Finding the courage to support queer youth

Rich Ognibene is a 2015 inductee into the National Teachers Hall of Fame. In 2009 he received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence and in 2008 was named New York State Teacher of the Year. Rich teaches Chemistry and Physics at Fairport High School; September marks his 32nd year in the classroom. 

I’m done with the lame excuses. For 30 years I have tried in the gentlest way possible to advocate for queer youth. I’ve come out to colleagues and students. I’ve presented workshops on sexual orientation and gender identity issues. I’ve had heartfelt discussions with teachers across the country about the needs of these at-risk kids. Yet for all the positive change that’s occurred in society, many schools are still reticent to support queer youth in tangible ways.

Most kids in America never read a book or see a movie at school with an LGBTQ character. Most kids in America don’t learn anything in Health class that’s specifically tailored for people with diverse sexual orientations and gender-identities; this lack of knowledge can have lifechanging consequences, particularly for young gay men who are high risk for HIV/AIDS. Most kids in America never see an openly gay or transgender teacher. Because most schools in America are afraid to acknowledge that queer people exist. To wit, below is a conversation I had last week with a friend who teaches in a local district.

Friend: Last month a gay student and a transgender student spoke to our staff about issues that affect them in school. It was a powerful presentation.

Me: That’s awesome. I’ve heard that those kids have done a good job leading the Gay-Straight Alliance at their school.

Friend: But what are we supposed to do as elementary teachers? I mean really, I just can’t see reading one of those books where the kid has two mommies. Would my district support me if a parent complained?

Me: Yes your district would support you. And it seems to me that you’re valuing comfort and conflict avoidance over doing what’s right for your kids. You’re a married, heterosexual, tenured teacher who is respected in the community. Why are you afraid?

Friend: Well, I make a strong emphasis in on class on being nice to everybody. I think that gets the message across.

Me: That’s noble, but it does NOT in any way get the message across. Kids are concrete thinkers. They need specific examples. They can’t make the leap from “Be nice to everyone” to “Be nice to this specific child whom others make fun of.”

And so it goes. This conversation plays out in a million iterations across the nation. Sometimes it’s an internal monologue; sometimes it’s an external dialogue. But nine times out of ten it ends the same way: the teacher agrees in principle with the need to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer kids but can’t find the courage to do anything specific in his or her classroom.

What queer kids need most from us is the courage to acknowledge that they exist. ​

Meanwhile, abundant research shows that queer youth are more likely to be bullied, more likely to self-medicate, more likely to have poor attendance, more likely to be verbally or physically assaulted, and more likely to consider suicide.

What queer kids need most from us is the courage to acknowledge that they exist. That acknowledgement can be lifesaving. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Read a story that includes a gay or transgender character. The story does not have to be about LGBTQ issues and the character does not have to be the protagonist.
  2. Make an effort to mention LGBTQ friends and family members to our students. “My family is having Thanksgiving dinner with my sister Darlene and her wife Barb,” or “I’m so excited about going to John and Steve’s wedding this weekend.”
  3. Include a picture of gay or transgender friend and their partner/spouse next to other family photos in our classroom.
  4. Be thoughtful about ways we use gender in addressing students. “Good morning girls and boys” can easily be replaced with “Good morning friends,” or “Good morning fifth-grade rock stars.”  Likewise, be thoughtful about using gender as the default characteristic to form groups (i.e. “girls go over here and boys over there).
  5. If your school does not already have one, ask your principal about establishing a gender-neutral restroom where transgender and genderfluid kids can feel safe.
  6. Be thoughtful about statements that assume all students are cis-gender and heterosexual. “I hope a great guy asks you to the prom” can easily be replaced with “I hope someone special asks you to the prom.”

These are small acts but they make a big difference. In school we teach children how to navigate the world. Successful navigation requires content knowledge, self-awareness and hope. For queer kids, we too often fall short on the latter requirements. Today the excuses end. All teachers must find the courage to help these most vulnerable students.


Rich’s post is part of CTQ’s blogging roundtable on equity and social justice in education. Join the discussion by commenting on this blog and checking out the other blogs in this series. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to chime in on social media.