“How do I respond appropriately to students who come out to me? I know that there is no correct way to respond, but it is different with students because I am not their parent. I can’t respond with “I still love you” or “I love you no matter what” because I still have to maintain that professional relationship with them. Ideas?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Teresa Kane
First of all, fellow educator, please allow me to give you a virtual hug. Come on, bring it in.
Whether you know it or not, just asking that question tells me that you have already created a safe space for your students. They are lucky to have you. You might even have one of these cool stickers on your door, like I do.
I totally understand your hesitancy about talking to a kid who has just come out. As teachers, we have to maintain a professional boundary and shouldn’t use the words “I still love you.” You can, however, show a student that they are loved without being inappropriate.
I teach 6th, 7th, and 8th grade English. I love my students and the kids know it. Not because I tell them that in so many words, but because I say good morning or good afternoon to them and give each of them a high five before every class. I hound them about homework that they owe other teachers. I tell them I’d love to come over to their house for dinner and then show up when invited. (I’ve also gone to quinceañeras, first communions, and soccer games.) I ask them how to say their names and then practice the Vietnamese or Amharic or Bangla pronunciations until I get it right. I maintain a strict “no teasing” policy in my classroom. I ask for forgiveness when I screw up and do my best to forgive them when they hurt my feelings.
Love doesn’t have to be sexual or romantic or familial. It can just be showing up—being an adult a kid can trust with scary new information.
As for the nuts and bolts of the coming out conversation, there are a couple factors to consider. Since everyone is different, everyone’s coming out process is different. One kid might be happily gender queer and doesn’t care who knows it. Another student could come to you as gay, closeted, and sure they are going to hell. A lot of students are just confused about how they are feeling.
These situations warrant different responses but can begin the same way. I’d start with saying something like, “Wow, thank you so much for telling me. I know it can be hard to talk about stuff like this sometimes, but I’m glad that you trust me enough to come to me.”
After this, you ask questions to determine next steps. If they seem happy with the situation, you can say, “That’s awesome! What exciting news!” Don’t tell them that you knew it all along. Don’t act like it’s not a big deal. Don’t tell them they are too young to know how they feel. Be happy for them, and happy with them.
If they are scared or sad or feeling like something is wrong with them, listen without judgment. While saying that you love them is not the right approach, you can say something like “You know, I don’t see a screwed-up kid. I see an amazing kid. I see a kid who is perfect just the way they are.” You can then lead them gently to someone—like a counselor—who can help them even more, like a counselor or school psychologist. If the parents know, maybe they can work to find an outside therapist for the family.
After a student comes out, ask them some questions to figure out what they might need from you. Two things in particular come to mind:
1. Are they in a safe situation at home and school? If not, what are the next steps that need to be taken immediately to help ensure safety? Do counselors or school security officers need to get involved?
While it’s important that the student trusts you, if they ever mention thoughts of suicide, self-harm, or violence of any kind, you must report it to the school psychologist or counselor. The same goes for any abuse or neglect going on at home. Tell the student that you will be talking to another adult and that you have to tell someone, but that you will not reveal any of the information about their gender identity or sexual orientation they trusted you with. The counselors are duty-bound to contact the parents or guardians, but they, too, will keep the student’s information private (if the student chooses to tell them).
In fact, the counselors at your school (if they are anywhere near as fantastic as the ones I work with) are trained in helping students who are struggling with sexuality and gender identity. Ask your student if they feel comfortable talking to an adult who can help them sort out how they are feeling. The more safe adults for this kid to talk to, the better. Plus, it takes some of the pressure off being the only person they can turn to for help. (Use your professional judgment here—while the people at my school are fairly open-minded, other schools’ professionals might not be.)
2. What kind of support is the student looking for? What kind of ally do they need? This support could look like sponsoring an LGBTQIA club. They may have a new name or pronoun that they want you to use. It might mean helping them figure out how to talk with their family. It’s possible that they will need to talk to the school administrators about which bathroom they will be using. It could also just be that they need to tell someone before they explode and they have no one else to turn to.
Lastly, when a kid comes out to you, be sure to respect the student enough to keep the information to yourself, unless they say otherwise. Don’t blab to all the other teachers in the copy room about how you are so excited because so and so just told you he’s gay. Teachers are among the worst gossips, and if you’re not careful, the news could spread by lunchtime. The students could overhear and then life could get difficult for this kid very quickly. Respect your students enough to honor their privacy.
A friend of mine came out to a teacher in 9th grade. She had just come out as gay to her family and they were not happy about it. She recently told me about how this teacher ended up helping her through a rough time in her adolescence, saying:
“At that age, we all seek out adult validation even if we are (but especially if we are not) getting it from home. Knowing that my parents’ opinions were not the only adult opinions was comforting. It’s incredibly empowering for students to have other adult role models on their side–even if it’s just a bit of tenderness and the comfort of knowing you are a whole, normal person.”
This teacher helped my friend when she needed it most. What a great responsibility. What an amazing honor. Thank you for doing the work you do and for making all our kiddos feel welcome and safe.
Teresa Kane is a teacher and writer living in Portland, OR. Her writing often focuses on the intersections of her queer and Muslim identities. She has degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University and studied American Sign Language at Gallaudet University. She is passionate about art, feminism, interfaith dialogue, and correct grammar usage.
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