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How Educators Can Create Supportive Environments for LGBTQ+ Students

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    Libby Woodfin, Ashley Goggins, and Roel Mason Vivit

We sat down with staff EL Education staff members Libby Woodfin, EL Education Director of Publications, Ashley Goggins, EL Education PD Specialist, and Roel Mason Vivit, EL Education Regional Director for a Q&A about Pride in the time of coronavirus. 

If you woke up in a perfect world, what would that mean for the LGBTQ+ community? What would that look like?

Ashley: In a perfect world, the entire LGBTQ+ community would be a federally protected class, trans people would have the same health rights as everyone else and would have access to healthcare, and in all 50 states LGBTQ+ people would be able to adopt without incident. Finally, I’d want to see more diversity in the queer community when it comes to philanthropy. When you look around the table, the majority of leaders are white when that isn’t representative of our community at large. 

Libby: When I picture a perfect world I see a place where people recognize that homophobia hurts everyone, not just the LGBTQ+ community. When straight parents are unaccepting of or disown their LGBTQ+ kids, the kids aren’t the only ones who are hurt by that action--there is damage no matter what side of the equation you are on. If everyone could understand that, I think we’d be closer to recognizing the humanity of every person. 

Roel: If our world shifts towards inclusion in the way I hope, language would no longer be a barrier. I know so many people who would rather say nothing because they are afraid to say the wrong thing. My hope is that we get to a point where we are all speaking the same language so our students can feel seen and not silenced. Additionally, I want there to be space for the LGBTQ+ community in every part of our society and in all institutions. No matter how nice you are if you tell someone they aren’t welcome in your institution through policies and practices that are not inclusive, you are telling them that they don’t matter.  

We don’t have to think about Pride being over, instead, it’s taking on a different form. It’s getting back to its roots. 

Pride can’t take place in person this year. What does that mean to you? What does it mean for queer students?

Libby: We have to remember that Pride started as protests and what is happening right now—with protests occurring daily around the country and the world—is really important for LGBTQ+ kids. We don’t have to think about Pride being over, instead, it’s taking on a different form. It’s getting back to its roots. The Pride parade may not be happening, but the spirit of Pride and the history of Pride are alive and well. 

Ashley: I feel a sense of loss. Pride has never been a huge deal to me because I feel like I celebrate Pride every day. I have a chosen queer family that, pre-pandemic, I was surrounded by on a daily and weekly basis. Due to the pandemic, I haven’t been able to sit with my community in months which has been incredibly jarring. Not only do I miss my community I need them more than ever to help process what is happening in our current society.  

Roel: When I think about not having an in-person Pride event this year, I think about two young folks in my life who are new to the LGBTQ+ community and trying to figure out their identity. Having a public space where you feel seen and you are surrounded by people who make you feel like you belong is a real loss for them. So many students and young people aren’t out to their families and Pride is an opportunity to derive power from our community. 

For many, pride is a time to convene with chosen family, who love and embrace their identities. Instead, many LGBTQ+ students have no choice but to shelter in place in unsupportive or unsafe environments. Can educators help recreate virtual safe spaces for kids?

Roel: Relationships are so important. If a teacher has a deep relationship with their LGBTQ+ students, they likely have insight into whether the student is safe at home during this time of quarantine. Students may be dealing with messages at home that conflict with their identity. Having teachers create avenues where they can hear positive messages about themselves is more important than ever. 

Libby: If my students were out to me, I’d be reaching out and checking in on them to ensure they feel valued and seen. Times like this are when gay/straight alliances can be pivotal in supporting students from afar. The advisors to those groups can get students together virtually to ensure that safe space is not lost.  

Ashley: Students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like or don’t know. If you aren’t honest with your students or aren’t vulnerable or you’ve said something that could make them feel unsafe they won’t learn. Educators have to do the work and own it. Don’t ask students if you’ve ever done something to make them feel unsafe. Instead, examine your actions and tell your students directly how and why you want to make repairs. 

When I became a teacher it was so important to me to be out so my students wouldn’t feel what I felt. I wanted them to know that they could be part of the LGBTQ+ community and be successful, respected, and seen. 

Have you had a personal experience of feeling included or excluded because of your identity? How did that impact your learning?

Libby: Before college, I had never heard about a positive thing about LGBTQ+ people at school. There was no GSA. No one was out. The only things I heard was cruel jokes and negative messages.  Why would I want to think of myself that way? It’s hard for any kid in that kind of environment to get past all the negativity and be true to themselves. It wasn’t until college when I was surrounded by positive images of LGBTQ+ people, that I had the mental and emotional space in my head to figure it out. I wonder what my experience would have been if someone introduced me to LGBTQ+ role models sooner in life. 

Roel: I came out when I was 30. When I did come out, there was so much unlearning I had to do. I had become so used to hiding, not being seen, and not being my full self. Unfortunately, feeling excluded and feeling scared became the everyday norm for me in school from elementary to high school to college. I knew this was not what I would want for my nieces and nephews and for my students. It wasn’t until I was in a professional setting and saw a gay Black man in the same industry as me leading a training that I saw a powerful model of an individual bringing all the parts of their identity into the room, and that that was not only possible but essential.  His presence made me feel seen in a way I hadn’t ever before and encouraged me in my journey. Representation is so important.

Ashley: When I was a kid, we had one student who was trans and they were taunted and bullied endlessly. Another one of my friends who was out was jumped and no one did anything about it. All the signs were telling me to stay in the closet because it wasn’t safe to be out. My mom knew I was gay and tried to encourage me to come out, but I couldn’t do it because it didn’t’ feel safe to be gay in my school community. When I went to college I finally felt safer and freer to be myself. When I became a teacher it was so important to me to be out so my students wouldn’t feel what I felt. I wanted them to know that they could be part of the LGBTQ+ community and be successful, respected, and seen.