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.