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Optimizing Inclusivity for the LGBT Community in Schools


How can schools create the most inclusive environment for LGBT students?

Introduction

In this project, I examine the issue of LGBT inequality in my own school: the private institution of Hawken Upper School that dwells in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio in the United States. The problem at hand is that LGBT students at my school, such as myself, often feel ostracized, silenced, and underrepresented in the Hawken community. I aim to help this issue through discussion with faculty and students at my school about what is needed to make the LGBT student community feel like we are truly valued by the school and welcome in the larger Hawken community.

An art collage I made about what it feels like to be nonbinary. The torn images forming the shape of a body are meant to represent the fragmented nature of identity, how we are constantly forced into boxes, and the vulnerability of pushing those boundaries.

Because of my emphasis on inclusion in the absolutely crucial sphere of education, my project directly aims to advance Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries. Through promoting the inclusion of LGBT studies in curriculum, sustaining truly safe spaces for LGBT students, and combatting homophobic and transphobic microaggressions, I hope to establish equitable opportunities for LGBT students at my school, which could then set an example for other schools to follow.

Research

Over the past decade, there has been a large shift in American society’s view of LGBT people. We have grown from simply stating tolerance of LGBT folks to taking real action to protect their rights. Currently, there are several federal statutes such as the Equal Access act and Title IX that “protect equal opportunity and free expression rights” for all, and some states have even passed laws that directly forbid harassment on the basis of gender identity (Lambda Legal).

There are court cases such as Henkle vs. Gregory, where a gay student took legal action against his school for not stopping violent physical and verbal harassment against him and the school ended up paying an almost half a million dollar settlement, which show us how the marginalized identities of LGBT students are truly being backed by legislation (Lambda Legal). This is huge progress for the LGBT community, but this protection needs to start happening before the harassment can even begin, otherwise LGBT kids are going to continue to endure pain at the cost.

In what ways can we prevent these acts of violence? One way might be to start including LGBT studies in school curriculum, especially in sexual education/health courses. This can help normalize queer identities, making it less likely for LGBT students to be ostracized for being different. Oftentimes, this ostracization leads to LGBT students feeling “general[ly] invisib[le] in curriculum and campus activities” (Fox and Ore). But representation can make a huge difference, allowing students to feel like the school cares about their identities.

Another important facet of inclusivity is designating spaces for healthy discussion between members of specific communities, also known as affinity groups. These spaces allow for students to feel safe in expressing their identity, and confidentiality rules protect from any information about students being spread outside of the space. This means that students who do not want to come out to the whole school can still show up to affinity group meetings, so they too can have time and space to express themselves freely. These spaces let LGBT students finally feel visible, even if just for a limited period of time, which can be powerfully beneficial to the members. Affinity groups have even been instituted at highly-respected universities such as Princeton and Harvard!

Interviews

Here is an excerpt of an interview I conducted with a teacher at my school who identifies as a lesbian. She is the faculty adviser for the school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance club and the LGBT Affinity Group, both of which I am the student leader. Ms. Wilbrandt discusses the struggles of being “tokenized,” or being expected to speak on behalf of the entirety of one’s community. She also talks about how important implementing DEIJ (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice) work into daily school life can be towards creating a more welcoming environment. Finally, she talks about the need for allyship, the act of supporting and helping marginalized communities, in our school community.

Ms. Wilbrandt Interview Excerpt

I also conducted a number of interviews with students with the help of the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland, a safe space that offers a plentitude of resources for queer folks including classes, group activities, books, or even just someone to talk to. The center is open to anyone and everyone and is free of charge. There is a Queer Youth program in place that offers activities for LGBT people aged 11-20, and often there are kids hanging out in the center even when there aren’t scheduled activities going on, just to enjoy being in a safe and welcoming place.

Here is the story of how the Center has powerfully impacted Ace, a transgender man who volunteers at the Center.

This interview is with a sophomore at a public high school named Ian, who identifies as a transgender male. We discuss the complexities of feeling safe vs. feeling respected, and what a school’s role should look like in these regards. Ian explains how he feels like the school is pushing their opinions too much onto his identity, trying to make him conform to what they want of him. He also discusses how effective implementing LGBT information in health classes could be towards shifting student social culture.

Ian Interview Excerpt
Entrance to the center
( Source )

My next interview was with a friend from the center named Morgan who identifies as bisexual. I asked her about her experience at a public high school in a rural, conservative town. We discussed some of the dangerous inequalities she faced at her school, including having her and her friends’ identities invalidated by both students and teachers. We also discussed the importance of finding unity in the school environment, and how a Gender Sexuality Alliance club would have helped her find more comfort at school.

Morgan Interview Excerpt
Morgan (far left) and her friends at a Pride Parade

My Experience

My time in high school as a queer kid has been long and arduous. I have continually felt silenced and invisible within the student community. But the implementation of affinity groups has absolutely changed my life, for it has allowed me to finally have a place where I can be fully and truly me. I now have a place where I can express my feelings and have them be heard and understood by others, a place where real empathy can take place. This has done wonders to make me feel more comfortable at school. I may not feel welcome by the entire school, but I now have a close-knit community that I can identify with, which is so powerfully healing to me.

Me in freshman year with a friend who identifies as transgender

Through this project, I have been able to strengthen my connections to the LGBT community at my school. I have also begun healthy dialogue about the topic of inclusivity, as I dedicated an entire LGBT affinity group meeting to discussing the topic, making sure to actively listen to input from my community. My research and discussions have made me realize the complexity of this topic, and helped me build upon my understanding of intersectionality, also known as the overlapping nature of different social identifiers such as race, class, and gender. I have realized how important it is to widen the discussion of inclusitivity to include and respect the intersecting of such identifiers in order to make others feel like they are truly seen and heard. After this learning experience, I now know how to be a better leader and a better ally to the people in my community as well as others.

What You Can Do

Students and teachers: something here is not working. Kids are still feeling targeted, tokenized, and/or unsafe in schools, a place where they have to be for 8+ hours a day, 5 days of the week. We need to work to fix this. Here are some things you can do to help.

Ask a queer person how they are doing and truly listen to what they say. Ask what you can do to help them. Tell them you are here for them, let them know they are safe with you.

Avoid asking invasive questions. Examples of these questions would include: inquiring about the person’s genitals if they are transgender, questioning the validity of someone’s sexuality, asking transgender people what their “real name” is, etc. If you wouldn’t ask the same thing to a straight/cisgender person, you likely shouldn’t ask a queer person.

Speak up if you hear a homophobic/transphobic comment (ex: calling someone “gay” as an insult, “did you just assume my gender” jokes, etc.). This is especially important for teachers to do. Tell the person that it’s not okay to say something like that, and explain why. Try to create healthy dialogue on acceptance towards queer students.

Ask your school administration what they are doing to accommodate for LGBT students. Suggest ways they could be more inclusive, such as allowing for transgender students to use their preferred name instead of their birth name, stronger regulations around bullying on the basis of gender identity/sexual orientation, training for teachers on how to help LGBT students, or something more specific to your school.

Final Notes

If you are interested in further reading on this topic, Lambda Legal has an extremely informative digital pamphlet that goes into greater detail on ways to promote inclusivity in the school community, giving legal references to back up their claims as well. The pamphlet can be found here.

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Works Cited

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COMMENTS: 13
  1. April 27, 2019 by Luciano Ferrato

    Hey Leo,
    First off I want to say this is an amazing presentation you put together! I can’t say most amazing because that’s unfair to others and I’ve only seen 10. BUT yours is so personalized I can almost feel you coming through the screen to tell me about all this! Do you think there will ever be benign homophobic or transphobic, etc jokes? Or just do away with it all together consider it off limits?

  2. April 27, 2019 by Veronica Kruschel

    I really love your project, Leo!! Overall, its aesthetically pleasing with the pastel rainbow colors and mix of text, audio, and video, and the content is engaging and educational without being boring or seeming at all like a research paper. You include calls to action throughout and encourage people to reflect on how this topic is relevant to their lives/ schools. You did an absolutely wonderful job explaining the issues LGBTQ+ students face, and the personal connections you added to it made your project so much more engaging and interesting. I also love the way you used colors (I wanted to use rainbow colors for the text in my own presentation, but couldn’t find a way to do that and keep it legible–I wish I’d thought of doing what you did, it’s legible and pretty). The interviews you included were interesting; you did a good job selecting material that was relevant and engaging from your interviews. I think that your survey at the end is good, as the situations and responses are realistic and easy for people to apply to their own lives. Your list of things people can do to help is effective as it has small, actionable steps that are easy for people to start doing. In particular, I think that your advice on listening to and making a safe space for queer people is incredibly important, and something that anyone can do. This is a small thing, but I appreciate that you talked about affinity groups and their roles in schools. (Although I live in San Francisco, which is a very progressive and accepting of LGBTQ+ people, there are still struggles. Many people at my school make homophobic and/or transphobic comments or jokes and think that because we live in San Francisco they get a pass. My school has a fair amount of teachers and students that are out, but there’s not a strong community within the school, which I think can make it hard for people who aren’t out to explore their identity, accept themselves, and come out if they want to. I’m co-leading my school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance Affinity Group next year, and I’d like to build a stronger community so that we can support each other.) Thank you for making this presentation, I think it can do a lot of good in the world, and I’ll certainly be sharing it with my friends.

  3. April 28, 2019 by Alex.Lepa

    Hi Leo,
    As someone who also identifies as GNC it was very nice to see representation in the community. Your project was very insightful and I loved the quiz at the end. Good job.

  4. April 28, 2019 by Annika Klaus

    Hi leo,

    This was such a aesthetically pleasing presentation and your research and information provided on the topic was very informative and I could tell you but in all your effort to find the best research. You’re presentation felt very personal and that made it all more interesting because you put in love and effort into this presentation. Good job!!

  5. April 28, 2019 by Ina.Aram

    Leo, this presentation is awesome. The personal touches you put made it all the more better, as well as the rainbow colors you added. Your call to action was both informative and inspiring. So so great job.

  6. April 28, 2019 by Morgan.Reece

    Hi Leo, I love everything about your presentation. This visuals are so incredible and fitting and all the interviews make it so personal along with your own story. It’s clear that this topic is so important to you and I appreciate how much work that you’ve put into your project. I hope that you continue to advocate for inclusivity and LGBTQ+ rights; I think that you will be able to make a real impact in your school and beyond. Thank you for sharing!

  7. April 29, 2019 by Ashli.Jain

    Wonderful job Leo! I especially loved the collage 🙂

  8. May 01, 2019 by Omar

    Hey Leo, this was one of the best projects I have seen so far, first of the idea of giving each paragraph a different color was absolutely amazing. Although it was something very simple I think it brings out the text more and makes your post way more appealing to the eye causing people to stay and find out what you are talking about. Secondly, I like how you are trying to reach your demographic, to me your demographic is younger people and I feel like the way you set up your post in a way that doesn’t look like it came from CNN helps you reach that demographic. Finally a great job on this, it is absolutely amazing.

  9. May 01, 2019 by Shilpa H.

    Hey Leo!
    I absolutely loved your presentation! From the aesthetic of it to the way the issue directly connected to you made it engaging and heart-warming, in my opinion. You seem really passionate about the topic at hand which I adore – keep doing what you’re doing because you’re really contributing to making a change. It was clever to use rainbow colors for your paragraphs 🙂
    Although it was a deeply personal subject, you managed to connect it to evidence from law cases outside your community. It’s nice to see that with the right representation, we can truly cause change, even as high school students. It was inspiring and refreshing to learn about your approach in making a change at your schools; perhaps it could inspire others to do the same! Hopefully, in the future, we will have a more open-minded education system. Thank you for sharing your story!

  10. May 02, 2019 by Crystal.Wang

    I’m also nonbinary, so it’s great to see there’s more of us out here 🙂 All of your interviews were really interesting and managed to be both moving and informative. I definitely agree that having an affinity group and a community is very important for LGBT+ kids to feel safe on campus. Thank you for taking the time to do this project!

  11. May 02, 2019 by Juliette Gaudreault

    Hi Leo! I really liked the format of your presentation and thought that the ideas were very well presented. The information was extremely interesting and engaging for the audience. I liked how your target audience was the youth, specifically in schools! Overall, great job on this project.

  12. May 06, 2019 by Hana

    Hi Leo, this is a very important topic and it is really great that you were able to research this and bring awareness. Your inclusion of interviews and personal experience truly added to your informative presentation. So inspiring.

  13. May 18, 2019 by Ami.Adachi

    Hi Leo! I personally don’t know many people that identify as part of the LGBT community, so it was really interesting to see the perspectives of people who identified as many different types of gender through the various interviews you conducted. I especially liked how you provided many ways people and students could optimize inclusivity for the LGBT community. This was a very eye opening project, and I feel your story you shared through this project influenced and supported those who may feel uncomfortable or excluded in their current environments to step out and ask for help or make change.

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