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Classroom Scenarios by Dr. Jamie Satcher and Dr. Mark Leggett, counselor educators at The University of Alabama, from their ALCA Journal Article, "What to Say When Your Student May be Gay? A Primer for School Counselors"
The following scenario takes place in a school counselorís office:
Male Student (age 17): I think that I might be gay.
Counselor: What makes you think that?
Male Student: Well, most of my friends have girlfriends and I donít.
Counselor: Well that doesnít mean you are gay. You might just not be ready to date.
Male Student: No, it is more than that. I donít really want to date girls. I am more interested in boys. I know it sounds weird. I am just really confused, scared, and not sure what to do.
Counselor: I understand that, but you need to know that if you choose this lifestyle there are going to be some difficult times ahead for you.
Male Student: What do you mean?
Counselor: Well, that lifestyle is really hard for most people to accept. Have you shared this with anyone else?
Male Student: No.
Counselor: I canít help you. You probably need to speak with your parents about this matter or your minister.
(Other possible response of counselor)
Counselor: Being gay is not acceptable behavior. You need to stop worrying about it and everything will work itself out.
Or Counselor: This is probably just a phase that you are going through. It will pass.
The above is a scenario in which a student discloses to the school counselor his struggle with sexuality only to be redirected to another individual or given a value- or moral-based response. This counselor ignored the frustration and fear the student was experiencing and, instead, placed more focus on how others would react. The counselor seemed unprepared or too uncomfortable to deal with the situation and quickly referred the student to his parents or minister.
The following scenario provides a different response from the counselor
in trying to meet the
needs of the struggling student:
Male Student (age 17): I think that I might be gay.
Counselor: How long have you been feeling this way?
Male Student: Iím not sure, maybe a couple of years, maybe longer.
Counselor: It sounds like you have been struggling with these feelings for quite some time. Is being gay something that would be difficult or hard for you to deal with?
Male Student: Gosh yes! It would be a nightmare! I am really confused and upset because I donít want to be gay.
Counselor: The idea of being gay is very frightening to you. What kinds of things about being gay frighten you?
Male Student: That my parents would kill me or kick me out of the house. My friends would probably stop talking to me, especially the ones at my church. They all talk so much about how wrong and sinful it is. Plus, I see how other kids who are gay get treated. I am really scared. Maybe I shouldnít have said anything to you.
Counselor: I can see how upset and scared you are, even about talking to me, and am glad that you came to see me. My office is a safe place for you to talk and the things you share with me will remain confidential.
Male Student: Thanks.
Counselor: I also want to say that I am proud of you for talking about this with me. I think you are very brave. Tell me more about why you think you may be gay.
Male Student: Many of my male friends have girlfriends and they are always talking about girls and sex. I feel like I canít relate to them when that topic comes up.
Counselor: You feel left out and different from your friends. Have you ever had a girlfriend?
Male Student: No, I am really not interested in girls. At least the way they talk about them.
Counselor: Are you more interested in boys?
Male Student: Well, I guess, sort of. I just canít imagine having a boyfriend though. It just seems wrong. What do you think?
Counselor: Well, some people believe that homosexuality is wrong and is a choice. Others believe that you are born that way and it is a part of who you are. What is important to me is what you believe.
Male Student: I donít know what to believe?
Counselor: I am available and more than happy to help you sort out what you believe. I can also provide you with some resources that might help.
Male student: Thanks.
In this scenario, the counselor listened and displayed empathy without giving a value-based response and without immediately referring the student. The counselor also praised the student for coming forth to talk about his struggle and assured the student that the counselorís office was a safe place.
When working with students who are gay, school counselors must understand that disclosing this personal struggle with another individual is a major step. These students have most likely been internalizing frustrations and doubts about their sexual identity for quite a period of time before reaching the point of acknowledging or disclosing it to someone. Depending on the age of the student, he or she may have been struggling with this issue for many years. The role of the counselor is to respond or facilitate the studentís growth in a number of ways, including (a) active listening, (b) displaying genuine support and caring, (c) allowing the student to tell his or her story, (d) asking appropriate probing questions, (e) helping the student process feelings about sexuality, (f) protecting the student, and (g) evaluating for clinical symptoms. Other roles include (a) exploring fears about coming out, (b) helping the student to discover and connect with positive resources, and (c) continuing to be supportive throughout the process of self exploration. At the very onset of the initial counseling session, the student needs to be affirmed, encouraged, and empowered for coming forth to address and share his or her struggle with the counselor. Sexual identity is a difficult and sensitive issue, and dealing with being gay requires courage and strength. In many situations, students who are struggling with sexual identity are turned away by friends, ministers, parents, or other helping professionals. If they are not turned away, then they are instead given clichťd responses such as ďThis is simply a phase,Ē ďEveryone questions their sexuality at some time in their life,Ē or ďYou will be fine.Ē Some may even be told they are sinful or immoral.
When students find a counselor who doesnít react with shock or make any of the above judging statements, a huge weight is lifted from their shoulders. Providing a safe and nonjudgmental environment for students struggling with sexual identity is crucial to helping them process their feelings, as well as ensuring that they will return to see the counselor in the future. Basic counseling skills such as listening, genuineness, caring, and understanding are important in letting these students know that they are being heard and will be supported.
Allowing students to tell their story is the next step in counseling with them. Students should be encouraged to express their feelings and thoughts regarding their sexual identity, such as their attraction to members of the same sex and any experiences they have had which have led them to conclude that they are not heterosexual. Appropriate probing questions which can assist in gathering or processing this information include the following: What events have led you to believe that you may be gay? How long can you remember feeling this way? With whom have you shared these feelings? Have you told your parents and what was their response? What are some of your fears about being gay? Some students may need assistance in verbalizing their own ideas of sexual identity, relations with peers, and feelings about emotional and sexual attractions to others. These probing questions will assist the counselor to explore some of the fears or concerns these students may have.
Gay students also struggle with behaviors that could give them away or out them as being gay. This struggle is commonly based on fears of rejection by their peers and, in some cases, fears of torment or abuse from other students. Quite often, fears of coming out to others is a primary concern. The term coming out refers to informing friends, family, and others of their sexual identity. These students should not be pushed to come out to anyone until they have fully explored their own feelings and have reached a point where they are comfortable sharing with others where they are in their life in accepting their sexuality. Coming out too early can cause other unnecessary stressors in the studentís life.
In relation to fears of coming out, it is the counselorís responsibility to show zero tolerance for any verbal or physical abuse from other students in the school, regardless of the basis for their torment. This stance will show the student that the counselor will take all measures to protect and provide a safe environment for all students regardless of their sexual identity. Bullying, name calling, putdowns, or any other forms of verbal or physical abuse are not acceptable in any school.
A number of clinical symptoms are associated with adolescents who are struggling with their sexual identity. Evaluation of the student should consider symptoms of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations, and drug or alcohol use. If these symptoms are present, they need to be addressed immediately. In some cases, an appropriate referral may need to be made. It is the counselorís responsibility to become familiar with positive resources that are available to gay youth. Numerous on-line resources specialize in assisting students in their struggle with sexual identity (see Table 1). Some of the topics addressed include self-esteem, coming out to friends and to parents, and dealing with nontolerant behaviors and violence. Links and hotline numbers for support systems are available not only for the gay or lesbian student, but also for parents and friends who are having a difficult time accepting and dealing with this issue. Encourage the student to explore these options, identifying the ones that will serve as a best fit for the studentís perspective, background, and needs. Some students may be struggling with religious values and ideas. Many positive resources address sexual identity from a religious perspective. Encourage the student to seek out as many of these supportive resources as possible.
Finally, the counselor must protect the student from any form of discrimination in the school from other students, teachers, or administrators. Some states and school systems have specific laws and policies on handling discrimination based on sexual orientation. Furthermore, the American School Counselors Associationís position statement on sexual orientation is clear in its mandate to respect for and equal treatment of individuals regardless of sexual orientation. Ethical practice requires that this mandate be followed when serving students who are not heterosexual.
Association for Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Issues in Counseling of Alabama