by Joey Saunders
Same-sex couples’ right to marry was legalized across the United States on June 26th of this year; while this is an undeniable triumph, the fight for LGBTQIA (hereafter shortened to “LGBT” or LGBTQ”) equality has a long way to go in our nation’s most formative environment, its schools.
More than 64 percent of LGBT youth reported frequently hearing homophobic language in their schools, 74.1 percent of students were verbally harassed for identifying as LGBT, and 16.5 percent were physically assaulted by kicking, punching and/or being injured with a weapon, according to GLSEN’s (the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network) most recent (2013) national school climate survey. Most students – nearly 60 percent – don’t report being harassed or assaulted to school administrators or teachers, usually out of fear that reporting incidents would only exacerbate the situation or because they doubted reporting would be effective. The effects of a hostile school environment have detrimental academic and psychological results for many harassed LGBTQ students and teachers. As an eyewitness to the shortcomings and victories of our country’s education system when it comes to LGBT issues and gender expression, I can attest that the great work has only just begun.
When The Supreme Court’s historic ruling was announced, I’d completed 20 days of one of Teach For America’s summer institutes at Rice University in Houston, Texas. I attended a pilot program designed specifically as professional development for early childhood educators. For half of the day, I taught summer school in low-income areas, the other half was devoted to sessions about content, family engagement, equity and diversity, behavior, etc. These added up to nine credits that I can now transfer to my master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University. At night, when I wasn’t writing or internalizing myriad lesson plans, I sometimes led an affinity group for fellow LGBTQIA educators. I had two co-facilitators and was given the option to seek out resources but, for the most part, we were given carte blanche.
After wrestling with the idea for a couple years, one of the most magnetic reasons I applied to Teach for America was its recently implemented LGBTQ Initiative. Founded in 1990 by Princeton graduate Wendy Kopp, the prestigious and sometimes polarizing Teach for America has become one of the largest education non-profits in the country with an exhaustive interview process, highly-selective applicant acceptance rate, and an annual budget of more than $200 million; some of which is contributed by local Kansas
City backers like the Hall Family Foundation and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Its creed remains, “one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” While TFA has always focused on students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, the organization has explicitly expanded its vision to include all students, especially those who are systemically oppressed due to their race, class, gender and/or sexual orientation.
Earlier this year, before attending induction in Kansas City and at the institute in Houston, I had the opportunity to Skype in on a conference call with Tim’m West, the managing director of Teach For America’s LGBTQ Initiative. West is a sturdily-built black man whose face reminds me – less in aesthetic than in personality – of a theatrical pitbull. He can look worn and tough one moment and morph, with minimal movement, eyes glinting and mouth slightly agape, to looking jovial in the next. He described himself as, “black, queer, pro-feminist,” and “straightpassing.” His inclusion of “straightpassing” reminds me how unique being LGBTQ is as an oppressed group. Sure, people guess whether another person is gay based on their own ideas of what that looks or sounds like, just as it would be naïve to assume people are not constantly measuring each other’s perceived income ranking by their respective speech patterns and appearances. Consequently, while an LGBTQ person is born with hisor her orientation, it is a choice to be known as LGBTQ.
In school or the workplace, LGBTQ people choose whether they will keep their identity a secret, share it or find some kind of middle ground that feels comfortable for them. Another unique factor of this identity is that LGBTQ people who are comfortable with their identities don’t just come out once to friends and family, they constantly have to come out to co-workers, doctors, acquaintances, total strangers, etc. These mini-reveals can occur if someone mistakenly assumes a person’s partner is of the opposite gender, or if a person overhears something homophobic, when said offender didn’t realize he or she was in the company of a real, live gay. The scenarios are endless.
West experienced one such scenario. In Washington, D.C.,
West taught ninth-grade English “There are aspects of ourselves,” West explained, “that we are encouraged never to reveal.” When West recalled his days as a teacher, he remembered thinking that coming out or revealing that he is a self-described, “HIV survivor,” would be too distracting and somehow make him vulnerable. “But,” he added, “I felt weak, and vulnerable (…) at times for holding this black male heteronormative expectation while internalizing the fear and shame that comes when you’re conscientiously hiding aspects of yourself that others aren’t asked to.”
In addition to teaching, West coached his school’s basketball team. When two teammates fought, he overheard them insulting each other. West said the word, “(‘faggot’) was passed around as liberally as the ball itself.” He decided to come out. West explained to his students that homophobic
terms don’t just hurt him, but might hurt their peers who may be LGBTQ or may have same-sex guardians.
His students protested, “Nobody here is gay, so why does it matter?”
West called this his, “perfect invitation.” He was real with his students, told them he was personally hurt by the comments because he was gay.
West said his students’ mouths dropped. One of the instigators of the fight was nonplussed, “Coach is gay?!” A few students applauded. Word of West’s sexuality filled the school. The gossip died down the following day. West continued teaching and coaching without issue. “I’m a good,
queer, black male teacher who is not quite as good when I feel it must be kept a secret.”
West said a new student entered his class weeks after he came out. When West overheard the new kid say “faggot,” he didn’t need to sort it out. “One of the young men I’d reprimanded before beat me to the punch.”
“Yo, man,” West’s student turned to the new kid, “We don’t do that here.”
The new student apologized and, forgive my treacle, but a lot more was learned in West’s classroom than proper semicolon usage.
I cited West’s story during the LGBTQ affinity group sessions. All of us teachers were crammed into Rice University’s dormitories for Teach for America’s institute, an intensive bootcamp- style five weeks of training that involved much more work than it did sleep. Affinity groups were structured to keep people sane and offer them a place to reflect or complain or figure out where to go to get plastered. Or laid. Or both. But, more than anything, I wanted
it to be somewhere everyone felt safe to expresses his or her feelings, thoughts and concerns.
To begin, my co-facilitator and I shared a lot of depressing statistics that illuminated how important it is to support LGBTQ youth in their formative years. The gathered group was a healthy size, around 30 people. Teach For America values diverse role models and the added impact that they can have on students of color. This seemed pretty obvious to everyone, most of the group attendees were black, Hispanic or mixed-race. I shared that we could easily connect the dots to being LGBTQ and the impact we can have on a student who is LGBT and needs help understanding his or her struggles and confusion, or needs a positive role model, or just really needs somewhere to feel safe.
Men can marry men and women can marry women now, everywhere, and this is very good. But young trans women who may not understand what being trans is because so few teachers are willing to teach in a way that is crushingly gendered and heteronormative, are being ridiculed,
beaten and shunned from their homes and families. Although the area around Rice University in Houston seems relatively progressive and the Montrose area, less than two miles away, is more of a cornucopia of gay bars than it is a neighborhood, you can still feel the Texas Board of Education’s puritanical presence in the classrooms. In textbooks, slavery is skimmed over and the economic reasons for the Civil War are underlined. Students will rarely encounter a paragraph in a history book that isn’t centered on a white, Christian heterosexual. And, if a historical figure differs? He or she is downplayed or virtually erased. You pick up on certain attitudes – especially with the younger students – attitudes they’ve absorbed from their families. Attitudes their families have absorbed from years of being taught boys wear blue, girls wear pink and they grow up, get married in a church, and hope to have a son. And from years of saying the Pledge of Allegiance, not just to the U.S. flag, but to the state of Texas, every morning.
In such an environment, it’s not surprising that many of the green teachers who attended the LGBT affinity group were concerned about whether it’s safe to be openly gay as a teacher. In much of the country, in spite of marriage equality, a person can still be fired for being LGBT. The rejoicing for marriage equality is due. However, all the love in the world can’t change the fact that LGBTQ children are snapping their necks on self-tied nooses, taking fistfuls of pills, or holing their own heads with bullets. Just days after the Supreme Court ruling, and a year and a half after coming out, AJ Betts Jr., a 16-year old in Iowa, became the fifth Southeast Polk High School student to kill himself since 2008. AJ’s mother, Sheryl Moore, says he was bullied for being gay and mixed race.
I tell my affinity group these things not to depress them, but to help them grasp how important it can be to look up to someone who is like you, and to be taught about people who are like you. Very young children should be read books with black protagonists, LGBTQ protagonists and Pacific- Islander protagonists. There should be no shame in exposing children to LGBTQ people or explaining, in a developmentally appropriate way, what being gay, queer or trans means, because there should be no shame in being gay, queer or trans. In fact, there are a number of children’s picture books with LGBT themes, like “Tango Makes Three,” the true story of two gay male penguins that are given an egg to raise in the Central Park Zoo.
Of course, LGBT storybook characters have nowhere near the impact an LGBT educator or advocate can have on students’ lives. When I first entered my summer school classroom it was clear that students’ families had certain pre-conceived notions of what was male or female, and a handful of my male students viewed their maleness as something superior. Two male students, because each was smaller with long eyelashes and had their coarse, dark hair pulled tight into a bun and a ponytail respectively, were often confused for girls by other students, and occasionally adults, meeting them for the first time. This was, to them, a grave insult. However, their pint-sized umbrage was understandable. They’re just beginning to understand and own their gender when it’s being called into question.
More concerning are the learned attitudes some children have toward what is feminine or masculine. Essentially our modern concept of femininity and masculinity are invented. Little boys and girls all used to wear white dresses until they were 5 or 6 years old. This only changed in the early 1900s when American department stores started assigning colors to genders. At first, pink was for boys because of its vibrancy and
blue, for girls because of its tranquility. This continued until it switched in the 1940s. When a student tells me pink is for girls and blue is for boys, I challenge the student’s logic. At breakfast, a male student I’ll call Latarian sat with two female students as I observed their conversation. “Spider-Man is for boys,” he said, “only boys like Spider-Man.” I asked each of the girls at his table if they liked Spider- Man. Both said, “yes.” Latarian was flabbergasted. In line at the restroom, a 4- or 5-year-old boy I’ll call Jared overheard me as I consoled a crying girl behind him. I was empathizing with her and leading her to name her feelings and understand that it is natural to have feelings. “Do you have feelings,
Mr. Saunders?” the tearstained girl asked. “Yes,” I told her. Jared chimed in, “Boys don’t have feelings. Only girls have feelings.”
“Who told you that?” I asked him.
“I bet even your daddy has feelings, Jared. Can we remember and think of a time when your dad felt happy or maybe sad?”
Jared shook his head, “My daddy is only angry all the time.”
Through challenging Jared’s learned ideas about masculinity and femininity, my collaborator and I saw notable social emotional growth. By the end of our few brief weeks with him, Jared was in a dramatic play center with a castle theme. He played with two other friends: Carlos, who wore
the dragon mask, and a little girl, Rania, who dressed as
a queen. Jared was wearing the king’s costume but when I asked, “Are you the king, Jared?” He replied, “No, Mr. Saunders, I’m the queen, me and Rania. We both queens.” On our penultimate day of school, a little girl, Melody, shouted that “My Little Pony” was exclusively for girls. Jared calmly told her, “No, boys and girls can both like ‘My Little Pony.’”
While it would be naïve to suggest that the fight for LGBT equality is nearly over now that marriage equality is the law of the land, it would be similarly foolish to say we aren’t already making progress in schools. On the first day of summer school, I boarded a bus with my co-teachers. It took us from Rice via tall highway overpasses that snaked through Houston’s oddly sparse skyline. In the mornings we could never see out the windows, they were practically opaque with condensation because Houstonites tended to act like that were just given access to air condition. I quickly realized that, when it wasn’t raining, I would always be hot and sticky outside and would always need a sweater for the arctic deep freeze in the bus and the school. Our bus driver, an unbreakably cheerful 50-year-old woman with braces and knack for surprising her passengers with homemade banana pudding, played instrumental music over the bus’s speakers. Usually it was spa music but, occasionally, I’d make out the notes to a popular song or show tune.
The bus glided through the skyscrapers and into the sunrise making the bluegray condensation fall away like melting dew. The windows glowed as if we were passing through an ocean of orange fire as Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” tickled somberly on the overhead speakers. That first day was rough. On the trip from our school site back to Rice, the bus soared past Houstonian oddities like an enormous Charlie Chaplin statue surrounded at its feet by a score of unpainted statuary heads, and an abandoned, industrial-looking building with “REMOVE THE PAST” emblazoned atop it in graffiti. Closer to the university, an instrumental version of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” played as we passed a ramshackle florist. Opposite the florist and up the road, we stopped at a stop sign. A sticker with the image of a razor blade on it was affixed to the stop sign, beneath the image were the words, “Give up.” I’d like to live in a world where young LGBTQ men and women don’t give up when they are facing adversity or bullies because their teachers and administrators have their backs and have shown them LGBTQ heroes who persevered against insurmountable odds. Heroes like WWII-winner Alan Turing, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, and trans X-ray pioneer Alan L. Hart. I want to see a school system that supports teachers who come out and are candid with their students about their identities. We are in the midst of a historic civil rights movement, so let’s keep moving.