When Education Post asked me to write something for Pride I had to sit down and think. And think. Then I tossed and turned in bed and now I find myself sitting in front of my computer in the middle of the night. Because all of those things boiled down into something that made me bolt upright and chased sleep away.
There are a lot of things I want to say. But there is only one thing I must do.
I must save you 38 years of pain.
And to do that I am going to remove some bandages on some of my own wounds. One especially that has hurt for 38 years.
In the spring of 1980 my best friend Mark picked me up on his motorcycle and we went for a ride around the Oregon countryside. I sat in back with my arms around Mark’s waist and my cheek pressed down on his back. But instead of the vibration of the Kawasaki, I could feel Mark hitching and jerking. My best friend was crying, so I hugged him a little tighter and he pulled over by the river.
With some tears and sobs he told me he had broken up with the latest girl he was seeing. He explained the situation to me. He loved her but didn’t understand women. In fact, he said with color rising in his cheeks and and tears running down his face, he didn’t want to date women anymore.
“Who did?” I wondered as I consoled my friend. You see, for me, I was one of those people who never fussed about my sexuality. It was clear from kindergarten to me that I wanted to grow up and have a husband. I never doubted it, it just always seemed right.
But Mark was in crisis. So I told him it would be alright. I don’t remember everything I said to him, but as we drove back home, I held on tighter and through my bear hug of a grip I could feel he relaxed. The hitching and jerking died away. When he dropped me off I tell myself I told him I loved him and it would be OK.
We went to different schools so I didn’t see him at school the next day. On Friday I called him and left a message. I left a couple more on Saturday and Sunday. And then I called him one more time on Sunday night and did the one thing I regret most in this life. After a couple of rings I hung up. “It’s his turn to call me,” I remember thinking. I’d left him enough messages.
The next morning was Mark’s last morning. You see, it was 1980. Mark didn’t have a Trevor Project to call, he didn’t have an out teacher showing him gay kids have futures. He didn’t have a teacher with a rainbow sticker on their door or a GSA to turn to. He had me and I’d hung up the phone.
If you want the details, I know them. Why they thought I needed to know the details I’ll never know. But I can picture it clearly. Mark went out early that day and instead of driving out to school he sat down on the hood of his white vintage station wagon with his father’s shotgun.
HIs parents didn’t hear the gun. They heard his dog, Chips, mournfully howling at the front window. They followed him down the driveway.
Your Classroom Can Be a Safe Space
Please read this next paragraph very carefully. Nearly one-third (29 percent) of LGB youth have attempted suicide at least once compared to 6 percent of heterosexual youth. That’s what the statistics say but I think it’s a lie. That one-third are the ones who left a note, or told someone why. But what about the kids who don’t leave a note? The ones who just end it without leaving a reason.
That’s my Mark. He only told me, nobody else knew why he did what he did. He sure wasn’t part of that one third statistic.
For transgender people statistics show half of them will attempt suicide by 21. Half.
And there is a reason they do this. They choose to leave because they don’t know if anyone will accept them. They don’t know if they were just in a different county or a different state they could have a GSA and an out teacher to save them. And you can save them.
Your classroom can be a safe space. Your door can have a rainbow sticker on it and an “Everyone is welcome here” sign. Your smile and kind words can be the thing that gets them through a day that has been hell. And if that isn’t the role you are willing to play for a struggling child, then you should question why you are in the classroom.
All of our students need different things from us. Your gay students need you to keep them alive until they are out in the real world where they can find others like themselves. You don’t have to understand it. You don’t even have to like it. But you cannot turn your backs on these children.
Or you will be like me. Thirty-eight years later. Crying in the dark, typing out a message to other teachers. Begging them to not make the same mistake I did. Don’t hang up on these kids. Save them.
And that’s why I’m out. That’s why I refused to go back into the closet when my district ordered me not to say I was gay. That is why I was willing to be terminated because termination is a word that has a lot of different meanings and some of them hurt much more than others. And I take great joy in knowing that my termination was public, messy and awful but you can’t find an LGBT student in my state who doesn’t know that the Teacher of the Year stood up for them and went down swinging (and then got back up and kicked some butt just for good measure).
A reminder that this summer your LGBT students will be losing much of their supports. If you have a student you are worried about, talk to a counselor or give the student this phone number for the Trevor Project. They have trained counselors answering the phone all summer, 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 1-866-488-7386.
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