Every student deserves a role model with whom they can relate. For many students, literature and curriculum are resources they can use to find role models at school. However, many LGBTQ+ students graduate without seeing themselves in either.
Lucky students will find LGBTQ+-friendly staff to provide them with the supports they need, but many students never do. This is one reason why being an out teacher is so important to me.
Several states are now enacting laws to ensure that the contributions of LGBTQ+ people are taught in public schools, and the conversations happening around the mandates remind me of one simple fact—LGBTQ+ youth need, and deserve, role models to help them see what their future can look like.
LGBTQ+ Teachers as Role Models
When I was named the 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year, I knew it was an important moment for LGBTQ+ youth. My husband and I were the first gay couple ever to be honored by riding in the Portland Oregon Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade—one of the largest parades in the country. An estimated half-million people line the streets and even more watch it live on television.
Every few blocks the loudspeakers announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome the Oregon State Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham. He is the first special education teacher to win this award and riding with him is his husband.”
By riding in the back of that convertible and waving to the crowds, my husband and I gave every single LGBTQ+ person on that parade route a glimpse of a possible future. They can be married. They can be respected. They can be honored. They can be professionals. They can ride in fabulous parades.
That is what these new curricula in California, Colorado, New Jersey, Illinois, and Maryland need to aspire to. They need to make certain that every type of kid learns of the stories, struggles and successes of notable LGBTQ+ people throughout history, within whom they can see a glimmer of themselves. Every kid, every year, deserves to see what their future can be. LGBTQ+ students are no different.
LGBTQ+ youth survive a childhood of bullying. Year after year, this bullying damages the ability of LGBTQ+ youth to feel safe at school. It shows up in poor attendance, poor grades and a lack of plans for college and the future. It also shows up in suicide statistics.
The data shows that LGBTQ+ youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth and they are five times as likely to attempt suicide. LGBTQ+ youth make up approximately 25% of teen suicides. That figure only accounts for those who told somebody about their sexuality before they ended their lives.
The quiet gay kids in the back who never said a word about much of anything before they took their own lives? Those kids don’t count. That student from the religious family who would rather die than tell their parents? Not counted.
And that is why we must accept it as best practice to teach our students about the contributions of the LGBTQ community. We must accept it and we must implement it immediately.
The situation is urgent and the consequences are dire—we figure this out quickly. Look at how we have introduced role models of different races, ethnicities and religions and follow suit. Start with literature and book lists (like the NNSTOY Social Justice Book List) and find recognized teachers who understand exactly what your LGBTQ+ students need.
There are so many incredible teachers who step up for LGBTQ+ kids every day. When teachers ask me what they need to do to support their LGBTQ+ students, my answer is simply—love them and give them someone to look up to.
To LGBTQ+ teachers: You may be the only person in a child’s entire school career who serves as an example of a really positive and successful LGBTQ+ role model. You may be the first person who shows them a possible future. You may be the one who saves them.
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