This blog is part of a two-part series on coming out.
I am pleased to share with you a piece that my friend and colleague, Jeremy Shain (he/him), wrote on the question of what to do when a student comes out to you as LGBTQ+. Jeremy is a licensed professional counselor and certified school counselor living and working in the State of Georgia (USA). Currently a doctoral student at Oregon State University, Jeremy holds a specialist degree in counseling and a graduate certificate in LGBT Health Policy and Practice. Jeremy regularly speaks to professionals and counselors-in-training on strategies for working with LGBTQ+ clients. He is particularly interested in the experience of LGBTQ+ adolescents living in rural areas, as well as in the intersection of social class with sexual orientation and gender identity. As a school counselor, he actively advocates for the right of all students to pursue their education in a safe, supportive environment. Jeremy lives with his husband and their sons in Georgia.
Q: What are my obligations if a student comes out to me?
JEREMY: If you work in schools and prioritize safety, equality, and supportive relationships, you very well may be someone that students feel safe coming out to. You may feel uncertain, or even a bit fearful when this moment comes. But, this is a time to use those interpersonal skills and remind yourself that the moment is not about you, but about the student sitting in front of you. It is important to have a plan of how to respond so that you’re not caught trying to sort it out in the moment. If you haven’t yet done so, familiarize yourself with the code of ethics for your particular position (i.e. counselor, educator, etc.). As a school counselor, I am bound by the American School Counselor Association code of ethics and, in this case, there is no mandate on informing parents of students’ disclosures about gender identity or sexual orientation. There may be different laws or policies depending on the country or school where work, so consider checking this now so that you are not caught scrambling later. Be familiar with the concept of confidentiality, and the limits that do exist. Be cognizant that, in some cases, disclosing to a parent may put a student at an increased risk of harm.
Q: What should I do or say when a student comes out to me?
JEREMY: Having been in this situation multiple times, I have found several concrete steps that can be helpful. First, thank the student for sharing such an important piece of who they are with you and acknowledge their bravery. Coming out is not easy. When a student comes out to you, they are saying that they trust you. Acknowledge this. Second, use the terminology that they use. Students may use terms to identify themselves that you are not fully comfortable with – “queer” and “poly” are prime examples. Words have power. If a student uses words that you don’t understand, ask them to explain the meaning. Finally, recognize that you are that student’s ally. Let them know that you are available to help – and then help. This may mean uncomfortable conversations with fellow staff members about the language that they use in their classrooms. It may also mean connecting the student to a GSA (gay straight alliance / genders and sexualities alliance) or resource group outside the school. Most importantly, ensure that your student knows that you support them, you value them, and that they are not alone.
If you have questions or comments for Jeremy, please feel free to reply to this post, or you can email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org