How do you summarize the United States education system in seven minutes? In one of my classes there are students from over 20 countries. We were given an assignment of creating a brief TED talk about one particular aspect of the education system from our country. Speaking for an entire country is impossible, but here is what I pulled together for the United States in the context of LGBTQ+ education in Mississippi and New York.
In a world of Twitter, Facebook, and email, it is pretty rare that you receive a physical letter. However, I’m sure we can agree that the experience of opening an envelope, unfolding the paper, and reading the message inside is all together pretty magical. Especially if it is anything like this letter I received from Bria.
Dear Ms. Moore,
In just 5 months, you went from being a random teacher to one of my favorite teachers at AFBHS.
I see you as a role model because you are visibly confident in your masculinity and femininity and really comfortable in expressing both.
I admire you for that.
I am already comfortable with who I am as an androgynous, pansromantic, demisexual woman—but seeing you day-to-day gives me that little extra bit of inspiration—sometimes when I need it
Now, I'm not going to lie, I had to look up some of those words. But wow, let me tell you... I do not know if there could be anything more beautiful than hearing Bria construct a mosaic of who she is using the vocabulary of her choosing.
Until December, I was teaching high school biology at a charter school in Brooklyn, New York. Of the 425 students, a vast majority are immigrants from the Caribbean with strong religious background, and over 80% of the students qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch. In a staff of 60, 15 members identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community. As you can imagine, this created an interesting paradox.
Four teachers, myself included, spearheaded the establishment of a Gay-Straight-Alliance (GSA) for students. We would meet weekly to discuss a range of topics. Attendance at meetings varied. In my first year teaching at Brooklyn high we struggled to get 3 students to show up. However, the popularity of the club grew, and in the club's third year 171 students signed up to participate in the Day of Silence to raise awareness of the silencing of LGBTQ+ individuals.
We had created our own little safe haven in the heart of New York City, empowering youth and staff to fight homophobia and transphobia. Bria is a student officer for the GSA.
Despite staff representation and structures in place to support LGBTQ+ students, fighting hegemonic heteronormativity is an uphill battle. There were still serious issues of bullying, the use of the word ‘gay’ as a pejorative, and microaggressions from students and staff.
Now, I want to rewind four years to when I was teaching in the rural Mississippi Delta. With no job protection for LGBTQ+ people I did not dare hang a rainbow flag, or disclose my identity as a lesbian to my students. I watched in peril as one of my gay students was kicked out of his home by his abusive father, and in a neighboring school district, students were suspended for wearing uniforms of the opposite gender.
As you can probably deduce, New York City and rural Mississippi are two drastically contrasting examples of the landscape for LGBTQ+ students. This paradigm in itself is a key feature of the US education system, due to diversity in types of schools, state contexts, and school affiliations, all schools are not created equal.
Despite difference contexts, heteronormativity was alive and well in both the South and the North.
GLSEN, a US based organization working to promote inclusivity for LGBTQ students in schools conducted a school climate survey, and found some unsettling nationwide statistics.
Despite a decrease in bullying over the past five years, 85% of LGBTQ+ students in a nationwide sample were verbally harassed at schools.
Additionally, most state laws do not include sexual orientation or gender identity as protected categories against bullying, and 8 states actually have restrictions on portraying gay identity in health class (GLSEN)
Bullying can be linked to the heightened rate of reported suicide attempts, lowered GPA, education aspiration and self esteem (GLSEN).
The picture may look grim, but as educators and activists, the question is: what do we do?
The presence of Gay Straight Alliances at schools correlate with fewer homophobic remarks, and students benefit from have LGBTQ teachers— showing that representation matters.
Not every school has staff members who are open about their sexuality, and in many cases it is up to students to organize a GSA.
73% of students (both straight and LGBTQ) reported feeling safer in schools with inclusive curriculum. For the past seven years, I have experimented with ways to expand the reproduction unit to include not only the biological information about sexual organs, but to also discuss gender identity, informed consent, and intersectionality. However, solely discussing sexual diversity in biology can be problematic.
Change must also occur on a larger scale.
Research completed by GALE has shown that the following factors contribute to safer spaces for LGBTQ staff and students alike:
Rules on how to behave at the beginning of school
Mutual social support among teaching staff and students
Open attitude towards each other on social themes
Explicit info about gender, diversity and discrimination
Procedure for handling complaints
Efforts to combat discrimination are welcome
Education reforms often place the onus onto schools and teachers, including the most recent call for teachers to be armed with guns to combat school shootings. However, teachers are not the only agents capable of producing change.
I believe that true change should not only be located within a school, but must permeate our entire society. I call on you to take action.
If you hear friends, family, random strangers on the street make remarks that perpetuate systems of oppression, question their assumptions. Ask them what they mean by their comments, and what impacts they might have.
Advocates of inclusive education should not only be members of the LGBTQ community, fighting racism can not be a mission only for people of color, and issues of sexism can not only be taken up solely by women. We all need allies.
Leaders of our future, like Bria, deserve a world where they can construct their own identities, using whatever terminology they would like, in an environment that fully embraces them for who they are.
Rocking my Wild Feminist shirt by WILD FANG
Everyone wrote down two strengths and one growth for the presentation. The biggest take away that I received, other than that I am a passionate speaker, is that using 'America' to describe the United States of America send an imperialist message that all of North America, South America, and Central America belong to the United States. Definitely something I had never thought of before, but language matters, so it is the good ole' US of A from now on!
Demisexual: sexually attracted to individuals after forming a deep emotional bond
Pansromantic: romantically attracted to individuals regardless of sex and gender
Heteronormativity: assumes that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation or only norm
Butler, J. (2004). Competing Universalities. In S. Salin & J. Butler (Eds.), The Judith Butler Reader (pp. 258-277). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Cianciotto, J. & Cahill, S. (2012). LGBT Youth in America’s Schools. University of Michigan Press.
Dankmeijer, P. (editor) (2011). "GALE Toolkit Working with Schools 1.0. Tools for school consultants, principals, teachers, students and parents to integrate adequate attention of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender topics in curriculum and school policies." Amsterdam: GALE The Global Alliance for LGBT Education. Downloaded from www.lgbt-education.info.
Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. (2015b). 2015 national school climate survey
executive summary: Key findings on the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender
youth in our nation’s schools. Retrieved from http://glsen.org/nscs.