Are Our Schools Safe Places for Kids who are Different?

Like many, I’ve been transfixed by the the story of Bruce Jenner.  

My hope is that his willingness to transparently share his experience as a transgendered person will make it safe for others to live openly and to be accepted for who they are.  Awareness is the first step towards acceptance — and if Bruce’s journey builds awareness in a respectful way, it has the potential to radically redefine the conversations that we have about gender identity in America.


But what I’m wrestling with this morning is whether or not we have worked hard enough to make our schools safe places for students who are different.

To put it more simply, do the gay and lesbian and transgender students in our schools — who deserve the love and support of the important adults in their lives — feel like they belong in our buildings, too?  Or are they forced to live a lie, pretending to fit in because they are afraid of the consequences of standing out?

It’s impossible to underestimate the consequences of living that lie, y’all.

Need proof?

Then spend some time reading about Leelah Alcorn — a transgendered student in Ohio who committed suicide by walking in front of a semi on a Cincinatti highway in December after being rejected by her parents for not being “the perfect straight little Christian boy” that they wanted her to be.  Sadly, students like Leelah aren’t alone:  41 percent of transgendered people attempt suicide at some point in their lives — a number that is NINE times the national average.

Here’s another question I’m wrestling with:  Are the teachers in our buildings prepared to lead open conversations about gender and identity and sexuality that are based in facts?  Or are we, too, hiding from the truth — avoiding difficult conversations about a potentially controversial topic because we are afraid of the shade that will be thrown our way if we even suggest that the students in our building who are different have actually been normal all along?

I only ask because I know that I am afraid of the shade.  

After years of seeing teachers and schools eviscerated by Evangelicals for even suggesting that global warming might be real or that animals adapt to their environments or that homosexuality might be a part of who a person is instead of something that a person chooses to be, I often catch myself dancing around controversy instead of giving it the respectful space that it deserves.  I waver in my commitment to the truth — and to people who are counting on me to speak the truth for them — because I’m afraid of what will happen to me if I speak it.

Heck, if I’m REALLY being honest, this post has me sweating.

If the wrong person reads it, I’ll end up buried in accusations of pushing a liberal, left-leaning, gay loving, anti-family values agenda.  Ultra-conservative whacks and hacks will turn me into another example of the “brainwashing” that happens in public schools even though conversations about gender issues almost never surface in my middle school classroom.  Not kidding:  I’ve been torn apart on local talk radio — and called on the carpet for “being controversial” — for a LOT less than suggesting that gay, lesbian and transgendered students deserve respect.


What’s TRULY frightening, though, is that If I’m the norm rather than the exception to the rule, that means our schools remain anything BUT safe places for kids who don’t fit into the neat, clean boxes that we want to place them in.

Can you imagine how lonely it must be to live in a world where no one openly talks about who YOU are?  Or worse yet, can you imagine how lonely it must be to live in a world where the only open talk about who YOU are is filled with hate?  My guess is that’s all too often the truth for gay, lesbian and transgender students ion our schools — and for that, we should be ashamed.

Our job as educators is to create safe spaces for every student to thrive — not to perpetuate a culture where some people win and other people lose based on nothing more than how closely their gender identity aligns with “traditional values.”  Just as importantly, our job as educators is to create learning spaces that are defined by respectful dialogue and critical thinking.  Our society becomes stronger when our students learn to see value in the thoughts and opinions and experiences of people who are different.

Hiding from the conversation helps no one.



Related Radical Reads:


Lesson: Would YOU Stand Up to Injustice?

Lesson: Learning about Collaborative Dialogue


  • ReneeMoore

    Thanks for Speaking Truth..and Another Question…

    You are absolutely right that these questions need to be asked and discussed honestly in our schools–which must be safe places for ALL the public’s children.  

    I would add this question: are our schools safe places for the teachers and other adults who are different (or who dare to ask the questions no one wants to face?)

    • billferriter

      What’s frightening, Renee, is

      What’s frightening, Renee, is that we both know the answer to that question in most schools is, “Absolutely not.”

      And that’s one of the reasons that our schools remain unsafe for kids who are different.  How can we expect teachers to create open, accepting cultures when they don’t work in open, accepting conditions?  

      The culture of a school doesn’t just affect the adults in the building.  The culture of a school affects our kids.  That’s why we should care about culture more than we do.

      Hope you are well, 



  • JustinMinkel

    “So horrible that we dare not speak its name.”


    I wrote a piece about the idea of using picture books in the elementary classroom that reflect gay/lesbian families: 

    To Know We Are Not Alone

    2008 New York Teacher of the Year Rich Ognibene, who is openly gay, responded with a harrowing comment, following his observation that students can easily go from kindergarten through high school without knowing an openly gay teacher:

    “The implied lesson that we teach our kids is that being LGBT is so horrible that we dare not speak its name…”

    The progress and momentum on gay and lesbian rights, particularly gay marriage, is incredible. (Great article in the New York Times this morning on the transformation of Cincinatti, Ohio, on gay rights.)

    But I’m waiting for the Disney movie with a gay or lesbian character before declaring victory. I’m waiting for every elementary classroom to have at least a few books showing families that have two dads or two moms. 

    Identity is still so tied to sex on this issue. But my 4-year old son has crushes already, and he did from the time he was 2 or 3. My daughter in 1st grade comes home talking about the boy she likes. Innocence is innocence, and until it’s safe for a little boy to talk about the boy he wants to marry, the way my son told me a few days ago about the pretty girl he wants to marry someday, we haven’t made it yet.

    Thanks for this brave post. I felt the same sweaty palms when I wrote that piece about books in the elementary classroom. Picture books and Disney movies are the last frontier when it comes to those shadows which even we experienced, respected, straight teachers with wives and kids tremble to name.

    • billferriter

      I’m with you here, Justin.  

      I’m with you here, Justin.  

      The notion that someone’s identity can’t be valued or recognized or mentioned openly in schools — by students or teachers — is crushing to me.  But I’m a part of that problem, I think, because I’m afraid to talk about gender issues openly.  

      And if I’m afraid, I know others are too.  

      How do schools make conversations about gender safe for everyone? 



  • BillIvey


    I live in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, in the first state to legalize same-gender marriage. Northampton is well known as one of the most lesbian-friendly towns in the U.S., and Amherst one of the most liberal. I work in a school that identifies as a feminist school and where the dominant dynamic is to seek to understand and respect the diversity of gender and sexuality. I have extraordinary freedom to blog about social justice issues, and have written repeatedly on LGBT issues with no direct pushback. I once even wrote about a conversation I had with two seventh graders who had a theory that all people are pansexual because everyone likes people of different genders, until it hit them that there’s “liking” people and “like-liking” people and it’s not the same thing. They went off together, and as they left, I overheard one explaining to the other about asexuality and the romantic and aromantic types. That blog, too, generated no heat whatsoever for me.

    And yet. Even here. As a milder example, one of my friends hesitates to walk through downtown Greenfield holding her wife’s hand because of the uncomfortable stares they sometimes get. As a milder example. So by no means are LGBT people thoroughly integrated into Valley culture.

    Within that context, in my school, the dominant dynamic around gender and sexuality diversity is awareness and respect. The kids are pretty clear the faculty will support that, and most of the kids support it as well. Yet, what goes on in the background, out of our sight, is not always quite as welcoming. Plus, such sex ed as we give is still, as I understand it anyway, pretty heteronormative, and we don’t formally teach much about gender diversity. I try to create a climate in my own classroom where gender and sexuality can be openly discussed, and judging by a couple of conversations in the recent past, a lot of kids do feel that comfort. Yet, they told me firmly in one such conversation just over a week ago that they feel they learn way too much more about gender and sexuality diversity from kids than from the school, and that they feel the school needs to step up. I also know some kids have experienced homophobia and what is in essence transphobia behind the scenes, where the faculty can’t see and hear.

    My school has several openly gay/lesbian employees, but no openly transgender employee. Some of the things I’ve heard well-meaning people say have made me cringe, even recognizing that most of our faculty want to do right by LGBT people and are crying out for guidance as to how they might go about that.

    I project the kinds of things my school is experiencing into other areas of the country where homophobia and transphobia are dominant (recognizing always there are exceptions everywhere), and I can’t imagine what it would be like to be LGBT in that context.

    It’s tough enough here.​

    So thank you for this posting, and for your bravery in putting it out there. It’s only through courage like yours that we can begin to lay the groundwork to actually move society forward. Just like effective anti-racist work, it’s got to be grounded in a mindset.


    Among recent LGBT blogs I’ve written: Love is a Process, A Seat at the Table, my own Leelah Alcorn piece, Please and Thank You, and a general informational piece, Trans 101.5.




    • billferriter

      Hey Bill, 

      Hey Bill, 

      Context definitely matters!  I can tell you that even though I live in one of the progressive corners of North Carolina, open conversations about gender are generally frowned upon.  I think we all dance around the issue.  And that’s a failure of ours.  It leaves me convicted, that’s for sure  

      Hope you are well, by the way. 


      • BillIvey

        Thanks, Bill

        I’ll say (because context matters!) that, as someone who openly challenges gender norms, people often assume I’m open to conversations about gender, and I’ve become something of a go-to person in my school for questions around gender and, to some extent, sexuality diversity as well. So those moments are relatively dance-free. And they feel good. On the other hand, sometimes people freeze up in front of me, clearly wondering if I’ll jump down their throats if they use the wrong word. And that’s not so much fun (for either of us).

        It’s an ongoing process, for sure.

        I’m doing well, by the way. Having a blast with my students as always, conflicted about all the freedoms I have in an independent school that are denied to public schools (as always). Trying to figure out whether the country is going through a painful moment that is producing actual growth or whether it’s only producing pain. Trying to do whatever I can to build relationships and move us forward.

        Hope all is well with you too! 🙂

  • Roger Elkhorn

    Is it enough?

    The worst thing is dividing kids into fractured identity groups.  As Whoopee Goldberg said years ago, this makes them targets. Rather than telling them everyone has a fixed gender, we MUST get across that sex/gender is meaningless and they can change into whatever sex/gender they want to be, or become nothing (as far as gender goes).  This is the most comforting message to kids; that they can become anything in the future at will; their fantasies can become true!  Lesbian/gay/trans labels are far too confining.


    • billferriter

      I’m with you, Roger — and I

      I’m with you, Roger — and I appreciate the pushback.  

      I wonder, though, whether the labels have any value in building awareness.  I get that we shouldn’t put permanent boxes around things, but doesn’t definition prove that there is value in something other than the traditional?




      • BillIvey

        One other factor…

        … is some people prefer labels. For one example, I know someone who has said labels enable them to feel part of a group.

        To me, the issue is more about the assumptions that provide the context for all this. When we see a person, do we automatically apply a label? If we do so, do we do so from the full range of possibilities? Do we then step back and wait to see how they identify? Once we know, do we respect that identity? And once we know, are we nonetheless mindful that some people have a more fluid sense of gender than others? And of course, do we attach prejudices, stereotypes, and judgments to any of those labels, or do we merely view them as how a given person identifies?

        I teach in a girls school. But even then, I try really hard to make no assumptions about my students’ genders. If someone refers to herself as a girl, fine, I can too. Although even then, if I haven’t heard her do so in a while, I might eventually shift my terminology. Some people have a relatively permanent sense of gender, but others are more fluid, and I can’t know who is who unless they tell me. So I find myself simply using the word “person” a lot. I won’t ever say, “You’re all girls.” but rather “You’re all in a girls school.” I never say, “Okay, today, girls, we’re going to…” but rather “Okay, today, kids, we’re going to…” And so on. You get the drift.

        Does that make sense?

    • billferriter

      I’m with you, Roger — and I

      I’m with you, Roger — and I appreciate the pushback.  

      I wonder, though, whether the labels have any value in building awareness.  I get that we shouldn’t put permanent boxes around things, but doesn’t definition prove that there is value in something other than the traditional?




  • Dierdre

    Thank you

    Thank you for addressing this critical issue in our schools today. A thought-provoking reminder.