I have somehow ended up in a life where I listen to a lot of speeches. As a child, my father was heavily involved in local and national politics. Before I was 16, I had been to more pancake breakfasts, summer cookouts, and fundraisers that involved some semblance of oratory than most people will attend in their entire lifetimes. Moving into adulthood, the context of the speeches may have changed, but the constancy of having them in my life remains the same. Some are good--I learn new things, perhaps even feel inspired to try something differently and step out of my comfort zone. Some lead me to say to myself, "Self, somewhere your life has gone off course. I'm not sure when and I'm not sure where, but it has landed you here, in this room, listening to yet another speech." Perhaps it is just one of the realities of being in a profession where you attend graduations, professional developments, and conferences on a regular basis.
All this being said, it takes the intersection of the subject of the speech, the power of the speaker, and my emotional attachment to the topic to produce a strong reaction. All of these things came together in the keynote address this past Saturday evening.
Dan Savage has been a public figure for quite a while--he writes an adult-themed relationship column called Savage Love, and has also written numerous books such as The Kid, which shares how he and his husband, Terry, adopted their son through open adoption. He, like all of us, has born witness to the deluge of media reports about LGBT youth, bullying, and suicide in the last several years. A comment from a reader sparked an idea, and with the support of his husband, they shot the very first It Gets Better video. The purpose behind the video was to give LGBT kids a link to their possible future selves, to give them hope that even if middle school and high school were difficult, there could be happiness and fulfillment in their adult lives:
Since this original video went live, thousands upon thousands of videos have been posted to the site representing the widely diverse LGBT community, all with the hope of inspiring LGBT youth to stay with us to see adult hood and find happiness and even joy.
Dan Savage also spoke to the fact that many students are bullied for a variety of reasons in schools. However, many students who are bullied can go home to supportive families. In the case of LGBT kids, they may go from a hostile environment in schools to a hostile environment at home, as families can often struggle with accepting their LGBT son or daughter, especially if this goes against deeply held personal beliefs. Thus, these students are the most high-risk of all, because there is no safe space for them in their lives--neither school nor home. This is where we, as school counselors, can play a crucial part in advocating for these students and letting them know that there is at least one adult in their lives who will support them as they work through the issues at school and the possible issues at home.
He went on to say that there are some things that school counselors can do to help make "life better" for LGBT students right now, in the moment, so that they do not necessarily have to wait until they grow up to feel safe and supported:
- Acknowledge the existence of LGBT students. LGBT kids are in our schools. They're in our classrooms, they are in our communities. And they need support.
- Sponsor or support a Gay-Straight Alliance in your school. Dan Savage said that even if a student never attends a meeting, the mere knowledge of the fact that there is a GSA that meets regularly in the school can give them hope.
- Make it known that there are Safe Spaces in your school. One of the most visible ways to do this is to place a Safe Space sticker or poster in your office. As another counselor pointed out to me, the sticker is only a start--you must then follow through with unconditional positive regard (hello, Carl Rogers) and empathy for it to truly mean something.
- Anti-gay bullying makes the whole school unsafe. All bullying must be confronted. Think about this--what message is being sent if some bullying is allowed? It gives tacit permission that all bullying is okay. Anti-gay bullying can happen to students who do not identify as LGBT--they may simply be perceived, for a variety of reasons, as LGBT, yet suffer the same consequences. Work with your school administration and district to develop policies and procedures that make all bullying and harassment unacceptable.
- Don't forget the parents. The coming-out process is difficult both for the student but also on the entire family. Parents need our support, understanding, and resources as they work through this process with their children. A great outside organization to point them towards is PFLAG. You can find a local chapter through their website.
For additional resources, check out Dan Savage's book, It Gets Better:
Also, I have written multiple blog posts about LGBT issues in school counseling and you can check out the resources under my Links and Books tab.