This post was originally published on The Bilerico Project.
Earlier this month in Denver, at Creating Change: the 27th National Conference on LGBT Equality, I was on a panel titled “The State of Education in LGBTQ America,” sponsored by Teach For America’s LGBTQ Initiative. At this year’s conference, queer and transgender people of color were front and center. As a teacher, it made me think about the how people in spaces like Creating Change can have a positive impact on queer and transgender students of color.
LGBTQ students of color enrich their school communities every day. Living at the intersection of multiple identities can provide opportunities to develop critical thinking skills, empathy, and leadership for the individual student, and it can also draw out those things in other students and adults. Supporting these students contributes to a positive learning experience for all.
Still, the contributions of LGBTQ students of color aren’t always respected and their potential isn’t always cultivated. Recent studies show LGBTQ youth of color are more likely to hear biased language and experience verbal and physical assault at school than their straight or white peers, not only because of their sexual orientation but because of the ways their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and gender expression interact with race and class.
And unfortunately, school personnel are not intervening consistently to support these students, and this climate is having a negative impact on students’ attendance and grades and is leading to an overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth of color in the juvenile justice system and among homeless youth.
To their credit, many LGBTQ youth of color are surviving and thriving despite this reality, but students shouldn’t have to endure so much to get a quality, affirming education.
As more and more states uphold marriage equality, there is an opportunity to acknowledge other issues that affect the LGBTQ communities. Ensuring educational equity for all students, including LGBTQ students of color, should be front and center.
LGBTQ students need teachers and administrators who want to and know how to support them. They need libraries with books that reflect their identities and experiences. Schools should be places where LGBTQ students hear gender-inclusive language, learn about LGBTQ historical figures — including people of color — and feel uplifted for being themselves instead of targeted by bullies and then suspended by school administrators for defending themselves.
As LGBTQ adults, we have a responsibility to mentor students and use the resources we have to make educational equity for LGBTQ students part of our national agenda. We should be supporting students like Hasan, a student I taught in my 6th grade all-boys reading class. When his peers denounced gay people in class, Hasan would bring up Michael Sam, the gay athlete who had then just been signed to the NFL, as an example of a black gay man who was breaking down barriers.
Empowering students like Hasan can change the game for LGBTQ students, and it’s our responsibility to support the future leaders of the LGBTQ movement. Having compassionate and effective teachers with an orientation towards social justice is one of the biggest levers to create more safe and brave spaces for LGBTQ children. Having just one identifiable LGBTQ role model can make a world of a difference, but over the long term we need an education system that holds LGBTQ youth to high expectations and gives them the support to meet and exceed them.
Over the past four months, Tim’m West, who leads Teach For America’s LGBTQ Initiative, has been gathering recommendations from educators, students, and activists from across the country to develop ways to better support teachers and students in creating safe and brave spaces for LGBTQ people in schools.
But this isn’t just a Teach For America issue. It’s an education issue. It’s an LGBTQ issue.
It’s about making schools and communities safe for LGBTQ folks to make brave — and often challenging — choices and supporting them all along the way. For me, that meant staying in the classroom even though it’s not always easy or comfortable. For someone else, this might mean finding opportunities to mentor LGBTQ students.
It could look like volunteering at a local school because visibility matters. It could look like volunteering with the Trevor Project. Or it might look like becoming a teacher by applying to Teach For America or a traditional education program.
No matter how you choose to get involved, it means putting a brave education in the reach of more children.