Joel Carlovsky shared with me that he had spent the entire day before our interview feeling like an imposter. While preparing for our conversation and the story that he was going to share for Gutted, he didn’t believe that what he had to say was important. After spending an hour with this magnetic and bright soul—I can clearly state that Joel’s feelings could not be further from the truth.
Joel is a kindergarten Spanish immersion teacher at Woodcrest Spanish Immersion School in Fridley, Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis with his husband and very recently launched a website and YouTube channel called the Super Brave Teacher. Joel’s intention in creating these platforms is to spark bravery in others, bringing visibility and voice to the story of those that are LGBTQ teachers, students, and fellow accomplices. When I introduce Joel, he is quick to jump in and emphasize that he isn’t looking to change this paradigm for the future but rather today—right now.
At the beginning of our talk, Joel and I discuss the importance of owning one’s full self but how challenging it can be to do that in our current society. Joel reflects on the Spanish word “demasiado,” which translates in English to “too much”’ or “so much.” As Joel has been told regularly in his life that he was “too much,” he is learning to reframe his relationship to this word by claiming, “Yeah, I am too much. I have so much energy and I can’t help but share and shine that. So who am I not to be so much for you and for other people?” He continues on this thread,
“We’re told, ‘be who you are, be who you are, be who you are—but not that version.’ We have to pause and ask ourselves, ‘Why do we say that if we’re not going to fully embrace that?”
Joel shares with me his experience of growing up. From the time he can remember, Joel was told from different members of his family that he was “special,” yet he was always put down for being different. He remembers feeling confused: “Is special a good thing or not a good thing? Because once I got to that level of being too special, I was put down and told ‘watch your hands, watch your voice.’”
Joel’s family was Lutheran and his father was the pastor at their local church. His family’s lineage is one of being deeply connected to religion. He was taught to live life in a way that was not only pleasing to God but also upheld his family’s reputation within the church. This was a lot of pressure for Joel growing up as he attempted to be aligned with his own truth and sexuality without shaming or disappointing his family.
In 2009, Joel taught abroad in Colombia for three years. During that time, he embraced his identity as a teacher and the ability that he had to help support his students in being their whole selves. He notes,
“Something I’ve always said to my students is ‘You be you. You being you is enough. You’re awesome. You’re designed to be you, so who are you to be like your mom? Who are you to try to be like your Dad. You be you.’ And it kept eating at me because I’m preaching integrity. I’m preaching unconditional love and I’m not giving the same integrity and unconditional love to myself.”
For himself, Joel had created an exception to this way of living by allowing himself to lie to adults about being gay. But as a teacher and a role model to children, he was unable to maintain this misalignment with his true self. His teaching abroad and experience empowering his students to fully be themselves helped support him in coming out to his family and his community back at home.
Our conversation goes on to explore the concept of loyalty. In a culture that places such an emphasis on the importance of being loyal to those around you, I am drawn to question if this loyalty pulls us out of alignment with what is actually true for ourselves. Joel was consciously aware of his attraction to men from the age of 10 and yet didn’t come out until he was 26. I ask him how it was to hold a secret for that long in the guise of loyalty toward his family and his religion. As Joel reflects on this idea, he comes to a new understanding and states,
“It’s kind of like I started to grieve [at ten years old]. I knew deep down inside of me that I wouldn’t be able to live life as a gay man. So I started grieving . . . I would go through these stages of grief. I would go through denial. I would go through anger. I would go through all these things but in secret—on my own . . . I’m talking about this now, realizing that I was going through the stages of grief again and again and again because I had agreed that I would never be able to be an out and proud gay man.”
When Joel finally made the agreement with himself to come out to his family and friends, he decided to do so over the course of a two-month road trip. At each stop he made along the way, he came out to someone, saving his parents for the last stop of his trip. Thinking back on this challenging period of time in his life Joel notes,
“The majority of people that I came out to just heard the word ‘gay’ and immediately went to their own worst fears. [Wondering] who I must be or what I must have been doing or what I will be doing. And I was just trying to convince them that I wouldn’t be doing those things. I’m not that person. It just turned into this negotiation of my worth. I basically lost 90 percent of my friends and family after that.”
“I’m coming out to have integrity. And then right away, I’m starting to give it back because I’m so afraid of what that will mean. You know, there’s that quote, ‘let go or be dragged,’ but at least I know what it feels like to be dragged. At least I know what to do to lick my wound. But letting go is scary. It was scary to do that because all of the sudden you’re alone and you’re like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ All of the sudden [I was] disconnected to this whole world. [And I gave it all up] to have this integrity and to be brave.”
As our conversation continues, I go on to ask Joel if aligning with his integrity was all worth it. If choosing himself—which meant losing everything else in his life—felt right. In responding, Joel isn’t shy to admit that once a month he has a breakdown. Once a month he questions if it was all worth it. He regularly grieves that the vast majority of people in his life are afraid for his soul and have told him over and over again that he will never see his brother (who passed away when he was in his freshman year of college) in heaven. And yet, even amidst all of the suffering and pain, he unquestionably knows that it was worth it. He states, “I finally know in my bones that I’m not a fuck up and [that] I never will be.” He continues by sharing, “I was told that I have a God who loves all people. That God says I see even the worst in you and I love you. So that’s what I believe.”
At the end of the interview, we circle back to discuss how Joel has used his experience of coming out and being brave in his teaching and how his call to action as the Super Brave Teacher is to encourage other LGBTQ educators in the world to rise up. Joel states,
“I don’t feel super and I don’t feel brave all the time. And that’s what makes me super and brave. That’s why this [YouTube] channel has to exist, because it’s hard to be super and it’s hard to be brave. But we need to share our collective stories. So since then, I’ve been on a mission [to bring visibility and voice to the story of those that are LGBTQ teachers, students, and fellow accomplices]. And if it has to start with me—then it’s going to start with me. Let’s keep sharing our LGBTQ stories and let it be known that we are here and we are proud and that we are amazing.”