Adolescence can be a tough time for anyone, but for LGBT youth, teenage years can be even more trying. LGBT kids are more than twice as likely as their peers to report bullying, and almost two-thirds say they feel unsafe at school because of harassment based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Teachers have a critical role to play in combating hostile situations and helping LGBT youth find acceptance and community.
One of those teachers is Mooresville High School teacher Caleb Taylor. Both Caleb and the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance—for which Caleb serves as a staff sponsor—are new at MHS. Caleb is a first-year teacher, and the GSA was recently revived by a dedicated group of students who felt they had few outlets for LGBT issues at their school. They asked Caleb to sponsor them, and he accepted, he said, because he felt it was his duty as a teacher to bring “a dialogue into the classroom.”
“We talk about the benefits of diversity, examine what it means to be tolerant, and how to respect different perspectives. My goal as a teacher is to make each student feel like their voice is heard in the classroom, and representation from the LGBTQ+ community is a part of that.”
Caleb is incredibly proud of the GSA, especially its president Kincayd Reed, who he says has worked diligently to make this club a community, one that attracts students who often don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves.
“No student wants to come to school where they feel isolated for who they are, or disrespected for what they believe. GSA and LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum makes students feel welcome, which in turn makes them enjoy school. I have seen students’ lives change from having this club at Mooresville High School in immensely positive ways—socially and academically.”
Supporting student clubs like the Gay-Straight Alliance are a concrete way that teachers can have a major impact on LGBT youth who are feeling self-conscious about their differences. As the movement for LGBT equality grows nationally, more and more students are taking the initiative, and having a sympathetic teacher to turn removes what could be a major barrier.
Natalie Littell Simmons, a 33-year teaching veteran Madison Consolidated High School, said last fall she also had a group of students approach her about starting an LGBT club. Natalie helped open a dialogue between the students, the school and community members so that the club would have guidance and a place to meet.
“All students deserve to feel safe and protected from bullying, labeling, racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other kind of bigotry or hatred. It makes me so happy to know that my LGBTQ students feel safe and loved. I can’t imagine not supporting each unique human-being who walks through my classroom door.”
Natalie says the students likely felt comfortable turning to her to help them shepherd this club into existence because of how she runs her classroom—with an explicit emphasis on the first of three simple rules: Be Kind.
“My students quickly get the vibe in my room that we don’t tolerate intolerance and all have the right to be themselves. Our classroom is a place kids can feel safe, to express themselves, to dare, to feel, to cry, and to laugh.”
For LGBT students, having straight allies among their teachers is critical for their safe and healthy development. But having a teacher who is gay or transgender can be even more important for letting kids who may feel like outcasts know that they are not.
Ben Yoder has been teaching music at Fishers High School for 10 years. In the classroom, he says, his sexual orientation doesn’t really come up. Outside of the classroom is a different story, since he knows there are no nondiscrimination protections for him in most of the state.
“When I’m in class with my kids, I’m there to be my students’ cheerleader and biggest fan. However, when I’m not in my classroom and out in ‘real world’ Indiana, my sexual orientation often comes to mind. It comes to mind because I know that some of the rights that are extended to my friends and neighbors who are heterosexual are not extended to me.”
He says in his classroom, he spends a lot of time trying to imbue his students with the idea that every member of the orchestra is equally important and valuable. But it’s hard to square what he teaches students every day with what the culture teaches them—that they aren’t entitled to equal protection under the law.
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“We are all equal and we are all valuable. That valuable life lesson is one Indiana would do well to remember. All Hoosiers are important. All Hoosiers are valuable. All Hoosiers deserve the same rights and protections, no matter their orientation or gender identity. As we continue to ‘make music’ together in our great state, let’s extend equal rights and protections to all Hoosiers. We deserve no less!”