I carry some pain with me from the times I have failed to be there for students when they really needed it. I have worked as a school counselor for over a decade, and I’ve always been particularly aware of students grappling with sexual orientation issues. Every situation has been different: some students have hinted that they may be “uncomfortable” in their own skin; some have firmly rejected any insinuation they may not be one hundred percent straight; some students have come out to me before I had any clue they were even leaning in that direction. All of my interactions with gay students have left marks on my heart and soul.
In my earlier years as a middle school counselor, I had neither the experience nor the maturity to be a solid mentor to students who came to me with sexual orientation issues. Looking back, I realize I was unclear as to how “out” I could be at school and with students, which gave an awkward quality to my interactions and responses. I also think my experience with my own sexual orientation influenced my choices and actions regarding my students’ issues. The natural and political limitations on my personal authenticity, at the time, hindered my ability to fully support students the way I would have liked to.
It is a fact that a person does not need to be gay to be an ally to someone who is. All an ally needs, in order to be a support, is comfort and confidence in one’s own self and a desire to accept and normalize anything a young person brings to the table. I can pretty easily draw the line between the time of my life when I could truly do this and when I only thought I could. I still mentally cringe when I remember my responses to some of the students with whom I crossed paths, early on in this career.
There is one girl I refer to as “the girl I failed.” I know that she is fine now and that she has had a lot of support in her life, but I was someone she identified as a safe outlet, and I let her down. We met when she was just finishing middle school and we remained in contact during her high school years. She often came to my office at school to help with projects and chat about her friends, ambitions, and interests. We attended the same church and she had met my girlfriend on a number of occasions, so she knew I would be accepting if the topic of her own sexuality ever came up.
I had noticed some hints that she was reflecting on questions of sexual orientation, but she had avoided bringing it up in conversation. Then, one day, she opened the door to her inner experience a tiny crack and gave me the cue to come in and look around. I did not walk through that door. I did not recognize the invitation. I unintentionally eased the door shut and very gently clicked the lock into place. It pains me because this was the moment I had been subconsciously watching for, and when it came I was neither mentally nor emotionally secure enough to make the most of it. The sharpest pain of all is that I did not get a second chance. Once that door was shut, there was no re-entry. I knocked a few times, but she didn’t even come to the peephole. I lost touch with her after that.
My lesson: Any young person may be questioning his or her romantic preferences. If that person is looking for support from a trusted adult, they will find a way to broach the topic, potentially in a subtle way. Kids confronting their sexuality will likely be very self-conscious, potentially confused, and often alone. They rarely come out and say, “I think I’m gay and I’m dying to talk about it, but I’m way too embarrassed to just tell you.” Teens and pre-teens who are ready to reach out will find a moment that feels right to them. Being conscious and “in the moment” is a very practical skill for being attuned to young people, and for truly connecting with and supporting them.
Previous to “the girl I failed,” there was another girl who I tried to reach out to and “help.” This is a story about the importance of offering help when it is requested, rather than deciding to force help upon someone before they are ready. She was a spunky kid, scrappy and funny, and spinning out of control in many ways. She wore Hefty bags on her legs and put orange spikes in her hair. She was tough in a ‘Jo’ from The Facts of Life kind of way. I immediately took to her. She wasn’t outwardly looking to bond with a counselor, but she responded to my attempts to connect. After many months of working with her in an after-school program, she developed a crush on a girl that was impossible to hide. At the same time, she started making some unhealthy decisions and her parents became very concerned.
I took the opportunity to reach out and invite her to our school’s GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance club). That really didn’t go over well. She was not ready, and the glaring call-out of what seemed obvious to others was uncomfortable and off-putting for her. It also marked me as someone unsafe and threatening to the world she had created for herself. She backed away from me after that and our relationship was damaged. I left the school after that year, so I didn’t get to see how our interactions may have evolved. I heard that she came out in a big way the following year, so who knows whether she might have sought my support when she was ready for it.
My lesson: Don’t jump the gun. Coming out is a long and personal process, which everyone undergoes according to their own needs and timetable. It is helpful to be available and accepting, as long as your actions honor the time frame and preferences of the other person. We cannot decide the right time for someone to address their own personal issues. We all get to reach out for help when we want it, and deal with things on our own, when it feels right.
I have been the first person to whom several of my students have come out. It is an enormous honor and testament to the deep trust that I was able to build with them. Unfortunately, school personnel should carefully consider whether it is safe for them to share their sexual orientation openly in the school community.
Historically, once a student came out to me, I would share my own status in the “family,” ostensibly to increase their comfort level and ensure them that they were in good company. I have noticed, over the years, however, that once a student is comfortable enough to share their most-private information with me, my own sexual orientation is irrelevant. They have already decided their secrets are safe with me. Bringing up my own experience smacks of turning the conversation away from the student, which is the same as putting up an interpersonal barrier. A moment of coming out is a powerful rite of passage and one instance in time when all eyes, ears, and mental focus need to be entirely on that person, and their thoughts and feelings.
My lesson: Children and adolescents are most vulnerable before they come out to a trusted adult. That is the time when they need to receive messages that they are not alone and that they are perfectly okay. Several years ago I decided the best plan for me was to post lots of signs and symbols in my room at school, marking the territory as gay-friendly. When topics of homo- or bi-sexuality come up in conversation, I address them directly, but casually—completely normalizing the subject matter. If a student asks me, point-blank, about my orientation, I answer them honestly and cheerfully. I want to make it clear that queer and questioning students have a peer and ally right in their vicinity, and that happiness is entirely possible for them exactly as they are.
I am embarking on a new journey this year in my middle school—we are starting our school’s first-ever Gay-Straight Alliance club. My principal is concerned about backlash from parents and the community, so our plan is to advertise through a subtle grassroots campaign and hope that the students looking for support will know where to come. I have reached out to a few students with whom the topic has come up, and the principal has included our club (“Alliance”) in the daily announcements. Our first activity was to make rainbow pins and explain to the students who came by, that the pins show support for people who are gay or bi, and that wearing one means they are not “haters.” This language seemed to resonate with our students, and we have already had lots of kids pick up rainbow pins for themselves and their friends.
One group that came in to talk with me included a boy I know casually by sight and through a couple of his friends. I asked him if he wanted a pin and he looked in my eyes for a split-second before accepting one. The next day, I passed his group in the hallway and he reached out and gave me a huge, spontaneous hug. I think that brief moment in my office made a connection for him, and I hope that he will dare to trust me if he needs support, or just a friend during this particular moment of his life. Connecting with adolescents is amazing, challenging, and supremely rewarding. It can be a true blessing, if approached with care, compassion, and confidence.
© Copyright 2011 by Karen Kochenburg. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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