The Life-Saving Importance of LGBTQ Role Models
“I don’t think we should treat gay people badly or anything. But.” My student paused. He was polite, not wanting to offend, but also very certain about what he said next: “They are going to hell.”
His classmates – all high schoolers in the SAT class I was teaching – nodded in agreement.
The class was in a conservative part of Texas, and my students often discussed political topics – but this was the first time the subject of gay people had come up. I was having a hard time staying still. I dithered at the front of the classroom, fussing with my papers, pretending not to listen.
“Some people think I’m gay,” another student said. He had always been the odd one out. He dressed differently than the other students; he spoke differently. He was looking at his desk, his voice low.
“I’m not,” he continued, “but some people think I am.”
I recognized the vulnerability in his voice. I remembered being his age, in a classroom like this one, while everyone around me discussed how “gross” gay people were. I remember not even knowing why I felt the way I did – like my heart was on the desk in front of me, beating furiously, for everyone to see.
I strode to the podium and said it was time to start class. In the flurry of unzipping backpacks and opening books that followed, I leaned over the second boy’s desk.
“You know,” I whispered to him, “I’m gay. So, it doesn’t matter to me, either way.”
He looked up at me, surprised. I wanted to say more. I wanted to tell him that not everyone believed what his classmates did. That there were places, in Texas and out, that would be more welcoming for him. That he could always come to me, if he needed to talk.
But the classroom was quieting. And I knew what might follow, if the other students overheard me. The calls from angry parents. Students dropping the class. Losing the class – losing my job.
It’s a horrible kind of calculus, one familiar to most LGBTQ people who work with children. You weigh the needs of the kids in your care – some of whom are almost certainly LGBTQ, almost certainly in need of a role model – against the possible consequences.
Gerald Bostock is an example of those consequences. In 2013, he was working for Clayton County, Georgia as a coordinator for a program that represented at-risk children. He was, by all accounts, a passionate, dedicated advocate. He encouraged people in life to volunteer for the program, including the members of his gay softball league.
This act of kindness cost Bostock his job. When news of his sexual orientation spread, the county fired Bostock for “conduct unbecoming of its employees.” Bostock sued the county for discrimination but lost.
Soon the Supreme Court will review Bostock’s case, along with two others, to determine if federal law protects employees from sex discrimination tied to sexual orientation and gender identity. Given that twenty-six states still don’t have explicit state or local LGBTQ workplace anti-discrimination laws, if the Supreme Court makes the wrong decision here, many LGBTQ employees will be left entirely without protection.
This won’t just hurt these employees – it will also hurt the children who need their support. It will hurt LGBTQ kids who are already more likely to miss school, to engage in substance abuse. To be bullied, to attempt suicide.
It is hard to envision a future when there is no one there to model it for you. Especially for kids in conservative areas, like parts of Georgia and Texas, being gay is profoundly isolating. It is not enough to know, theoretically, that there are more accepting places in the world, waiting for them in the future. They need support now, where they are.
Looking back, I wish I could have set a better example for that student in my SAT class. I wish I had come out to the entire class, not just to him. I wish I had shown him that being LGBTQ was something to be declared proudly, not whispered furtively.
I wish I had been the role model I desperately needed at his age.
But to be that role model, I needed to feel protected. I need to feel like I could be open about myself without losing my job. That’s why it is so important that the Supreme Court give LGBTQ employees – like Gerald Bostock, like myself – that security.
Because children are depending on it.