Being a teen is tough! We've all been there, right?! But, imagine trying to navigate the high school social arena after the startling realization that you're gay. Now, think about the ramifications of telling your teachers to start calling you "David" when you've been known your whole life as "Diane." That's the reality for many LGBT students.
A few years ago, I co-facilitated a high school Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) in Upstate New York. Some of the students with whom I worked did not have support from their families, which made their coming out process even more challenging. During one of our weekly GSA meetings, a student shared an idea to create identity shirts or "identi-tees" for National Coming Out Day (October 11th). The other students in group absolutely loved the idea, so we decided to act on it. My co-facilitator, the school nurse, and I brought the idea before our principal. He was excited about it, agreed to help cover the cost of the shirts and supplies, and he wanted to make and wear one too!
The kids had an absolute blast making their shirts. T-shirts, puffy paint, and glitter were strewn gleefully across the conference room table. The finished shirts proudly read, "Lesbian," "Pansexual," "Bisexual," "Straight," "Trans," "Ally," "MTF," etc. I e-mailed the teachers to let them know about our plan for National Coming Out Day. Some teachers were outraged. They had a very difficult time understanding why our students wanted to "brand" themselves like that, or "wear a scarlet letter." However, that couldn't have been further from the truth. Our kids were trying to muster their own self-confidence. It took incredible courage to even consider revealing their true sexual and/or gender identities to their families, friends, teachers and peers. They were looking for acceptance and reassurance, so that they could move forward and feel part of their high school culture and community.
National Coming Out Day finally arrived, and we all came to school decked out in our identi-tees. A few other teachers made shirts and joined in the fun as well. It was an extremely positive experience. Some of the students mentioned that they felt a little nervous or anxious, but overall, they were very well received.
As a result of the Identi-tee Project, we had fewer and fewer students attending weekly GSA meetings ~ We never expected that! Because the kids felt truly seen and validated by their school, they were able to integrate so much easier. They made new friends, and established a greater sense of trust and respect for their teachers and principal.