When David Hall was a junior at Council Rock High School, his human-sexuality teacher said something the student hadn’t heard before.
It’s OK to be gay.
That classroom discussion led him to a “political awareness” that inspired him to spread that message to other youth throughout his own career as a teacher, an effort that has garnered him numerous recognitions.
This month, the National Liberty Museum and State Farm included Hall among their “Teacher as Hero” honorees, a title extended to 15 educators in the Delaware Valley for their “excellence, commitment, leadership, conflict resolution and community service.”
Hall is a social-studies teacher at North Penn High School and the advisor to the school’s gay-straight alliance.
Hall, who identifies as a straight ally, was named the runner-up for the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network’s Educator of the Year award in 2010.
The Philadelphia native started teaching at North Penn in 1998 and took the helm of the school’s GSA since its inception nine years ago.
The group now has a member list of more than 80 students, although Hall noted there are about 20 students who are most active with the club.
The GSA holds an annual Day of Silence observance, LGBT History Month activities and, earlier this year in response to the rash of LGBT youth suicides, participated in a fall Spirit Day and hosted a forum on youth bullying.
Hall said the club provides students the opportunity to examine issues affecting the LGBT community in an environment that is safe and judgment-free.
“A good deal of the things we do in the GSA are cognitive, not necessarily social,” he said. “We talk about Christianity and homosexuality or Perry v. Schwarzenegger. It’s open for all types of people to participate in the discussions without having to tell us what’s going on with them or what they’re dealing with if they don’t want to.”
The administration is largely supportive of the LGBT community and the GSA, Hall said, which has allowed the school community to move beyond basic-rights issues and tackle more complex topics surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Some of the things aren’t as easy to deal with as, ‘This is our bullying rule, and we’ll enforce it and that’s it, problem solved.’ What we’re getting to now are issues that require more thought and that aren’t as universal,” he said. “Like what bathroom does the trans kid use, and what happens if someone has an unsupportive home? And these are things that a lot of other schools are dealing with now too.”
Hall said many of the teens in the club identify as allies and joined to show support for their LGBT friends.
The LGBT and questioning youth who are involved face varying challenges and triumphs both at school and in their home lives, which are best looked at by breaking down the L, G, B and T Hall said. While he noted that support for gay and lesbian youth is growing among the mainstream student population, trans teens often face a wholly different atmosphere.
“In a class where I hear a kid say that they think gay people should have the same rights and be able to get married, the same kid two days later in a different class may say, ‘If a guy’s pretending to be a chick, it’s OK to beat the shit out of him,’ We’re in a much different place on sexual orientation than we are on gender identity.”
Having an administration that recognizes and values the contributions of all members of the LGBT community is integral to fostering a sense of acceptance and security among the youth, Hall said.
He noted that when the club launched, it faced opposition from conservative school board members. But, after he worked to heighten understanding of the need for the group, the school has supported it.
“A lot of education has been necessary. Sometimes I’ve had to do a lot more prophesizing than other advisers might have to do in order to do some of the things we’ve done with the club, but that’s understandable because if these people have never been exposed to these issues before, it’s going to take them some time to process it,” he said. “But once they get it, they really get it. People all along the chain of command at North Penn understand LGBT issues and really have a cultural competency.”
Throughout his career, Hall, who also conducts LGBT sensitivity training programs and has authored a book on how to engage LGBT allies in the fight for workplace equality, has received nine teaching awards — four of which he received in the past year.
He was recently given an alumni award from his alma mater, Widener University, largely for his LGBT work, which he said was an important statement.
“What I’ve done of most distinction is related to LGBT issues, and for that to be recognized by a school that’s not necessarily considered progressive really says something to me about the importance that these topics are having, and that they’re resonating with a lot of different communities,” he said.
While he’s grateful for awards, Hall said he doesn’t consider himself a hero.
“I think it’s a bit of an overstatement to say the least,” he said. “I’m very proud of being a teacher. I don’t think I’m a hero, but rather a good, creative and caring teacher.”