Robert Bannon is a New Jersey teacher by day, entertainer by night
Don’t let Robert Bannon’s sweet demeanor and boyish good looks fool you. His life hasn’t been all roses. Born and raised in New Jersey, Robert began attending Julliard Prep at the age of 13. But at 14 sickness struck. He fell ill with meningitis caused by chronic Lyme disease and spent four years on-and-off receiving medical treatment.
The sickness even delayed the realization that he’s gay. “Typically, teenagers have their first crush, their first date,” Robert said. “I was in and out of a hospital. I was home with a pic line in my arm, on intravenous medication every day. So, I wasn’t really thinking about who I was and who I wanted to be with and all of that.” From 16 to 31, Robert dated, married, and then divorced a woman, whom, to this day, he calls his best friend.
At 18, he tried to return to music and acting. “I got called in for an audition for Rent on Broadway but I botched the audition so badly I decided to change my major in college and become a teacher. I felt the pressure, and the time I was away from music was too much,” he said.
Now in his mid-30s, Robert has a new album—Unfinished Business. While he’s made multiple appearances on Saturday Night Live and co-hosts the popular Broadway Cast Reunion Series, music is his calling.
In December of last year, Robert released a cover of Bette Midler’s “From A Distance” as a tribute to healthcare workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Then in June, he released his music video for the song, “I Think He Knew,” an anthem that celebrates Pride, Father’s Day, and LGBTQ families. Both videos are approaching 100,000 views and are included on his debut album Unfinished Business, available now.
Robert is also taking the live scene by storm. He’s hit the stage at countless Pride events, sung on live television, and even performed “I Think He Knew” during a taping of the Real Housewives of New Jersey.
When Robert and I spoke on Zoom, he was calling in live from his fifth-grade classroom in North Bergen, New Jersey. The chairs were empty. His kids had left at one o’clock, but he had stayed in his classroom to chat. Robert was radiating with positive energy, as he spoke about the 12 years he’s been teaching fifth grade history and science.
What do you most enjoy about teaching fifth grade?
Robert Bannon: North Bergen is a 93% economically disadvantaged district, so we’re a room full of first-generation Americans. In fifth grade, you teach about the birth of America and the good, bad, and the ugly. The first lesson of the textbook is “What is an American?” The kids would all point to me and say I’m an American because I’m this white guy with blond hair and blue eyes who could be on the Quaker Oats box. My job every year is to help them understand that they’re Americans, too. That is really what this country is based on. It’s a real privilege and honor to be able to teach them that, and it’s my favorite part.
How are you impressing upon them the fact that not only you are an American but they themselves are, too?
RB: Over the past five years, it’s been really tricky to talk about the world around us. I don’t tell them about my own personal political beliefs because I want them to think for themselves. But the line I draw has been “Politics is one thing; people is something else.” If you discriminate against a group of people for their religion, gender, or nationality, that’s not something that’s up for debate. Whenever they have questions, we have honest conversations in a very age-appropriate way. I let them dictate and drive the conversation.
Speaking of school, are you out at work?
RB: One of the main reasons that I came out was because of a 12-year-old student who confided in me that their parents were doing exorcisms on them and wanted to send them to a conversion therapy camp. It made me sit and think, “What a coward I am. Why can’t I, as a grown-up, come out? No one can hurt me anymore.” And I felt the need to do so in that circumstance. I said, “I have a boyfriend. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you. I hope that your family comes to understand but maybe they won’t. But I can promise you that as you get older, you’ll create your own support system, and things will get better. You’ll find people who support you.”
But I don’t discuss my personal life in the classroom. I don’t walk in and talk about it, but it’s out there for the world to see. And if anyone ever asks this question, I never deny it. It’s just who I am. So I’ve been lucky enough to write the LGBTQIA+ curriculum for our district, since it is a law in New Jersey to have to talk about it in June. So there have been ways that I’ve been able to advocate for equal rights in the classroom.
Do you think a lot of your students and their parents know? Does the school staff know?
RB: A lot of kids tell me how much they love the “I Think He Knew” music video. They are just chill about it. It’s not even a topic of conversation for them.
The school staff definitely knows, and it’s not a secret. The principal sent my video to every teacher. The district sent it out as well, so it’s been really a very supportive school community.
The video was actually filmed the high school in Ridgefield Park. Students there participated and the administration not only sent it to the entire school district, but they also used it in their professional development for Pride and the LGBT curriculum.
What’s the story behind “I Think He Knew”?
RB: The song was written by Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews. Griffin Matthews was on Dear White People and he’s on The Flight Attendant on HBO Max. Matt Gould is a playwright who wrote a musical called Witness Uganda. They’re close friends of mine who actually got me back to singing.
I actually came out to my extended family by performing “I Think He Knew”. I sang the song, and when I finished, there was silence. Then my dad yelled, “I love you, son.” And everyone stood. And I was like, “This is not the coming out story of most people.” You don’t normally come out and then you eat a piece of cake and your dad yells, “I love you.” So, I’m very grateful.
Before I ever sing the song, it is really important to me to say that this song is not just for the dads and the sons and the moms and the daughters. It’s also for the people who don’t have an accepting family. I know that it’s really hard for people out there. Friends of mine have families that don’t accept who they are. They don’t have Father’s Days and Mother’s Days and birthdays and holidays, but they’ve made their own family.
It’s after a New Year’s event that I finally decided to put out “I Think He Knew.” There were a bunch of older people there, and I thought the song wasn’t going to go over well. And then a lady came up to me afterwards and said, “My brother never came out to us. He never told my father.” And if the song made her think of him, I understood that it’s a universal story. Everyone has a brother, a sister, a friend, a family member that is touched by the story.
The song is very sweet. It’s very sentimental. When I was in high school, my friends and I would watch music videos by John McGovern, the “Gay Pimp,” who was very sexual. Your song, on the other hand, reminds me of Love, Simon.
RB: Thank you for that. I have taken an intentional look at the way that I contribute to LGBT culture. Mainstream society’s general concept of what a gay party and gay music look like is what you just mentioned. It’s very sexualized. There are no couples; there’s no monogamy. It’s just drugs, sex, and crazy parties. There’s a place for dance music, and it’s super fun, but there should also be a space for songs just about love.
What I like about “I Think He Knew”—and what I felt was lacking—is that there’s a family. I have many friends in the LGBTQ community who are beautiful couples with beautiful families. I have met so many allied parents who have sons and daughters in this community. I wanted to speak to the sentimentality and the heartfulness of a family. I want there to be role models for people of a certain age who are looking for a partner, who are looking to start a family and have children. That’s the part of the song that spoke so much to me. I can leave the fun dance songs to Todrick and my other friends who put out amazing club music.
So it seems like you’re not pushing boundaries when it comes to being risqué, but you are pushing boundaries in showing another side of being LGBTQ.
RB: Thanks for that.
And thank you for the interview.
**This interview has been edited for length and clarity**
Robert Bannon’s debut release, Unfinished Business, is currently available on all major streaming services. Physical copies can be purchased on Amazon. To keep track of all that he’s up to follow him on Instagram (@robertmbannon).