As a high school teacher and coach in Bethesda, Md., I have found our school to be a generally safe and wonderful place for our 2,500 students and faculty. However, like any community of this many people, there is a wide range of views and opinions in terms of acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. But three specific and upsetting instances at school this year caused me to take action.
In September I had an idea for every teacher to display an equal sign in their classroom in order to show faculty support for all of our students. When I proposed this idea to the sponsor of our high school's Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), she questioned how many teachers would actually put them up. She added that the student club had tried this activity before and was met with resistance.
I was bewildered. It had never crossed my mind that a teacher would not be accepting of a student because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Why would an educator bring their personal beliefs into the classroom when we're supposed to support the needs of each student?
Later, in December, I had the opportunity to meet two representatives from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) at a social studies conference in Washington, D.C. During our conversation I mentioned that it seemed as if things had been getting better for LGBT people in the country. The look that I received was one of absolute astonishment, as if I were from another planet.
And really, I was. As a straight, white, upper-middle-class male, I have not had to face or endure any true injustice because of the personal characteristics that make me who I am. It was after listening to these representatives that I realized that the D.C. metropolitan area has come a long way but is still far from perfect in the level of acceptance of LGBT issues compared with the rest of the country and world.
But the latest instance was an eye opener and what pushed me to do something for LGBT students. It did not come from a fellow teacher, or a GLSEN representative, but from a member of our student body. I will call her "Emily." I have known Emily as a student for a while, but I never had the chance to sit down and listen to her story. I was astounded by what she had to say.
Thanks to Emily's courage to address the entire staff and administration of our school, she relayed to us with vivid detail what it means to be a gay student in high school. Emily shared the hurtful words and acts that often sprout up, making sure that we all understood that pretending away or ignoring the anti-gay jokes and comments heard in school was not only unacceptable but sending a negative message to all students. Emily made the point that our lack of intervention was telling students that it is not OK to be gay and that it is acceptable for a student to be hateful toward another student who is.
At that moment I knew I had to do more for students like Emily. I realized being a silent bystander was not only hurting people but in essence giving the green light to allow bullying and hatred to continue in my school. I thought a lot after hearing this 17-year-old girl pour her heart out to people in both educational and administrative roles. I couldn't help but ask myself if this really was the kind of world that I wanted my own son to grow up in.
What troubled me even more was that some of my colleagues, mentors like me, didn't applaud Emily for her courage in coming forward. They didn't stand for the ovation at the end of her story and, more strikingly, didn't even acknowledge her speaking. They instead focused on their smartphones.
I am a teacher, a husband, a father, a role model, and a mentor. I am also a coach. I know that my actions in each of these roles influence and affect hundreds of people. That is why I decided to take action and become an ally for students like Emily who are victims of bullying and harassment.
At our high school I am now encouraging all of my school's teams and coaches to take the Team Respect Challenge, a part of Changing the Game: The GLSEN Sports Project. As a coach, I understand that this pledge recognizes the differences that strengthen both our school and community. Our teams have now become the role models by letting other students know that they will not stand by and allow their peers to be bullied or harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or, more importantly, because a student is different.
I want to thank all my students and players who have begun to accept people's differences as part of what makes our school, community, and the world a better place. It takes a lot of courage to stand up for something that may be unpopular or not cool. But we will give a voice to our LGBT peers so that students like Emily won't have to come forward and ask for something that every student should be offered without hesitation: a safe and affirming school in which to grow and discover their potential.