Ollie Ollie Oxen Free is the story of a hero. The protagonist, Mark Ginsberg, is an elementary school teacher faced with a crisis: the military base where he works has just been bombed, and he needs to locate his scattered students and get them to safety as fast as possible.
When I described the plot of this game to my mother, she asked: “Why Mr. Ginsberg instead of Ms. Ginsberg?”
It was a good question. After all, I reliably advocate for more female protagonists and more diverse characters in video games. The answer is rooted in a broader story – not one set in a fictional military base, but one taking place in schools all across America.
Mr. Ginsberg is gay.
This is not, in fact, pertinent to the plot. The plot is about finding your scattered students, rescuing them from their various predicaments, and then finding a way to get everyone out of the rapidly deteriorating building.
But it is pertinent to the character. And for me, that’s the heart of this story.
There are LGBTQ people teaching elementary school, just like there are LGBTQ people running Fortune 500 companies, hosting the Emmy awards, serving in our military, and travelling to space. But many LGBTQ people – including the vast majority of LGBTQ teachers – are trapped in the closet. Those who dare to leave face harassment, discrimination, and (in the case of teachers) unjustified parental complaints, which can easily cost them their jobs.
Not many men teach elementary school. Greg Mullenholz wrote, “[T]here’s the perception that if men teach young children, they must be predators or there must be something psychologically wrong with them.” This erroneous perception is harmful enough alone. When combined with homophobia, it’s devastating.
How many gay elementary school teachers are there? It’s hard to tell. To start with, there are 1,708,057 elementary school teachers in the United States (citation). I couldn’t find statistics for elementary school teachers specifically, but men make up approximately 2% of the kindergarten/pre-kindergarten workforce, and only 17% of the elementary/middle school workforce (citation). That suggests there are between 34,161 and 290,369 male elementary school teachers. Since 1.8% of adult American men self-identify as gay (citation), that suggests there are between 614 and 5,226 gay elementary school teachers in America.
Ollie Ollie Oxen Free is the story of a hero, because teachers who care about their students are heroes. Most teachers don’t show their heroism after getting crushed beneath a wall. Instead, they show it day after day, dealing with the joy, exhaustion, and often thankless heartache of their calling.
To be a teacher is hard enough. To do it while constantly in fear, constantly hiding part of yourself – that’s a nightmare that no one should have to endure.
Men who teach elementary school face prejudice and suspicion. LGTBQ teachers face prejudice and suspicion. In both cases, these negative feelings are unwarranted. If more people come from a place of empathy and understanding, then our schools will be a better place for teachers, and our students will be better off because of it.
The protagonist is Mr. Ginsberg because I wanted this story to be about a good teacher who is also a good husband, whose spouse happens to be another man. I wanted to honor the men who teach elementary school, to honor the many LGBTQ teachers in hiding, and to honor both kinds of teachers as heroes.