A friend recently asked me to comment on GLBT issues in Jewish schools for a research paper he was writing. Specifically, he wanted information that could be used in a staff sensitively training. I have copied my comments below, directed at teachers, counselors, coaches, and parents everywhere:
When we think of life-saving professions, we often think of doctors and fire fighters, but teachers are also charged with this awesome task. In most schools, the default environment is one of homophobia. This is especially true in a Jewish school. As such, closeted gay, lesbian, and transgendered students often feel alone and rejected. Walk through the halls of any middle or high school in the country, and you'll be horrfied by the number of homophobic comments you hear on a daily basis. "That's so gay." "You're such a fag." These remarks are said in jest, but they drive home the message to GLBT youth that their existence is disgraceful and therefore quite fitting for the punch line of a joke.
Here's where you come in: Do not allow homophobic comments in your classroom. Make it a rule on day one and enforce it vigorously. Take it one step forward and express your acceptance of GLBT individuals. If you bring up the topic even once, you will forever be viewed as an ally by your students. When -- not if, but when -- your gay students want to come out, they will know that you are a safe person, one in whom they can confide.
For those of you who come from a religious background, there is no greater mitzvah than making GLBT youth feel comfortable. You do not need to condone or condemn their sexual behavior. Rather, just accept the person for who he or she is -- באשר הוא שם.
How does this make you life-savers? The suicide rate among GLBT teenagers is staggering. The kind words of one teacher can provide hope to a hopeless child, giving him or the courage to continue living. Because one friend in this world is infinitely better than none.