GUEST POST: From time to time, the LGBT Institute will recommend and promote articles, guest posts, or books that we feel are important. This post was suggested by our Programming Board member, Tim’m T. West who is Senior Managing Director of Teach For America’s LGBTQ Community Initiative and supports TFA corps members like Adam Weaver in building more inclusive and supportive environments for LGBTQ students. Tim’m will be leading the initiative’s annual Deep South Summit this fall which aims to provide educators with professional and leadership development workshops in their efforts to support LGBTQ students.
By Adam Weaver, a Teach For America-South Carolina alum and a current high school teacher in Charleston, SC.
"I like to be by myself...people will always not want to work with me because of my sexuality, but I don't care what people think about me or say about me."
These words are chilling. Every time I look at this letter from my student, my heart hurts. The student dropped out of high school just a few weeks after writing these words. After failing English 1 five times and repeating the ninth grade for the fourth time, he had had enough.
I taught him three of the five times that he attempted the class. He had an identified reading disability, had never scored above an elementary level on any assessment, and is an openly gay black man from a low-income, single-parent household.
Students of color, those from low-income areas, and those who identify as LGBTQ face oppression based on their multiple identities. And both his academic challenges and work to embrace his identities fueled a lot of emotions. He was often angry. Every day, he refused to complete his work. Every assignment he was given sat on his desk, while he played on his phone. When prompted to work on the task at hand or put away his phone, he responded with quick, intense anger. At a point, it was a daily occurrence for him to scream and storm out of the room. He had become so unapproachable, so guarded. As his special education teacher, I tried every strategy I could think of to support him as a learner in my classroom. I offered tutoring and small group support. We utilized audiobooks. I recorded tests and quizzes on school iPads so he could have each question read to him. I emailed the administration, the interventionist, his case manager, asking for him to receive some sort of remediation rather than just being rescheduled in the same class after each failure.
Beyond supporting him as a learner, I also tried to support him as a fellow member of the LGBTQ community. I thought if I could connect with him on a personal level, I could do better by way of supporting him academically. I tried to talk with him, I wrote letters of encouragement, I publicly defended him against homophobic remarks, I invited him to our gay-straight alliance meetings. I told him it would get better. He stopped yelling and cursing, but things didn’t change. They didn’t get better.
I used to think that his dropout was my failure, a sentiment I think many educators might share, but it was never my job to save this student; it was my job to teach him and support him. More and more, I recognize his dropout and his struggle are representative of a larger, systemic injustice. The lack of representation and support for LGBTQ students of color in the school system and community at large is astounding. LGBTQ students are already at a disadvantage in the school system as evidenced by a dropout rate three times the national average. Add to the conversation the intersection of race, and the findings of a recent CDC study, which reports 1 in 2 black gay men will contract HIV in their lifetime, and it is clear to see the ways in which we are failing our LGBTQ students, particularly students of color who are LGBTQ.
The reality is this student’s anger and screaming are righteous and justified. He was yelling into a void. He was screaming for help and it never came in the way that he needed it. There are other young, black gay men in my classes. Some of them are navigating the system with the help of powerful mentors and allies. Others are struggling, just like this student struggled. I can’t imagine how forsaken they must feel as they try to navigate through a world that is working against them in so many ways. I can’t imagine how alone they must feel, when the representation of gay men of color is virtually nonexistent.
As a gay, middle class white man, my influence only goes so far. My message that “it gets better” feels hollow. I recognize my limitations, but I also recognize the power I have in leveraging my privilege for the benefit of my students. Beyond the systemic issues, as an ally and advocate I too recognize I have a responsibility to speak on behalf of my students and help amplify their voice. Through this experience with my student, I am even more motivated to ensure I am affirming and advocating on behalf of my kids—recognizing their strengths and ensuring they feel safe and are treated fairly at school. I am committed to being a mentor and a listening ear. Together, we must take a stand when our students cannot.
Below are a few helpful resources to leverage as we work to support LGBTQ students and cultivate safe and affirming spaces for all students:
Guide to working with LGBTQ students of color
Guide to creating an LGBTQ-inclusive school environment
Kit including educator resource guide
Students are multifaceted, and they all deserve an education that reflects their unique identities. Imagine how much deeper and wider the chasm of the opportunity gap becomes at the intersection of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The compounding obstacles feel insurmountable.
If we fail to recognize the lack of support and representation for LGBTQ youth of color, we consent to a system where many of these students will continue to fall behind. If we are serious about equity, social justice, and the realization of the #oneday vision, then we have to bring all of our LGBTQ students into the conversation; they, like all children, deserve the opportunity to feel safe, successful, and heard in our schools and communities.