There is a reason I am an out teacher, and it is simple and clear. Being out gives young LGBTQ people a vision of a possible future. The suicide statistics for this group of teenagers should send shivers down your spine. This is why I travel the country teaching teachers that they have to make their classrooms a safe place for LGBTQ students. This is the brutal fact: only 12% of our LGBTQ students in a high school (without a Gay Straight Alliance GSA club) say they have heard a staff member say something positive about gay people.
To look at it another way, that means we are graduating our LGBTQ students without supporting them and making sure they understand their value. I made that mistake once. When I was a sophomore in high school my best friend told me he was done dating girls. I thought that was great because I was right there with him. I didn’t make much of a big deal about it. I just reassured him we were still best friends, and nothing was going to change that.
And he went home, didn’t answer his phone for a few days, and then, took his life.
I look back all these years later, and it just plain hurts. It’s like a wound that’s been bandaged all these years but has never stopped causing pain. Then, I hear about a Tyler Clementi or a Jadin Bell and the bandage is ripped off. It is horrible.
And you might think that there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it.
Yet, I was given an amazing opportunity. In 2014, I was named Oregon State Teacher of the Year. My then domestic partner (and now husband) discussed the honor and agreed that we would ride together in the Portland Gay Pride Parade. This is a big deal in our family because my husband happens to be incredibly shy. He agreed that the positive message we would send young LGBTQ people was something we could not pass up.
Fate decided to make a little bigger deal out of it. Marriage became legal in Oregon, and when Mike and I tied the knot, it meant the sitting Teacher of the Year (and his very shy husband) just got gay married in front of every news station in town. A few weeks later, instead of the Gay Pride Parade, we rode in the Portland Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade. Almost half a million people watched the parade wind itself through the city. The loudspeakers set up every few blocks announced over and over again the Teacher of the Year and “riding with him—his husband.” Our driver told us he’d been driving VIPs for over a decade, and he had never heard such a thunderous response from the crowd. We knew that with every block of that long parade, we had sent our message loud and clear.
I’m a teacher, and just by being myself, we know every person who watched that parade left with a role model. That act of being out made sure that every one in attendance now has a picture of what being gay means. I wish Tyler Clementi could have been at that parade. I know there are a lot of families who have lost a child that wishes that child could have been at a parade like that.
That is why I am out. Because every time a young gay person hears about a successful LGBTQ adult, it’s like giving them a pat on the back. It gives them a little support. It shows them a possible future.
I want all young LGBTQ youth to know they can be a proud person. I want them to know they can be celebrated. I want them to know they can be a teacher and even Teacher of the Year. I want them to know they can just be.
Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and one of only a handful of LGBTQ teachers who have been recognized with this prestigious award. In 2015, he was given the National Education Association LGBTQ Teacher Role Model Award and was named an NEA Foundation Global Fellow. That same year he was the first Oregon special education teacher to receive the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is a staunch advocate for LGBTQ youth and speaks around the country to support our vulnerable young people. He is the creator of Ability Guidebooks that support people with autism in the community and now has books in ten countries and in four languages. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook or at his blog.
Photo with President Barack Obama courtesy the White House Press Office; photo with Sen. Hillary Clinton courtesy the The Clinton Foundation; photo with Stephen Hawking courtesy Anthea Bain.
The views or experiences expressed are solely those of the contributor or interview subject and do not represent the views of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, its staff or board. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the material, please contact the Tyler Clementi Foundation, and we appreciate your support and commitment to end bullying starting on #Day1.