Post submitted by HRC Youth Ambassador Nhandi Craig
Hey, y’all! I’m Nhandi Craig (she/her/hers), an 18-year-old DJ, recent high school grad and an HRC Youth Ambassador. I had the chance to talk with Laura Ross (she/her/hers), a fantastic middle school counselor who was named 2020 School Counselor of the Year by the American School Counselor Association, about the importance of LGBTQ-affirming counselors and her amazing advocacy to ensure LGBTQ students feel safe and included at her school.
This challenging experience made me realize just how important it is that school counselors are trained in supporting and affirming LGBTQ students. I’ve also had some great experiences with school counselors and therapists. In fact, I love going to regular counseling sessions and think it’s a great way to maintain mental well-being and process certain challenges. I was also lucky to have a high school counselor who was a member of the LGBTQ community, so she was able to understand my obstacles and provide me with useful and culturally responsive resources. One time, I was having a rough day and she bought me lunch and talked to me for almost an hour. It impacted me in profound ways to have a trusted adult in my life who really seemed to understand and care about my well-being.
When students go to their school counselor about issues, they don’t just need empathy — they’re also letting the counselor know about issues happening within the school that they have the power to address, ameliorate and prevent, especially when it comes to identity-based harassment and bullying that so many LGBTQ young people face.
NC: One of my former school counselors didn’t make it clear whether they were accepting of LGBTQ students, so I sadly didn’t seek out support when I needed it. How do the LGBTQ students at your school recognize you as LGBTQ affirming?
LR: As a straight, cisgender woman, I ensure that my students know that I am LGBTQ affirming by having safe space stickers and affirming artwork inside and outside my office. Now that school has started back and most of our students are learning virtually, I have made sure my safe space sticker is visible on my Zoom videos and that the school counseling online platform has a safe space sticker posted on our homepage as well.
In addition, I always interrupt when I observe homophobic, transphobic or anti-LGBTQ language or behavior. I make sure students see how I interrupt so they know I am an ally and LGBTQ affirming and so I can model for other students how to do so.
NC: How have you successfully advocated for the safety and inclusion of LGBTQ students at your school, and can you share examples of how your efforts have positively impacted school climate?
LR: Our students are aware that we still have many people in our community who are not LGBTQ affirming, so they often do not know who or what people or spaces are safe and inclusive in our school. I buy and offer safe space stickers for any educators in our building so students are aware. Feeling included and safe helps our students stay engaged and participate. The creation of our Gender and Sexuality Alliance last year (the first middle school GSA in our district) sent a message to our school community that ALL students are a valuable part of our school family. The GSA allows students who join to have a space to be vulnerable and authentic with supportive peers. We’ve seen GSA members grow in leadership skills, create positive peer relationships and become more motivated and engaged in academic work. For those students who wanted to join but faced a barrier, at least they saw there are folks (adults and peers) at our school who are also LGBTQ identifying or LGBTQ allies.
Making it known that I am LGBTQ affirming allows students to open up and share with me their needs so I can advocate effectively for them, whether it be to address mistreatment, asking teachers to use their preferred name and pronouns or seeking private areas to dress for PE class.
NC: Have you encountered complaints from colleagues, parents/guardians or community members around your advocacy for LGBTQ inclusion? How did you overcome these challenges and do you have any advice for other school counselors on this topic?
LR: I have encountered concerns, complaints and behaviors that are not supportive of our LGBTQ inclusion efforts. I remind myself and others that many of these things are a first to have in our school, such as multiple classrooms with safe space stickers and a GSA. We have had to make compromises in some areas but I remain relentless and persistent in ensuring that LGBTQ inclusion and support is still very much visible and apparent. Having a supportive administration is helpful as we take smaller, yet important steps forward in our advocacy for LGBTQ inclusion. For other school counselors, I think it is important to be grounded in our American School Counselor Association Ethical Standards and follow the guidance from ASCA’s position statements on School Counselors and LGBTQ Youth, Transgender/Gender-nonconforming Youth, & Gender Equity.
It is important for school counselors to continue to learn about the importance and practices of advocacy for LGBTQ inclusion. There are are a variety of educational opportunities from HRC, Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Learning Network, GSANetwork, PFLAG, The Trevor Project, Hope in A Box and so many more.
NC: Sometimes school is a safe haven for LGBTQ students. I have a few close friends who were open about their LGBTQ identity at school but didn’t want their parents/guardians to find out because they feared being rejected. Have you worked closely with a student who was open about their LGBTQ identity at school but not at home? If so, what advice do you have for school counselors who encounter similar situations?
LR: Absolutely, I have had students who were open about their LGBTQ identity at school but not at home and I can tell it’s a difficult and scary space for them to be in. Our ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors not only tell us the just and respectful manner to support LGBTQ students, but it also delineates the importance of maintaining confidentiality. ASCA position statements on LGBTQ youth and Transgender/Gender Non-conforming youth explicitly states the rights of LGBTQ students in deciding when and with whom to share private information.
My decision making and responsibility is always about what is right for students, and putting my students in a situation that could be harmful, dangerous or humiliating by outing them to a parent/guardian is not right.
I often have LGBTQ students who are exploring exactly what their identity is and they are not even at a point to put a name or label to that identity, so sharing that information with a parent/guardian can add more stress and pressure. In addition, if a student has trusted a school counselor as a safe person to confide in and then that school counselor outs them to anyone else, that school counselor is creating a traumatic experience for that student. Sadly, many LGBTQ youth are rejected by parents/guardians and sometimes even kicked out of the home with no place to go.
NC: What suggestions do you have for school counselors to advocate for safe and inclusive schools for LGBTQ students? Can you name at least three actions they should take starting today?
NC: Many LGBTQ students also have other marginalized identities, which create obstacles and challenges to thriving in and outside of school. How do you address intersectionality in your advocacy efforts around LGBTQ inclusion in your school?
LR: I always try to be mindful of and help students explore the multiple identities that create their unique and authentic selves. I facilitate students’ exploration of their multicultural self in classroom lessons for all students and with individual students.
We hold virtual student processing circles to help address equity and inclusion for all vulnerable student populations.
Our student leaders of GSA have also set goals to support and champion their peers of color. In leading staff development with our teachers this year, our primary focus is on anti-racism but these discussions and education cannot and will not be held without discussion of the intersectionality of students’ identities that compound the discrimination, hate and anti-bias treatment that our LGBTQ students face.
Click here for more information about HRC’s Youth Ambassador Initiative.
Click here for more information about Project THRIVE.
Click here for more information about HRC’s Welcoming Schools.
Click here for more resources from the Youth Well-Being Team.