How do you Handle it When Faced with Other People’s Ignorance?

embrace diversity

So I need to get something off of my chest because keeping it in is driving me crazy! Have you ever been put into a situation where you just didn’t know how to react or what to say because you were so taken aback by what another person was saying to you? Well, this just happened to me at the school where I work. I am a mental health therapist and I am placed in an elementary/middle school as the school therapist.
The main part of a therapist’s job is to provide a safe space for a person; a place where he/she can talk about anything without being judged or criticized; a place where he/she knows that they can talk and be listened to. I attended a professional conference this summer and one of the sessions addressed the specific issues of the LGBTQ community and how therapists can support people who belong to this community. It was one of the best sessions I have ever attended and really opened my eyes, especially to the issues that middle and high school students may face.
There isn’t really any student at my school that is openly homosexual, but there has been a lot of talk this year about some of the middle school students being bisexual. Over the years, I have heard many students make derogatory comments about gay or lesbian people so I was worried that these bisexual students may think they had no one to talk to about their issues. I have a family member who is gay and I have many friends who are lesbians and gay rights is something that is very important to me so I wanted to do something to show these students that I could be that safe, nonjudgmental person that they could talk to.

There is a campaign called The Safe Space Campaign (https://safespace.glsen.org/campaign.cfm) which was created to help give students a positive learning environment. So I downloaded the Safe Space logo and put it on the door of my office, which is located right smack in the center of the middle school hallway. I also put a small picture on the wall outside of my office that said “Embrace Diversity” and had stick figures each with a different color to signify a rainbow. I did this the week before the students returned to school because I was hoping that this small, silent gesture would speak volumes with students who were looking for this type of message.
safe space

I’ve already had one female student disclose in a group that she is bisexual. I don’t know if she felt comfortable enough to do this because of the pictures I had posted on and near my office door or if she would have disclosed this anyway, but either way I was happy she felt safe enough to trust me. I’ve had some of the middle school teachers also tell me to “be on the lookout” because there are other students that they have heard rumors about and may need to come speak to me. I reminded the teachers that my office is a safe space. I was feeling good about all of this.
Then it happened. Ignorance and possibly personal opinion/discomfort was smashed in my face and it knocked me on my ass (figuratively, of course). I was on my way back into my office after dropping a kid back off to his classroom when my principal grabbed me and said he needed to speak to me. The assistant principal was standing with him, but didn’t say anything. I assumed they needed me to deal with a student who was having issues, but as soon as I looked at the principal’s face I was immediately transported back to my high school days when having to talk to the principal and my anxiety kicked in! What had I done wrong now?
He points to the “Embrace Diversity” picture and said, “Did you put this up?” Oh shit, here it comes! So I very tentatively replied, “Yes. Why?” He proceeds to look at me and shake his head and then asks me if I know what the rainbow symbol means. Was he seriously kidding me by asking that question? I’m an educated adult and a therapist; did he really think that I didn’t know what the rainbow symbolizes? I told him it represented the LGBTQ community. So he shook his head again and told me I had to take it down because he and the assistant principal weren’t “…comfortable having it up.” I’m sorry, what? Did I just hear that correctly?
I was so taken aback that I actually just stared at him in silence for like a good 30 seconds. I was so stunned that I didn’t know what to say or how to respond (and I am NEVER silent or nonresponsive). I finally tried to tell them about the conference I had attended and that we were encouraged, as school therapists, to put something up showing that we were the safe space. I also told them about problems that could arise for students who are trying to come out; like bullying, absenteeism, and even suicide among others. I stressed the suicide part trying to make a point and let him know that there are some bisexual students in our middle school. He then told me that he didn’t think that anyone’s first issue would end in suicide so “…we will deal with it if any issues arise and make sure that if it does that we let the student know they can come and talk to you.” The assistant principal then spoke up and said that I didn’t need the picture to be up because, “…word of mouth would be the best way to get the message out.” I tried to make my point again about kids needing a safe space and that we were encouraged to use signage to promote this, but they were not having it. The principal just kept saying he wasn’t comfortable with the sign being up. At that point, I was still so stunned at their ignorance and close mindedness that I just reached up and gently took the picture off the wall. I walked into my office, closed the door, and taped it up on the wall INSIDE my office! Thankfully, neither one of them seemed to notice the small Safe Space logo I had taped to my office door because they didn’t mention that.
For a solid 10-15 minutes, I just sat at my desk and did nothing. I couldn’t move. It’s hard to describe how I felt, but I guess the best way would be to say I felt defeated and disgusted. I felt a bit nauseous and was close to tears. How could anyone be so ignorant, so blind? There is no school rule or protocol that states that someone can’t put up a picture supporting LGBTQ students! They had completely overlooked the message of the picture which was “Embrace Diversity!” All they saw was the damn rainbow and acted on their own personal discomfort! Were they really putting their own personal discomfort ahead of the students they are supposed to support? I thought I was making headway at this school. I thought the admins had figured out that I am a good therapist and I do my job well. I thought they knew what my role was and supported me. I thought, I thought, I thought…
I called a colleague at the end of the day to process the whole thing because I need to vent and get someone else’s take on the whole thing. She was just as appalled as I was! I am going to bring up the issue at my staff meeting to get feedback from other clinicians in my program because I would love to know how they would have handled it and I would love to get their feedback. I guess the moral of the story is that people are not always what they seem or what we think they are. We need to be prepared for anything, especially in the work place. I believe we have to always stand our ground, but there is a time and place for everything. The principal is not my boss, but I am technically a guest in the school, so I can’t make too many waves. It is not in my nature to be silent on issues I believe so strongly in, but I also don’t want to get myself into any trouble and get removed from the school because that wouldn’t do anyone any good. I am posting this piece because I am hoping you all will take to the comments section and leave some feedback on how you would have felt in this situation or what you would have done because I am still reeling from this and I can use all the support I can get with this one!

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