Sometimes telling kids that “It Gets Better” just isn’t enough… 5 easy things we can do to make our classrooms safer and more welcoming spaces

There was another suicide in our community today. A fifteen year old boy took his own life. A few days prior, he had come out as gay to a few of his friends. I don’t pretend to understand the reasons this young man had for feeling as if the best option he had was to end his life, but I have to imagine that issues of him being gay were wrapped up in the decision.

A few days after an incredibly powerful #LGBTeach chat, I am harshly reminded of how far we all still have to go. I am reminded that with all of the progress that we are making, we are still loosing children.  I am reminded that, as educators, we have the power to make things better, but we must choose to act. We must choose to use our power.

Several years ago, the “It Gets Better” campaign was started to help young LGBT kids who were feeling hopeless.  It started as a reaction to a rash of suicides of LGBT kids. It is an incredible campaign. It shows kids that though there are struggles that they are going through, there is also hope and that if they can just remember that it gets better, then today’s troubles won’t seem so permanent.

I love the campaign, and yet, sometimes it makes me mad enough to scream that the best we have to offer our children is to tell them that it will get better.  The best we can say is that, yes, right now it is awful, but we promise you it is going to get better.  The most we can do is acknowledge that right now you will be made fun of, you will see people hold signs up that tell you that you are going to hell, you will be not see yourselves reflected in the books that you are reading and you will have people tell you that something is wrong with you, but don’t worry because one day you will realize those people were wrong and that you will have a life that you love with people who love you. It’s a nice start, but…

It. Just. Isn’t. Enough.

I think we can do better.  I think we can make things better. I think that we, especially as teachers, have the power to make things better for children today, so that we don’t have to simply tell them that things will get better.  We can make things better for them right now.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, or any of them really. But I do know the things that I wish would have happened for me in school.  I do know what I hope my daughter’s teachers will do for her one day. And here is a short list of five specific things that I truly believe we can all do to help children who are gay or have gay family members.

1) Read books that have positive LGBT characters in them.  The books don’t need to be preaching about acceptance, in fact sometimes it is better if they don’t, they just need to show people who are gay or come from families with gay people. Here is an incredible list of books that can be used: www.goodreads.com/list/show/44453.Gay_Inclusive_Books_for_Elementary_Age_Kids. Here is another incredible resource: www.welcomingschools.org/pages/using-lgbt-inclusive-childrens-books-amp-looking-at-gender-through-books

2) Use language that is inclusive. When talking about families, try not to assume that everyone has a mother and a father. When assigning projects that involve family, try not to box kids into having only one type of family. When handing out forms, leave space for diverse families. It sends a strong message when kids see that their parents have to cross out words in order to make forms work for their families.

3) Share positive stories of LGBT individuals from history. I often wonder what our world would be like for LGBT youth if they heard about Harvey Milk in the same way they heard about Martin Luther King Jr. Or if they read about Edie Windsor in the same way that they read about Cesar Chavez. I believe it would make a difference in the way that LGBT youth saw themselves.

4) Intervene.  Too often we let moments go by that send the message to LGBT kids that their feelings aren’t important enough to protect.  When we allow a student to say, “That’s so gay!” without stopping to explain why that might be harmful, we are showing kids who might be gay themselves that they live in a world where who they are is still used as an insult.  The hardest part is that often we have no idea who might be gay, which students might be trying to decide if their world is safe enough to come out in, and if they happen to see these moments go by without a teacher intervening, that sends a pretty awful message.  The children who say, “That’s so gay!” don’t deserve to get in trouble, but we do owe it to them to explain why those words can be so hurtful.  We owe it to them to help them understand what those words mean and the power they have and the harm they can do. That is our job.

5) Don’t be afraid to talk about LGBT issues. I have often heard teachers tell me that they don’t think that LGBT issues should be discussed in the classroom.  When children DO bring these issues up, they are told that it isn’t something they can talk about at school.  I think about what this does to a child who is struggling with his or her own sexuality.  They hear that who they are isn’t appropriate to discuss at school.  This puts their identity in the same category as violence, drugs, alcohol and a myriad of other harmful and dangerous topics. That is a really scary thing to tell a child.  If we tell kids that we cannot discuss LGBT issues in school, we are reinforcing the message that there is something wrong with being gay or that there is something inappropriate about being gay. I can only hope that my daughter never has to hear that message.

I don’t think that these five actions will solve the problems that exist for LGBT youth. I don’t think that if all teachers did these things, the suicides would suddenly stop. I don’t think that these actions are the answers to making this world safer for LGBT kids.

But I think they are something.

I think these are things that we all should be doing, but we aren’t.  Too many of us know that these are the right things to do, but we are scared to do them.  We allow our fears to stop us from doing the work that we know, in our hearts, could help children to feel safer.  I truly believe it is our responsibility to do more than tell our kids to hold on because it will get better.  We can make it better.  Right now.  We just have to choose to act.

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3 thoughts on “Sometimes telling kids that “It Gets Better” just isn’t enough… 5 easy things we can do to make our classrooms safer and more welcoming spaces

  1. Depression and suicide among LGBT youth is so saddening. Thank you for the reminder that there are very practical things that anyone (and especially educators!) can do to help it get better NOW.

    I feel like your suggestions can be united by the idea of “making it visible.” When young people see and hear that they are not alone and that they will be welcome as they are, it gets better immediately. One of the easiest things that the GLOW (Gay, Lesbian Or Whatever) group at my high school did was to make “LGBT Safe Space” posters for teachers to put up in their rooms. I’m sure some teachers might have felt uncomfortable about it at first, but I don’t think there is a single room without one of those posters in it now.

    • Yes! “Making it visible” is exactly it! How incredible that LGBT safe space posters now sit in every classroom in your school. That is truly such wonderful progress. It is important for teachers to do what feels uncomfortable sometimes. If we didn’t, we would still have a country full of segregated schools. I hope that these actions can start to move from existing in high schools and middle schools to existing in elementary schools as well.

  2. Pingback: Sunday Salon: A Round-up of Online Reading | the dirigible plum

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