Orlando Is a Tragic Reminder That Our Schools Must Be Safe Spaces for LGBTQ Students

When I look back on my own youth in Chicago—a city that is notoriously plagued with gun violence—I can think of countless times that I enjoyed a night of fun, not knowing if someone in the crowd had a gun. But I lived. As a Black gay man, I am deeply saddened by the tragic events at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the many who did not live. As a public school educator, I can’t help but ask myself how tragedies like these impact our schools. As someone who sees education as a key lever to practically all social change, I find myself wondering if schools and mentorship programs can build connections between communities of color and the LGBTQ community. I’m a guidance counselor at a high school with a student body that is primarily made up of students of color from low-income families, some of whom are trying to figure out how to navigate their socio-ethnic communities along with their LGBTQ identities. Seeing the faces of these young victims cut down in their prime, I’m left to desperately wonder what responsibility schools like mine can take to build support and a sense of community for LGBTQ students and staff. The legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States made history, but it has not effectively transformed the social reality that LGBTQ people are not universally seen as equals. Everyday, nationwide, students are bullied, injured, killed or are committing suicide because of their sexual orientation. I have heard it suggested that LGBTQ students should not seek support at school because openly supporting these students can be too sensitive of a line to cross. Yet, cultural practices, religious beliefs and the fear of being attacked at home mean many LGBTQ students often have no support systems except at school. In my personal experience, growing up as a gay male in a Black community was challenging. I tried to repress my identity to “fit in,” and I, too, made attempts on my own life because I believed that I could not be accepted. I lacked social and emotional support from my family and friends, but I did have supportive teachers and school staff who helped me become happier and healthier. I am a mentor for others today because I know how important it is for students to experience that support and acceptance. An important step is for schools to create support groups for LGBTQ students and their allies, such as Gay-Straight Alliances. In the wake of Orlando, merely gathering publicly may spark fears of being targeted, but having designated safe spaces sends a strong message to students in the LGBTQ community and those allies who want to gain more knowledge and help break down stereotypes. As an educator who identifies as gay, I also believe it is more important than ever for students to see themselves reflected in their role models and educators. Just as research has shown that students of color fare better when they interact regularly with teachers of color, I believe the same is true for LGBTQ students. Our LGBTQ students need teachers they can identify with to help them create a positive, welcoming school culture and safe space for all students. If something like Pulse were to happen again—which is, sadly, not impossible—our school staff needs to be prepared to console our students. It is difficult to prescribe a single solution to address the social isolation some students feel and to help them heal. Yet, doing nothing at all speaks volumes.
Matthew White works with Youth Guidance as the Becoming a Man (BAM) program counselor stationed at Tilden Career Community Academy High School, a public school located in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. He is a member of Educators 4 Excellence-Chicago.

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