I'll never forget Shawn. It was early on in my teaching career and he was one of those students with such natural leadership, such creative energy, I knew he was destined for great things.
One Monday, he came to school with a black eye, wincing in pain as he moved.
"What happened?" I asked.
His friend answered for him. "He got beaten up because he's gay."
Shawn smiled at me and shrugged. "I'm used to it."
It was a powerful lesson. He was so well-liked, so charismatic, I had no idea that someone would want to shatter him because of his sexuality. I thought the world had changed.
I grew up in a small town. I didn't know anyone who was openly gay. In high school, meeting a gay person would have been as unusual as encountering a unicorn in science class.
So when a good friend came out to me in university, I didn't know what to do. I felt like everything would be different, like our friendship would change. But, it didn't. Life went on. I watched her live her life and concluded that the world must be a more accepting place than I thought.
Over the years, I've had many LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender) friends, students, neighbours, colleagues, and employers. I've listened to them describe the moment they came out to their parents. Some were supported unconditionally while others felt their parents may have been less devastated had they died. Some have been in decades-long relationships, others hope to meet "the one," and still others choose to be alone. Like everyone else, my gay friends lead diverse lives.
But they have one thing in common: their bravery. It takes bravery to stand up and say who one is in a world that is not always accepting. It takes bravery to reveal to one's parents something that may push them away forever. It takes bravery to walk down the street knowing there's hatred in the world.
That's why I'm so grateful to Dan Savage for starting the "It Gets Better" campaign. In response to a rash of suicides by bullied gay youth across the United States, he asked LGBT adults to tell kids that things get better. Thousands of videos are posted on his website of people describing life in high school, coming out to parents and community, and how they carried on. Ultimately, they let youth know that despite the challenges, life is good.
Isn't that our job as adults? To inspire children and youth to grow up and lead a rewarding life? By letting our gay youth know that we support them, we send that message to all youth. We make the world a better place. We're being watched. The bullies watch us. They learn from us. So, do the bullied. We can pretend that our hands are tied by policy and politics, but kids see through that. They need us to be brave, too.
LGBT youth are three times more likely to experience bullying in school and one-third of all LGBT youth have attempted suicide. This is the reality. We're failing these kids. Time and time again.
So much is at stake. The young heroes in our midst, the ones who are fighting just to be themselves, need us. They need to feel supported and celebrated. If we really care about kids, there's one simple thing we can do. Our words and actions must reflect compassion, understanding, and joy. Because while things definitely get better, we still have long way to go.