Coming out. Experiences of a Waldorf class teacher

By Irene Eickhoff, March 2022

"It's all just nonsense! You can't possible know yet what love is." I will never forget those words from my mother. Uttered in the most embarrassing moment you can imagine.

Photo: © Christina Pernsteiner / photocase.de

For the first time my girlfriend was spending the night at my place and the two of us, then just around 17 years old and freshly in love, were still cuddled up together in my bed when my mother unexpectedly stormed into the room. A heated discussion ensued in the kitchen. My mother was doing her nut, my father kept silent – which was not a good sign either. Snatches of words like "abnormal", "lesbian nonsense" or "phase" still remain in my memory. Even before I could develop some clarity about my own feelings, because everything was still so new and incredibly exciting, these words were hurled at me. And again and again words recurred that I also heard frequently later on: "You don't even know yet what real love is!"

Right love – wrong love?

How can something that makes me deeply happy be considered abnormal, disgusting or wrong by others? What is wrong in falling in love with a person of the same sex?

I had known for a long time that I was attracted to girls and was unsettled by these feelings on the one hand, but also attracted to them on the other. After some hesitation I confided in my best friend and got a lot of support and encouragement from her in all the confusing thoughts and feelings. At that time, there were also sometimes boys who interested me. But in retrospect the physical closeness of a boy always felt somehow unpleasant to me, one could almost say "wrong". It was only when I kissed a girl for the first time that a huge firework went off inside me. It was not just a kiss but a revelation. Here I immediately felt absolutely "right"! Nevertheless, the kiss also triggered great emotional chaos in me: "Am I really a lesbian? Does the person I kissed feel the same way as I do or is it just an experiment for her?"

We both went to the same class and had a common circle of friends. Although we met every day, days, even weeks passed without us addressing what had happened. There was a strange atmosphere between us in which there was much that was unspoken. It was only a few weeks later, at the birthday party of a mutual friend, that I was finally to receive an answer to my questions. Once again we got closer that evening and finally kissed again. We both breathed a sigh of relief: it wasn't a one-off between us after all! Now we could also talk about the questions and feelings of the past weeks in a much more relaxed way and thus bring more clarity into our relationship. Just as we were beginning to define ourselves as a couple and feel more comfortable with it, the uproar with my parents violently shook the foundations of our relationship as they were just establishing themselves.

That morning my fears came true: my mother's quick-tempered reaction, my father's unbearable silence. Yet contrary to expectations, there was one feeling above all others: relief! I was just happy that the truth was finally coming out. At the same time, with my girlfriend, siblings and friends at my side, I also felt strong enough to resist any opposition that arose. I didn't want to have to hide, I realised all at once. Many years later, when I came out to my pupils for the first time, I also felt this relief, but also pride and solidarity with all those who too have to take the path of coming out.

After the big row with my parents, peace returned for now, even though I constantly felt the disapproving (or was it worried?) looks of my parents. So I didn't talk to them about my feelings and love any more for the time being – but most teenagers as a rule don't like to do that anyway.

It was different in my circle of closer friends and acquaintances. I knew I didn't have to fear coming out here. Open-minded young people who were socially or politically engaged, interested in music, art and culture were among my closest confidants. Fortunately the conflict with my parents did not throw me off course but gave me hope that they would calm down at some point. They were my parents and loved me, after all – I felt that despite everything. It still took a few years and also a lot of patience, but the more I was able to show my parents that I definitely knew what the "right" form of love was for me and that I was not just going through a "phase", the more our situation relaxed. Eventually I met my wife, with whom I have now been married for years and have even started a rainbow family with two children. Today it is no longer a problem for my parents to have a lesbian daughter who feels absolutely "right" with her sexual orientation.

From the beginning, I was welcomed with open arms and hearts by the lecturers on my teacher training course and subsequent colleagues at the school. I encountered a friendly, curious interest in my person from both younger and older members of the faculty. There were no fusty views or prejudices about my sexual orientation.

Prejudices can be encountered also in a Waldorf educational setting. There are current publications in which homosexuality is mentioned in direct connection with paedophilia – perhaps not something intended by the authors: "But what is the situation of homosexual teachers? Do they represent a danger to their pupils? Paedophilia is incompatible with the teaching profession, but homosexuality is not."[1]

When I graduated from my teacher training course at the Nuremberg Waldorf School and was immediately appointed as a class teacher in a class 2, I had no idea what to expect. Leading a class is a responsible task, I was aware of that. But I didn't think that my own coming out would be so decisive for the development of my class. For a long time I kept my private life completely out of the classroom. My pupils didn't know that I had a wife and that our daughter, whom I told them about occasionally, grew up with two mums. I didn't tell the parents anything either at first. With the Rubicon, the mood of my pupils changed: the children's curiosity about their class teacher's life grew steadily and what had previously seemed quite natural and unimportant to them was suddenly questioned: "What is your husband's name? Are you married? Was your husband also on the excursion?" At first, I tried to cleverly dodge the questions and keep the class halfway satisfied with my answers. It didn't yet seem the right time to tell the children about my homosexuality because we didn't know each other long enough for that. I still wanted to have achieved the status of the "beloved authority" first.

But here, too, everything turned out differently than expected. One morning, a particularly attentive pupil suddenly blurted out in the middle of the lesson: "Oh, Mrs Eickhoff, by the way, I know that you don't have a husband but a wife. You're a lesbian!" Fortunately I had already prepared myself inwardly for this moment, put aside all the plans for the day's lessons and had a long and heartfelt conversation with my children about love and different family models. My concern about confronting the children with topics they could not yet penetrate turned out to be superfluous because for the pupils it was absolutely understandable that one could also love a person of the same sex and that a child could also grow up happily with two mothers or fathers. At the end of the day, the children stated: "It doesn't matter if you love a boy or a girl. The important thing is that it feels right. In a family, it is also important that all family members are happy and love each other."

This coming out in front of my class and the conversation that followed provided some of the most impressive and heart-warming moments of my life as a teacher so far. Once again I felt a great relief, because now I no longer had to give evasive answers to the pupils. The children showed understanding for and full acceptance of my life situation. From then on, we dealt openly with the topic, also among the parents, especially as the birth of our second daughter was imminent soon afterwards and now this did indeed require some educational work.

At that time, it was still common at our school to invite external counselling centres such as pro familia e.V. to teach sex education. It was only in retrospect that I realised that a relationship studies main lesson internally in the class would probably have been more suitable for us, as questions and issues arose among the pupils that continued to occupy us for a long time after the appointment with pro familia.

After all, some pupils came to me for advice when their own emotional life was going crazy. A boy told me about his bisexuality and asked me for advice on coming out to his parents. Introduced with the words "Ms Eickhoff, I feel different somehow!", the conversation was an enormous demonstration of trust in me and also a clear sign that my own openness had encouraged a child to open up to feelings during his inner coming-out that are (initially) a taboo subject for other young people. Another pupil had taken a liking to emphasising his feminine attitude and displaying it in everyday classroom life since class 6.

That's when I realised how important my own coming out had been for the adolescents. Before the young people adopted external prejudices, they had already had experiences of their own with issues that remained unspoken in other classes. The terms "gay" or "faggot", for example, were never used as words of abuse by my pupils.

In my second round, I introduced myself to the parents at our first parents' evening as follows: "My name is Irene Eickhoff, I have been working as a class teacher and music teacher at our school since 2014 [...]. I have a wife and two daughters who are 4 and 9 years old." This time round I didn't faff around for long but got straight to the point at our first meeting. There were no disconcerted or worried looks! I just let my family situation gently flow into the daily teaching routine, here a short account about the weekend, there a little anecdote about things I've experienced, without as yet having made any plans about officially coming out. Is that even necessary when I speak about my life as a matter of course and without much ado? I'm still trying to figure that out at the moment, but the signs are good.

About the author: Irene Eickhoff lives with her wife and two children in Nuremberg. After studying music education majoring in recorder, she attended the teacher training seminar at the Nuremberg Rudolf Steiner School. She has been a class and music teacher there since 2014 and leads a recorder ensemble.


[1] Michaela Glöckler: Schule als Ort gesunder Entwicklung, Stuttgart 2020.

Comments

No comments

Add comment

* - required field

Follow