Making LGBTQ+ students feel supported, accepted

State has programs and suggestions that can help

AT 14, Jonathan had black hair and piercing blue eyes. He was the angriest young man I had ever encountered in my almost 20 years as a middle school teacher. His flamboyance made his school experience miserable. He was teased and was struggling with coming out to his dad, a “guys’ guy.”  Little did Jonathan know that I was going through the exact same thing.

After a 15-year marriage to a man, and a divorce, I was ready to live my truth as a gay woman. I also had two children and was living with my mom. I knew I couldn’t hide it any longer, but I asked myself: “Would my kids be okay? Would I ruin my life?” Coming out to my family was the most terrifying thing I have ever done. The fear of losing them and my support system as a single mother was crippling. But I did it and we got through it. It has been a difficult road but one I will never regret.

I could feel Jonathan’s pain. My colleagues and I were concerned that his anger could lead to self-harm. In the United States, LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. Thankfully, Jonathan’s guidance counselor knew the secret we were both keeping and asked my permission to share my story. Once the three of us met, Jonathan’s entire demeanor changed. Instead of arguing about every assignment and getting into fights in the cafeteria, he began to study and to excel. All this because he felt heard and knew someone understood what he was going through.

There are approximately 500 middle schools in Massachusetts alone and my school alone has over 1,500 students. With an estimated 3.2 million adolescents identifying as LGBTQ+, this equates to thousands of LGBTQ+ students in our state alone. Given these statistics, there are thousands of students at risk for self-harm. They might not have a teacher in a situation like mine to be with them and help them. So, how do we support them?

Thirty years ago, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) established the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students. The program provides educators with everything from curriculum to resources when dealing with parents of LGBTQ students. Similarly, DESE and the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students is in charge of overseeing the Massachusetts Gender and Sexuality Alliance Leadership Council and these organizations work in conjunction with the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth to help anyone navigating working with LGBTQ youth. Similarly, they support and offer training in establishing a Gay-Straight Alliance or Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSAs) in public schools.

Once my colleague and I started a GSA club in our school, we saw a change in our students. Research shows that students feel safer when they have a safe space such as GSA. During our bi-weekly meetings, our students discuss any issues they are facing. Some have told coming out stories, others are quiet observers who are making connections and friendships that they might not have found otherwise, especially in a school as large as ours. GSAs promote a climate of acceptance and can minimize bullying. I know our students agree that GSAs should be a part of every middle school in our state.

When working with or educating LGBTQ students, it is vital that students feel supported and accepted. In addition to GSAs, schools should put in place anti-bullying policies and support teachers intervening when witnessing harassment. Training current youth workers on how to properly handle such situations is paramount to ensuring a safe environment for all the students of the Commonwealth so that every adolescent feels safe when entering a school.

Meet the Author

Judith Bettano

8th grade English teacher, J. Henry Higgins Middle School in Peabody,
Jonathan left our middle school feeling stronger and prouder of who he is.  I will always remember him fondly. And, as a teacher, I will always try to ensure that my students feel seen and heard no matter the challenges in their environment.

Judith Bettano is an 8th grade English teacher at J. Henry Higgins Middle School in Peabody. She is a 2022-2023 Teach Plus Massachusetts Policy Fellow.

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