Tag Archives: LGBTQ

Three Lessons From an Out Classroom Teacher

Justin Borroto in the classroom

photo courtesy of the author

When I became a teacher, it had been over five years since I first came out. In that time, I didn’t worry much about my sexuality. My friends and family overwhelmingly accepted me, my college campus made me feel safe, and the progressive nonprofit where I worked celebrated the ways that I was unique and different. But as I walked into a high school classroom as a teacher, all the scary feelings I once felt as a high school student came creeping back in. Would being gay hurt my relationships with students or their families? I resolved that I wouldn’t lead with the fact that I was gay, but I wouldn’t lie about it either.

It turns out that I didn’t need to worry. Throughout my teaching experience, I have had the opportunity to share my authentic self with students and facilitate conversations around sexuality and gender. I’ve shown my queer students how to love themselves and their peers how to be good allies. And on top of continuing to work as a classroom teacher, I’ve had the privilege of serving as my school’s LGBTQ Liaison, a position unique to DC Public School (DCPS).

Here are three lessons I’ve learned from my time in the classroom and as LGBTQ liaison:

High school is not how I remember it

As a closeted queer kid in high school almost 10 years ago, the idea of being out was scary. There were very few out students and absolutely no out teachers.

Things are getting better. While a 2015 survey conducted by GLSEN revealed that 60% of LGBTQ students reported frequently hearing words like “fag” or “dyke,” that number is down from 80% in 2001. So don’t get me wrong, discrimination hasn’t completely stopped, but I’m pleasantly surprised each time I watch a student be themselves boldly and unapologetically. LGBT students at my school are generally encouraged to be themselves, so much that our Prom King this year was openly gay.

Having an employer that protects your students’ and your own sexual orientation and gender identity is a blessing Continue reading

High School Sucks for Many Queer Youth — I Was Lucky

photograph of author Jeremy Knight in high school

photo courtesy of the author

The common narrative is that for many queer-identified people, high school is a time of awkwardness, isolation, or fear. As young queer people come into their own identities and expressions, they navigate building supporting friendships while being true to themselves, and may even experience taunting or violence.

But during those years which most of my queer friends bemoan, I actually flourished.

Sure, coming out is difficult, and it’s particularly difficult as a black man. There were very few public examples of queer identity, same-sex love, and men bucking traditional forms of masculinity, especially ones that included men of Caribbean descent like myself.

But as I came out during my sophomore year in high school, I actually found solace in school. Antithetical to the schoolyard bullying that many face, all of my teachers, administrators, and peers loved me for who I was. Business went on as usual — I still got parts in our theater productions, kept all my friends, managed to date, and was even elected student body president. All without issue. And, importantly, all while getting a rigorous education.

I owe a lot of that to my environment — I spent my middle and high school years in a pretty racially mixed, middle-class suburb outside of Atlanta after spending my early years in a black, working class community in the city. My mother moved us to the suburbs because the schools I was zoned for were notoriously dangerous and had poor academics. Even in elementary school, I had instances with teachers questioning my academic ability.

Had I stayed in the schools I was zoned for in Atlanta, my story would likely be very different. It’s hard for me to imagine getting the same emotional and academic support.

I owe a lot to my high school teachers and administrators. They created a school environment that felt safe, inclusive, joyful, and deeply rooted in strong academics. It was this environment that encouraged me to think about pursuing a career in education. When I got to college, I began taking a few education courses and joined Students for Education Reform, a student organizing group advocating for better K-12 schools, and realized policy and advocacy could be an avenue to make large-scale changes that affect more than one school building. After graduating, I led and supported successful campaigns to raise teacher pay in North Carolina, elect a school board member in Los Angeles, and get better supports for English language learners in Massachusetts.

This passion started because I wanted to help design a school that was as supportive and enriching as my school in the suburbs — but for kids in neighborhoods like mine in Atlanta. I want a world where black kids can be challenged, supported, and realize their limitless potential in a loving school community — no matter what identities, interests, or experiences they bring into the classroom. I’m encouraged by the progress major urban districts have made this past decade, and look forward to the next generation of young, queer school advocates who will continue to lead with equity and intersectionality in mind.

On Being in the Closet at St. Ignatius

Originally posted on Where the Boom Bands Play.

St. Ignatius CollegeI distinctly remember one gay teacher while I was a student at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School in Chicago. Or, at least we all thought he was gay. He taught Spanish and was unapologetically flamboyant. I never had the pleasure of having him as a teacher, nor did I ever have a teacher who was openly gay until graduate school — I cried when she said it in passing on the first day of class. I don’t know if the Spanish teacher ever came out to students or ever said that he was gay. Frankly, it was none of our business. Even without the “official” confirmation, the students loved him. It was said that he was one of the best Spanish teachers in the department. In particular, the students loved that he was gay. However, students weren’t seemingly obsessed with the fact that he was gay because it was some kind of celebration of identity. They loved that he was gay because of the novelty of it.

I have vivid memories of male students making a sort-of-game out of approaching this teacher. He gave any student a hug when the student asked, and I remember watching male students dare each other to go up to him to get a hug. The male students would always approach timidly and reluctantly while a pack of friends stood back and giggled behind their hands. I wonder now as I wondered then if that teacher knew the spectacle those students were making out of his identity. I saw this exchange happen frequently during passing periods in the hallway. I have one particularly clear memory of a male student getting a hug and then promptly brushing off his clothes and skin as if he were wiping off the contact he had just had. He was a popular student, making his actions all the more “important” and the embrace all the more “egregious.” Everyone thought it was hilarious. The message that action sent has stuck with me over 10 years later. I can see that student’s face as he grimaced, wiping away this teacher’s homosexuality like it was contagious. I still know that student now. At one point that student was a teacher himself. I hope he gave hugs to kids that wanted them when he was a teacher. I hope no student ever wiped off his identity, his love.

I never got one of those hugs. I both thought it would be weird since I was never a student of this teacher (though he would hug anyone who asked, pupil of his or not). Moreover, I tried to avoid anything that might lead to the assumption that I myself was gay, since I was terrified of the truth that lie latent within me. I now wish I had gotten one. That hug could have been affirming for him and for me in a time when I felt like something was wrong with me; a time when I felt suppressed, confused, and invisible.

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The Day I Was Reminded LGBTQ Students Still Don’t Feel Safe in Schools

Recently, I co-facilitated a session with Lora Cover at a conference for school leaders of color, where we focused on creating more diverse, equitable, and inclusive education institutions. In the session, we conducted an activity (one which our Talent Advising team created in partnership with Erin Trent Johnson and Xiomara Padamsee) where we asked participants to name times in their lives when parts of their identities were either on the mainstream — seen as “normal” — or in the margins — seen as “other” — and to explore when and where certain identities potentially shifted between the two.

Then we listed some demographic identifiers that could describe a member of their school community — a teacher, parent, student, or even a school leader — and asked participants to physically place themselves on a spectrum from “IN” on one side of the room to “OUT” on the opposite side of the room depending on how that person might feel in the context of their school and work environment.

Most prompts yielded relatively balanced spreads across the “IN” or “OUT” spectrum, indicating a fairly evenly split between those that were struggling and succeeding in creating inclusive environments for different types of students, family members, and staff. However, when we came to “a student who identifies as LGBTQ,” every individual in the room with the exception of two non-school based leaders went to the “OUT” side of the room. The striking implication: not one school leader in that room felt as though their school was inclusive for LGBTQ youth.

I was heartbroken. As both a person who identifies as LGBTQ and a former teacher, to see a room full of school leaders all express that their school environments were non-inclusive for students who identify as LGBTQ was horrifying. However, it painted what I believe to be an accurate picture of the majority of schools in America. Despite the fact that gay marriage is legal across the country and that there is increased visibility and representation for LGBTQ people in the public sphere, individuals who identify as LGBTQ — particularly our children — do not feel protected, safe, or like they belong. They are not able to live as their full selves.

I have distinct memories of not feeling safe in high school as a closeted teenager. I never felt I could act as my “full” self. I pretended to like all the things the other boys liked, including girls. For a while, I was incredibly unhappy. When I finally came out in my early twenties, I felt as though a burden had been lifted. Even still, as a teacher, I never came out to my students for fear of causing some kids discomfort, backlash from parents, and even potentially losing my job. This is the greatest regret of my professional career thus far. I frequently think to myself: “When is the next time my black and brown students are going to have a gay man of color in front of them to show them that that we do exist, that we do have value, and that we can be proud of who we are?”

Unfortunately, recent data underscore that things have not gotten better in our schools for young people who identify as LGBTQ.

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A Day in the Life: Bellwether Analyst Andrew Rayner

Andrew Rayner

Bellwether Talent Services analyst Andrew Rayner

Bellwether analyst and Chicago native Andrew Rayner always wanted to be a teacher. From a very young age, he says, he loved school, learning, and teaching people things. Teaching in the Marshall Islands and Bosnia after college reinforced his love for the world of education, so when he came back to the U.S., he worked as a behavioral specialist for kids with mental health and behavioral challenges. The following year, he was one of the founding teachers at a charter school in Boston, where he taught math and special education. “To see changes in my students, even over the course of a year, was so amazing,” Andrew explains about his love of teaching.

After five years in the classroom, Andrew joined Bellwether’s Talent Services team in August 2016. Below, we talk to him about his path from a classroom educator to an education graduate student to a member of our own nonprofit firm.

Why did you transition out of the classroom and into other branches of the education field?

My behavioral work with kids made me see the importance of organizational culture as a whole in terms of lifting up kids. The culture and environment you create for students, both in the classroom and in the school building, matter. I also saw how things outside the school building were affecting and enticing kids. When I was a charter school teacher, I taught the same group of kids for two years. Getting to know them reiterated the need to influence the culture inside the classroom, inside the school as a whole, and in the community outside of the school.

I love teaching. It is rewarding but also incredibly challenging. I wanted to find another way to impact the field. I’m a big believer that if you want to become an expert in a field, you should see it from as many angles as you possibly can. So, while five years is not an extensive period of time teaching in comparison to many people, I felt ready to see the field from a different perspective.

I went on to get my master’s degree with an interest in how to create safe and brave spaces in organizations to discuss issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I went to graduate school thinking I was going to do that work with kids, but I realized that adults actually need a lot of support to deeply and authentically engage in discussions about how to accelerate progress toward building and running DEI organizations.

Can you speak to your identities and how they inform your passion for DEI work? Continue reading