"It's only a phase": what not say when a pupil comes out
“I think I’m gay.”
This has to be pretty high on a list of situations they don’t properly prepare you for during teacher training. And yet, the way a teacher responds to this statement will have way more impact on a student than successfully integrating an interactive whiteboard into a history lesson.
A survey for LGBT Youth Scotland revealed that the average time a young person takes from realising they are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) to telling someone is three and a half years. This means a young person may have spent almost a quarter of their life getting to the point of opening up to someone.
Here are ideas to try and help you avoid saying the wrong thing at the crucial moment of disclosure:
Don’t say, “I don’t have a problem with it”
Reassuring a young person that being LGBT is normal is really important, but saying this turns the focus away from the pupil and onto yourself. It’s better not to talk at the pupil, but to support them by asking questions about how they feel, what kind of support or advice they would like and how they want to proceed. You may well be the first person a child has had the confidence to tell, so it’s a privilege they are telling you. Appreciating this, giving positive feedback and not making assumptions have to be at the heart of the approach.
Don’t say “You do know I’m not gay?”
Coming to terms with their sexuality can make pupils ultra-sensitive to anything suggesting the remotest disapproval. This question sounds like you’re keen not to be thought of as “one of them”.
Instead, direct the student towards resources and support groups, tell them about gay people you know who are successful role models. Make it clear that being gay does not stop a person from being happy – or from achieving great things.
Don’t tell them “It’s only a phase”
The last thing you want after opening up about your sexuality is to have this trivialised as a phase. It’s not likely that a pupil just woke up and thought, “You know what, I think I’ll try being gay”. This is the most important thing happening in a student’s life; avoid saying anything which diminishes that.
Don’t pretend to know more than you do
It can be very easy, however well-meaning, to end up talking about things you don’t really understand or know about. If you’re not LGBT, don’t try and talk about how it must feel. And if you don’t know the answers to key questions, don’t make them up. Admit what you don’t know and give advice about where students can find information and resources to answer their questions.
Don’t do anything without consulting the student
Although it’s important to make a child aware of the limitations of your confidentiality, it’s important to make sure they know you won’t do anything without consulting them. Reassuring them that you won’t tell their parents, other teachers or friends (unless there is a child protection issue) is important. It is also crucial that you do not do anything that might draw attention to their sexuality. The terrifying thing about telling someone about your sexuality is the fear that you’re losing control of your secret. It can be exhausting enough hiding it yourself, without adding the stress that a third party might do something before you’re ready.
Don’t wait for students to approach you about LGBT issues
Saying the right thing to a child when they come out can be life-changing, but just as important is taking proactive steps to make the school LGBT-friendly. Creating an environment where difference is celebrated and discrimination challenged may take time, but the impact it can have on LGBT pupils during those years of angst can’t be underestimated.
Any approach that only tackles bullying when it’s reported is never going to succeed. For pupils coming to terms with their sexuality, complaining about the word gay being used pejoratively is tantamount to coming out. That can be terrifying.
I went back to my old school to say: I’m gay
There are lots of ways to establish an ethos of tolerance and inclusion. LGBT societies can give students an environment in which they are comfortable and able to talk without fear. Providing role models – whether it’s talks from recent school leavers who are gay (Just Like Us runs a scheme offering this) or just having openly gay teachers – can show LGBT students that there’s a community out there. For straight pupils, such sessions can encourage them to think about what it is like to be in an LGBT person’s shoes.
Anti-homophobia posters, inclusive school statements and taking part in LGBT days (such as School Diversity Week) are also good ways to get students talking about LGBT issues.
And of course, inset days are essential. In some schools, outdated attitudes are still present – I recently overheard a member of a school’s senior management team say: “I’m not sure our school is ready for lesbians yet.” Training is essential to help staff members understand how to discuss LGBT issues.
Read the original article in The Guardian.