Happy National Coming Out Day (#NCOD) everyone! I had two powerful experiences yesterday that are motivating me to write this post: first, I spent the afternoon speaking with local educators about bullying and LGBT youth. Second, I attended a wonderful #NCOD event hosted by Cal Poly’s Pride Center.
First things first: how is it dangerous for a school to have students who are out, proud, well-liked, and accepted by their peers? I hadn’t thought about this much until the conversations I was having yesterday. I was talking with local educators about new laws in California to prevent bullying and promote the inclusion of LGBT people and people with disabilities in the K-12 curriculum. One respondent proudly stated that, “We have no issues with bullying and homophobia in my school because we have two out gay kids on my campus and everyone likes them. Same thing for the kids with disabilities—all the students welcome and accept them.” He went on to describe two students who had visible physical disabilities.
Another educator in the room paused and said, “Yeah, but what about the kids with invisible disabilities? The ones who have a learning disability, or because of developmental issues are a little socially awkward, or have some other hidden disability? The kids seem to avoid them, tease them, give them a hard time.” I was grateful for that thoughtful interjection because I was torn between being an objective researcher and using it as a teachable moment. Our conversation continued in another direction, and so at the end of the focus group discussion I came back around and addressed the problem of ‘the popular gay kid.’ The problem these confident, resilient, charismatic student leaders offer is living proof that because they are ‘out’ as gay, bi, lesbian, or trans*, that this school community is immune to problems with homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia. Principals, teachers, and parents, will rely on the story of this one successful student to deflect any threats or accusations that there may be homo-, bi- or trans- phobia present in their school.
However, research tells us that it is the students who are questioning their sexual orientation, or are gender-nonconforming (but not necessarily trans-identified), who are often subject to more severe and damaging exclusion, bullying, and harassment (California Safe Schools Coalition 2004, Bochenek & Brown 2001). In a 2008 study, Dorothy Espelage and her colleagues found the following:
[S]tudents who were questioning their sexual orientation reported more teasing, greater drug use, and more feelings of depression and suicide than either heterosexual or LGB students. Sexually questioning students who experienced homophobic teasing were also more likely than LGB students to use drugs-alcohol and rate their school climate as negative. Finally, positive school climate and parental support protected LGB and questioning students against depression and drug use (Espelage, Aragon, Birkett & Koenig, 2008).
The importance of parental support in the health and resilience of LGBT youth has been underlined in several other studies. Youth who have the strong support of at least one adult family member have significantly more positive health outcomes than those who don’t. Ryan and colleagues report that, “Family acceptance [of LGBT adolescents] predicts greater self-esteem, social support, and general health status; it also protects against depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation and behaviors” (2010). A similar study in Canada found that family support drastically reduced the risk of suicide in trans young adults (Trans PULSE, 2013).
So most of these stories of the popular gay student or the out and proud trans homecoming queen are stories of youth who generally have strong supports and a level of self-assuredness that is rare in adolescence. That level of confidence is a strong vaccine against the virus of bullying. Bullies often target the weaker, the more vulnerable, the ones who lack a strong sense of themselves, and often the ones that other kids won’t stick up for. This is the danger that these proud youth pose; the danger of self-congratulatory smugness in a school. The danger of sending a message to their community that it is safe and secure for any young person to come out and express their full selves which then gives school leaders “evidence” that they don’t have a problem with homophobia. Exhibit A: popular out gay kid. Exhibit B: trans prom queen elected by her peers. These exhibits do not prove anything. They just prove that you have some amazingly confident, charismatic, and resilient youth. We still have a culture that is actively, daily, homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic. Schools are not immune, they are a product of this culture.
It is scary to come out. I came out again last night at the event hosted by Cal Poly’s Pride center. I didn’t think much about it at first. I am 100% out at work, to friends, to family, to anyone who knows anything about me. I have no problems with public speaking—I am a teacher. But just prior to taking the floor last night, I looked around and saw familiar faces: current and former students, colleagues, some casual acquaintances, and I got anxious. I was about to go up there and be vulnerable, share an emotional piece of me by telling my story. Even though I felt that I was in a safe and supportive space, I was scared. Even though I am happily married and have been out to my family for over 20 years, I was nervous. As I told parts of my story, I was surprised by the level of emotion that still came out as I reflected on that terrifying time: being 19, 20, 21 years old and facing rejection. Not knowing who would still love me, be my friend, support me, be part of my life after learning this about me.
I have practically based my career on the events that shaped and surrounded my coming out yet it was still hard. So, I am writing this post for all of the youth who are not ready, who are still questioning, who are on the borderlands and in the fluid spaces that don’t lend themselves to a simple coming out narrative. I want to remind us that these binaries of being closeted or out, of being gay or straight, of being cis- or transgender prevent us from seeing all of the diversities of experiences that exist under the sun. Although I appreciate and value what NCOD can mean for some people, I hope to continue challenging these discourses so I can soon see a time where people don’t need to come out, where heterosexuality isn’t presumed, where gender identities aren’t assigned, where it is safe and respected for everyone to simply be all of themselves, in all of their facets, with no need for binaries, labels, or explanations.