We Shall Overcome

GSAFE Educator of the Year Scott Lone of West Bend East High School approaches his role with dedication and courage.

GSAFE Educator of the Year Scott Lone of West Bend East High School approaches his role with dedication and courage.

Yesterday it was sissy, faggot, queer or fairy. Today it’s homo, dyke, pole smoker or pillow biter. The slang may have evolved, but the message is the same—you’re “different” and you’re not welcome!

Growing up gay and living in the closet were not pleasant experiences. Going to school and wondering if I was the only one—the only boy who was gay—was a lonely journey. I suspected that some of my friends were like me, but you didn’t dare discuss your feelings with any of your friends, just in case your inclinations were wrong and you got the hell beat out of you. There certainly were no rainbow stickers in teacher’s classrooms, nor were there resource lists posted on bulletin boards to let me know there were safe classrooms or resources available to me as I struggled as a gay teenager. It is an experience that many of us have had, and many teenagers still have, today. I always hoped that if I ever had the chance to prevent this from happening to another teenager, I would.

Kevin Jennings, the founder and former executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN), had the same vision and ultimately left his teaching job to begin a national organization that would become the standard bearer for fighting anti-LGBTQ harassment and bullying in our schools. Today, GLSEN and our state organization, GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) for Safe Schools are making a difference so teens don’t have to walk alone in their coming-out journeys, like many of us did.

Kevin Jennings inspired me to work on behalf of LGBTQ students back in 1999. I met him at a conference on diversity when I taught in Green Bay. Throughout my career, I’ve fought harassment and bullying anywhere students gather. It didn’t matter if an LGBTQ student was present—it shouldn’t matter. We may never know if someone in earshot distance is LGBT. My job, our job as teachers, is to make all students feel safe. When a teacher signs a contract with a school district, regardless of where the district is, they are committing to providing every student a safe place to learn. I remind myself of that every April when my new contract arrives.

Students in my classroom know that there are consequences for harassment and bullying. “That’s so gay!” has been virtually obliterated from my classroom. Our LGBTQ students know there is a ready and waiting resource available to them—to empower, support and encourage them on their journeys. Depending on where a student lives, they may feel isolation, fear, rejection and self-hatred. Many of us have felt those emotions. Even just advocating for our students, whether you’re a teacher who is openly gay or a straight ally, can have its difficulties. Colleagues and administrators sometimes don’t understand—some don’t want to understand. Those in our communities-at-large are sometimes threatened by the fact that all students need to be protected, regardless of their sexual orientation.

But no one said the journey would be easy, for students or teachers. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “We shall overcome. Before the victory is won, some of us will have to get scarred, but we shall overcome.” Many of us have the scars to show, too. Those scars are constant reminders that our work is not done. Students walking our hallways, sitting in our classrooms, eating in our cafeterias and playing on our athletic fields are counting on us to protect them. It’s our job!

Being named Educator of the Year by GSA for Safe Schools only reaffirms in my mind that each teacher, each support-staff member, each administrator has been given a sacred trust—the care and safety of all students, be they black, white, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, gay, straight or disabled. This is a tremendous responsibility that cannot be taken lightly—the lives of our students depend on it. Those of us in the education field who have been recognized for our work on behalf of our LGBTQ teens cannot rest on our laurels and accolades. While we’ve come a long way, we’ve a long way to go to ensure equality and protection for all. GSA for Safe Schools can give us the tools to help accomplish this, but ultimately it’s up to individuals to see the mission through to its end.

So, on behalf of the LGBTQ students in Wisconsin, I say, “Thank you!” to all the teachers, support staff, administrators, parents, clergy, family friends, mental health professionals and others who travel this journey with them. Together, we can realize our vision for a fully inclusive society.