By Sarah Dean
Growing up I didn’t know a single queer adult, let alone a queer teacher. My world was straight and Christian and small, filled with Bible studies, uncomfortable questions from overbearing family about boys, and ill-fitting Easter dresses.
Being gay was not an available option.
Now, years later, I find myself in the position to support growing young people as an 8th grade English teacher. Although coming out was not easy for me, as soon as I became open, I felt strongly that my openness about my identity should not stop at the school door. I felt compelled to teach English well, form meaningful bonds with students, and be my full, authentic self.
It started by simply ordering a pride flag pin to put on my school lanyard. I would be monitoring the halls at lunch, and students I didn’t yet know would ask me about my pin. Overwhelmingly, the students who noticed were queer students. Simply by wearing a pin, students felt comfortable coming out to me and I came out to them. I could share in their pain when they experienced homophobia from other students, and I could share in their joy when they celebrated relationship milestones.
In March of 2022, I was scrolling through Instagram when a targeted ad caught my eye, boasting of $10,000 grants to make your school a better, safer place for LGBTQ+ students. With little more than passion and determination, I applied. In May, when I was notified that my school won the It Gets Better Project grant, I was ecstatic, immediately rushing to tell my principal and begin planning.
Over the course of the 2022-2023 school year, I put progress pride flags in every classroom on campus, founded a GSA, and conducted staff trainings on LGBTQ+ issues. The culmination of this project finally came to fruition in May when we hosted our first annual Pride Week. Each day, students were taught a lesson on LGBTQ+ history, participated in spirit days, won rainbow raffle prizes, and applied their new knowledge at an assembly centered around queer people and allyship.
Though in the weeks leading up to our pride, I sometimes felt paralyzed by fear – a combination of my own internalized homophobia and the discriminatory politics in Tennessee – my administration rallied behind the project, our staff engaged in tough conversations with students, and we gave many kids their first taste of what it means to be an ally and support their queer peers.
Even as I sit and write now, faces of individual students’ flash through my mind, the impact on them proof enough to me that all the fear and hard work was worthwhile. For at least one week, my LGBTQ+ students knew they were safe and supported by our staff, and hopefully see our commitment to be that safe space year around as well.
In GLSEN’s 2019 School Climate Survey, they found that LGBTQ+ students who had one or more supportive staff members at their school felt safer, were less likely to miss school due to discomfort, had higher GPA’s and were less likely to drop out. Research shows organizations like the It Gets Better Project — which connects LGBTQ+ youth to resources, inclusive language, community support and more — have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the well being of LGBTQ young people.
It’s clear — teachers, educators and mentors being visible and vocal about their support is not only favorable, but necessary. If a student doesn’t feel safe, they can’t learn; they will be too preoccupied trying to survive that they can’t apply themselves academically to their full potential.
Hosting Pride Week shows our students that they have a team of adults supporting them, who want them to succeed holistically.
It has become my mission to be the queer teacher I never knew. I am the English teacher that fosters all my queer students, cares for them when they come out to their parents and listens to their relationship drama. Often, I wonder how my life might look different if I had known even one LGBTQ+ adult when I was younger. Maybe I would have had the strength to come out sooner or have had early adolescent dating experiences with girls, rather than feigning interest in boys. Maybe I would have learned to assuage my fears of being judged or misunderstood before I became an adult.
But, by the time I couldn’t bear hiding anymore, I had become a teacher. My world opened in the most beautiful way, and even though it has felt late and long overdue for me, I was right on time for them.
Sarah Dean is an 8th grade English teacher based in Nashville, TN with a passion for uplifting LGBTQ+ students. From her childhood in California to her new adventures in Tennessee, Dean has always loved to write, seeing words and art as a beautiful way to develop empathy and compassion for others. Deen’s school is the recipient of grant money from our 50 States. 50 Grants. 5000 Voices. initiative in both 2022 and 2023.