Teachers, We Are Failing Our LGBT Youth. But There’s Something You Can Do Right Now.

Jun 27, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Brett Bigham

I’m a numbers guy. I love a good debate or emotional plea, but nothing moves me more than good old solid math. If you want to shift my mood from “that’s terrible” to “I have to do something about this” then throw some statistics my way and stand back. So I am going to share some very scary numbers with you, ones that may change how you run your classroom.
  • LGBT students miss more school than their straight peers.
  • They have higher dropout rates and fewer plans to attend college.
  • Many of them have never heard a teacher say a positive word about a gay person.
  • Most of them have been bullied.
These are some of the statistics we know about LGBT students that are attending schools like yours. (For the real numbers and for an excellent LGBT curriculum, visit GLSEN.) But those aren’t the statistics that keep me up at night. It’s knowing that 30 percent of the young people that commit suicide this year will identify themselves as LGBT before they kill themselves. How many more aren’t counted in that 30 percent simply because they didn’t leave a reason? If you have ever had a transgender student, you too will be haunted knowing that half of transgender people attempt suicide at least once by age 21. These numbers do not lie. [pullquote position="right"]These numbers show us we are failing our LGBT youth.[/pullquote] These numbers should make you change what you are doing in your classroom because you have students that will, someday, identify as LGBT. You may be the only teacher they ever hear say something positive about being gay. You may be the only person who balances a lifetime of bullying and ignorance. “So what do I do?” That’s the question I get asked most by other teachers. As I’ve travelled around the country speaking for the rights of LGBT students, I have met a lot of teachers from every corner of the country. It helps me keep things in perspective when some straight coach from Oklahoma tells me he has no idea of the path a gay kid travels and doesn’t really have the instincts to know what his gay students need from him. But I love when I meet those teachers because all they care about is keeping their kids safe and they just want ideas. I learned the same lesson when I was named Oregon Teacher of the Year. After a speech, a person who is transgender came up to me and said, “If I’d had a teacher like you when I was in school, my life would have been so much easier.” And I was puzzled at first, because my path and the path of a person who is transgender seemed so different to me. But I understand it now. She would have known I was accepting and that I wouldn’t have judged her. And that is my answer to that straight Oklahoma coach, [pullquote]you simply have to let them know you aren’t judging them and that they are one of your students, just like everyone else.[/pullquote] That’s the most important thing you can do.

Do This Right Now

And that is why I am going to ask you to change what you are doing in your classroom. Print out this rainbow sign, color it and put it on your classroom door. You have no idea of the difference it can make. Here is the very best math lesson of all. Statistics show that the LGBT students that see your rainbow sign will feel safer at school, they will feel they were supported by their teachers and they will feel they have a place to go when they are in need. And get this, LGBT students in a school where six of their teachers had such signs, were even with their peers in absenteeism, drop out rates and the desire to go on to college. Yes, you are reading that right. If you and five of your co-teachers put up rainbow signs, it will negate much of the negative impact LGBT students face at school and will erase those negative numbers. I am going to ask you to do that. Put up your sign, offer them up to your co-teachers and make your school a better, safer place. You have LGBT students. They need to know you care about them. Let them know everyone is welcome in your room. Do that today.
Photo courtesy of Brett Bigham.

Brett Bigham

Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is the creator of Ability Guidebooks, a series of support books for people with autism that give step-by-step directions how to visit cultural landmarks and social events. The books are currently available in 10 countries and four languages. He is president of ORSTOY, the Oregon chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and serves on the boards of Oregon Safe Schools and Clubfunder.Org.

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