Teachers have the ability to be champions for their students—in all of their intersectional identities, from gender, sexual orientation and race to religion and social class.
I came out in high school at 15 years old and was bullied and subjected to violence as a result of my sexual orientation and gender expression. Teachers, LGBTQ+ and straight identified, literally saved my life and helped me feel safe in my small Appalachian high school and in the transition to college.
Eight years after I graduated from high school, I became a high school teacher and eventually a OneGoal program director.
A fellow of mine, Evelyn, forever shaped how I would approach serving students. As her program director, I watched her grapple with her identity formation, keeping her gay identity a secret from her family in fear they would reject her and then enduring the pain of a breakup without the ability to share her feelings with the people she cared deeply about.
At first, I struggled wondering how I could best support Evelyn. Even today, in many states teachers can be fired for being LGBTQ+. I felt slightly more protected because of Illinois and Chicago laws, but it was through the encouragement of a colleague at the school, I reached out to Evelyn.
For the first time, I invited a student to hear a part of my own story and in turn she trusted me enough to share hers. That conversation changed me. Where before I felt uneasy about making myself vulnerable and being forthcoming about my sexual orientation or gender identity, I now felt a responsibility to use my experience to help care for others, within and across affinities. I also felt an added need and excitement to share with students that I was about to legally marry my wife, Laura, (after being in a civil union for two years).
I needed to show my LGBTQ+ identified students that there was a world of possibility beyond what they may be experiencing now: they could get married, be happy, be employed, and much more.
Evelyn ended up owning her identity in ways that I could have only dreamed of as a young person.
As she grew and became comfortable in her own skin, she shone brightly. She was loved and embraced by our school community; in her senior year, she was crowned prom king—a first for a female-identified student at our school! Evelyn—and her twin sister, also gay—literally helped to change our school and make teachers see the urgency behind supporting LGBTQ+ students in their identity development.
The responsibility could no longer lie with the three LGBTQ+ identified educators in our building.
When we teachers see our students and all of their fabulous intersectional identities, and when we honor and respect those identities, we create safer, more equitable spaces. Likewise, we deepen these spaces when we share our own stories and take responsibility for the impact that we can have on a student’s life. No student-serving program can work without a relationship of trust between student and teacher.