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Throughout this period of political chaos and a global pandemic, students have continuously been asked to adapt to the “new normal.” Though this pressure affects everyone, we have found it particularly difficult as LGBTQ+ students.
Online learning makes it more difficult for students and teachers to form close, one-on-one relationships. As a result, students who are navigating their sexual orientation or gender identity are finding it harder to turn to their favorite teachers for advice. This matters because students with unaccepting parents no longer have safe spaces at school where they can exist as themselves. Transgender students can no longer rely on teachers to help enforce the use of their correct names and pronouns. And a lack of easy access to school counselors makes it harder to reach out for help with mental-health struggles.
To help improve the mental health of LGBTQ+ students like us, teachers must establish their classes as safe spaces, develop systems to routinely check in on students and connect students to the resources they need to maintain their mental health.
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When I, Jaiden, entered high school in 2017, I had just started identifying as transgender, and it was scary. I have never been the type to be upfront about my identity or directly label myself. Instead, I took an indirect approach. I asked all of my teachers to call me “Jay” in hopes that the gay pin on my backpack and my involvement in the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) would lead them to the right idea. Some days, I wouldn’t talk to anyone due to fears surrounding my gender identity. I was not explicitly out, and this led to some intense depressive episodes.
Two teachers changed this.
47 percent — portion of LGBT youth who say they do not “fit in” in their communities
As I was navigating my trans identity and the coming-out process, my biology teacher and GSA advisor Ms. Julia Murphy provided me a safe space beginning on the very first day of class, and with this space came unconditional support and indispensable advice. According to the Trevor Project, only 40 to 43 percent of LGBTQ+ students come out to their teachers, and I was fortunate enough to be in this minority. I knew Ms. Murphy would be a safe person to talk to because on the first day of school, I saw a small rainbow flag on her desk. That little flag brought me immense joy — it acknowledged my existence and made me aware of her support. I would recommend that all teachers have some sort of sign like this, whether it be a “safe space” sticker or pride flags.
In my second semester, I also had to take a health class. For many students, health class ends up being a disappointing and frustrating experience because of curricula that are characterized by heteronormative standards and victim-blaming approaches. Fortunately, my experience was far from that. My health teacher, Ms. Capri Masuda, often spoke about topics like LGBTQ+ identity, domestic violence and mental health, which are often disregarded in schools. By consistently expressing her desire to support struggling students, she helped numerous students speak up and get help. In an assignment, I mentioned my own struggles with my identity and depression. She could have secretly reported me to a counselor or simply ignored my issues. Instead, she talked to me after class, asking how she could support me. She provided me direct access to LGBT centers and my school’s counseling service. More importantly, she checked in on me regularly by simply asking me how I was doing in counseling and at home.
Without the support of these two teachers, I would not be where I am now. I am now openly out, proud and loud about who I am and whom I love.
Related: OPINION: Three ways to turn schools into safe learning environments for LGBTQ students in post-Orlando America
I, Reggie, have been out as queer since 6th grade, the same year my mental health severely declined. When I entered high school, I was newly out of the closet as a transgender man at a brand new school. I met two marvelous teachers, Mrs. Meghan Clabots and Ms. Anna Mae Tempus. Mrs. Clabots was my French teacher for 10th and 11th grade, and Ms. Tempus was my 10th grade English teacher. These teachers both made tremendous impacts on my well-being. Mrs. Clabots always let me stay after class to talk, mostly about my mental health. Such sincere gestures showed me that even though I’m being beaten down from inside and out, I am still valued and loved.
“That little [rainbow] flag brought me immense joy — it acknowledged my existence and made me aware of [my teacher’s] support.”Jaiden Blancaflor, 17
In 2012, the Human Rights Campaign reported that 47 percent of LGBT youth say they do not “fit in” in their communities. This felt true for me, as I am one of the few transgender students at my school. Having the support of these two teachers made attending school a little easier, despite my feeling out of place.
Ms. Tempus is still one of my supporters, though she left the school district in 2019. She was there for me whenever I needed her support. Ms. Tempus connected me to her friend, another transgender man, as a mentor as I went through my transition. Ms. Tempus also supported me outside of the classroom by attending my court hearing to change my name legally. Without these amazing teachers, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
Related: STUDENT VOICE: ‘Gender policing is leading to disaster for our trans youth’
Though the past few decades have shown tremendous social progress toward inclusion, many are still stuck in a mindset of exclusion and hate. We have seen some teachers come into the classroom and — whether intentionally or not — spew hateful, damaging ideologies that create divisions between those teachers and LGBTQ+ students. Teachers should be there to help students grow as individuals, and this is impossible when teachers do not remain open-minded and act as role models for their students.
“Mrs. Clabots always let me stay after class to talk, mostly about my mental health.”Reggie Eaton, 17
According to a 2019 report, 87 percent of school-based mental-health professionals believe it is their responsibility to provide supportive counseling to LGBTQ+ students, and 80 percent believe they shouldn’t avoid discussion of students’ sexual orientation and gender identities. As LGBTQ youth, we are relieved to see progress, but we will not stop until 100 percent of professionals feel a need and desire to support their students of all identities.
During times of personal, national and global stress, LGBTQ+ youth experience unique mental health challenges, and supportive teachers and school counselors are crucial to our well-being. We encourage teachers to do the little things: add a safe space sticker to your digital classroom, ask students to add their pronouns to their Zoom names and to state them when they introduce themselves, have LGBTQ+ resources readily available for students to access and offer out-of-class spaces to strengthen relationships with students.
Jaiden Blancaflor and Reggie Eaton are LGBTQ+ student advocates on GLSEN’s National Student Council. Jaiden, 17, is a high school senior in California. Reggie, also 17, is a high school senior on Menomonee land in Wisconsin.
This story about LGBTQ+ mental health was produced by The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.
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