Teacher Shares Closely Guarded Dirty Secret

secretInstinctively, I knew it was bad. Yet, until September of 2012, I had no idea how bad. Ignorant. I was ignorant. Plain, simple, and completely inexcusable.

What didn’t I know? 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT.

Why was it shocking that I did NOT know this stat? This past academic year was my twentieth year teaching mathematics; more than half of my career has been spent teaching at the college level in Boston.  Shouldn’t this be something I knew??? Sadly, the depth of my ignorance gets worse. By September of 2012, I was already actively supporting a wonderful young person discarded by family due to sexual orientation. I knew and loved a LGBT homeless teen. I thought it was an anomaly. As I spent that September night combing the university’s research holdings on the plight of LGBT youth, I had two main thoughts.

  1. I teach statistics. Lots of statistics. I was willing to bet my students had no clue about the magnitude of the problem either.
  2. I need to have a frank discussion with the homeless teen I knew!

There were a few topics we had not yet broached.  Survival sex is no laughing matter. The suicide rates among homeless LGBT young people are startling.

But, this blog post is not about me. It is about the reactions I got to these sobering VERY real homeless kids. I teach introductory statistics to students who major in the social sciences. Think psychology, sociology, management, and economic majors. The American Statistical Association guidelines state that I should be using real, relevant and compelling data in my courses. So, I found a couple of research papers loaded with data regarding the status of LGBT homeless youth. One such study was published in 2011 from data collected in Boston, MA. Our home town.

The beginning of every semester starts with discussions of charts and tables. How to make them. How to read them. How to know you are being deceived by them. For years I had used stats on the gender and racial gap in student academic achievement, but this past semester, I used LGBT youth homelessness data charts as my examples. The student reaction was stunning.  As students worked in small groups comparing and contrasting various data displays, an interesting split became apparent.

The shock and awe was divided by sexual orientation.

The students who outwardly identified as straight were stunned with every new stat. It was as if I was sharing a closely guarded dirty secret. As students talked amongst themselves, I heard statements like “Did you know this?” “Why don’t we know this?” “Does Prof. X know this?” and most importantly “Who is doing anything about this?”

The few openly out LGBT students just quietly nodded. They knew.

At one such table a straight young man looked at an out young man and said quietly, “You know about this?” . . . and the answer was simple and eloquent . . . “Yup”.  The straight student just sat silently. He had no words.

Now, I teach stats, so students did need to be redirected to focus on the actual displays.  But, we used this data throughout the semester as we worked out way though statistics. These kinds of interactions happened regularly through the semester.

Data that is real, relevant, and compelling. Yes. Students certainly saw real and compelling data. My hope is that these students are inspired to DO SOMETHING. When they move to their respective research courses, perhaps some of them will stop looking at the statistics and start looking at these young people.

To paraphrase Maia Angelou, when we know better, we do better.


Corliss, H.L., Goodenow, C.S. , Nichols, L., & Austin, S. B. (2011). High Burden of Homelessness Among Sexual-Minority Adolescents: Findings From a Representative
Massachusetts High School Sample, American Journal of Public Health,101,(9), 1683–1689.

Note: This instructor teaches in a conservative environment and requested that their name not be made public. I have honored that request. ~B.

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