender washrooms in our school because they felt it was unjust that a student who identified as trans or gender non-binary would not have a comfortable place to go. So they started writing letters to the principal. The principal is really kind and responsive, and set up all-gender washrooms on every floor of our school.
FC: The kids you teach don’t care, but do their parents?
BR: When I was an apprentice teacher, I was shadowing a lead teacher who was great, but when I told her I’m gay and asked, “How would you recommend negotiating that in the classroom?” she said, “Oh, I don’t think our community would be very receptive. I would suggest you don’t say anything at all.” That was my first experience.
She was not being malicious; her intent was to protect me and take care of me, but that was unfortunate. Fortunately I’ve never had any negative issues with parents, and I have some students with queer parents, too.
FC: What do you think you learned from the experience of being told to stay closeted?
BR: I was really, really shaken by it. I think that held me back from coming out in my first job as a teacher. It made me really hesitant and really guarded, and I wasn’t able to teach from as authentic a place until I was actually out.
I remember in the first year that I was teaching, I kept imagining these, like, big moments where I would have a very important talk with my students about what it meant to be gay. That year, these kids were talking about diversity of families around Pride, and we were talking about how you can be a boy or a girl and get married to a boy or girl or not get married at all, and this one little boy who was, like, super rough-and-tumble, said, “Wait, do you mean to tell me that a boy can marry a boy?” and I was like, Oh no, what am I going to say? And he said, “That’s awesome, I don’t want to marry a girl, girls are gross!” and it was so funny.
Kids don’t think the way adults do. It took those experiences for me to feel okay coming out at work.
FC: Your husband, Chris, is also a teacher in Toronto, but in a public Catholic school, and his experience has been pretty different, right?
BR: Right, for me there’s no professional risk at all for coming out at work. I can move to any school in Toronto and I could be as out as I am, and the board would stand behind me. I would never be terminated. I could never lose my job or be put on probation or anything like that for being gay, whereas for Chris, it’s not the same.
He is out at work on a personal level, and when he had to fill out a benefits form where you had to indicate the person you are married to and the gender, he filled it out accurately. It was given back to him, sort of saying, “I think you’re going to want to reconsider this form.” But his staff threw us a baby shower at work, and his staff was at our wedding. Still, it has led to some emotional conversations for our family.
FC: It sounds like you think kids don’t have the same biases that older people have?
BR: I really am so hopeful that these kids have grown up with greater exposure to, and empathy for, people who are different in all capacities. I had a student last year who identified as transgender/non-binary in grade five, and the kids around them were great. They didn’t bat an eye. I just have to hope that same experience can happen for a kid in grade 10 or in their first year at university, or at age 35, right? And that they will be able to carry this with them.
I hold onto that, because that’s what makes me less terrified about our daughter heading out into the world. I just hope for her sake that things are a little bit kinder and a little bit more respectful of families like hers than they would have been three or even 10 years ago.