October 11, 2013

When A Student Comes Out to You...Today or Any Day!

Educators often worry about “saying the right thing” when confronted with conversations that they might not feel entirely comfortable engaging in with their students.  A teacher once described to me how these moments made her feel like she was walking on “squishy ground.” A student “coming out” is one such moment that may create a heightened level of anxiety for you as an educator. While each such conversation is unique, there are some simple pointers that may help the ground feel less “squishy” and will ultimately help the student feel more supported. Since it’s National Coming Out Day, we wanted to share these with you as well as encourage you to learn about these in greater detail on pages 14-15 of GLSEN’s Safe Space Kit.

When a student comes out to you and tells you they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) your initial response is important. The student has likely spent time in advance thinking about whether or not to tell you, when and how to tell you and it’s likely that they chose to tell you because they see you or already know you as a supportive ally - so congratulations and thank you for being that person in the first place! So, here are some things to remember when a student comes out to you… 

  • Offer support but don’t assume a student needs any help.

  • Be a role model of acceptance.

  • Appreciate the student’s courage.

  • Listen, listen, listen.

  • Assure and respect confidentiality.

  • Remember that the student has not changed.

  • Challenge traditional norms.

  • Be prepared to give a referral

Of course, it’s equally important to avoid saying things like: “I knew it,” “Are you sure?” “You’re just confused,” "It’s a phase – it will pass,” “Shhh, don’t tell anyone,” or “You can’t be gay/lesbian – you’ve had relationships with members of the opposite sex.” These kinds of questions or statements are simply not appropriate and will not help the student feel supported. Instead, ask questions that demonstrate understanding, acceptance and compassion such as "have you been able to tell anyone else?" "Do you need help of any kind?" or "Do you feel supported by the adults in your life?" Again, the Safe Space Kit has other suggestions for these moments and for many other ways you can demonstrate that you are a supportive ally to your LGBT students.

Above all, remember that when a student has made the decision to come out to you, they've probably chosen to do so because they trust you. It is important to reassure them of that trust by engaging in this moment with respect, dignity and (as with all you do as a supportive ally), with affirmation.

Happy National Coming Out Day...or any coming out day!   

Robert McGarry

About Robert McGarry

Senior Director of Education and Youth Programs

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