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For LGBTQ Students, Author Says, Safety Is 'Not Enough'

Gay-straight alliance school bus at Seattle Pride, 2008.
Flickr user jglsongs
Flickr Creative Commons
Gay-straight alliance school bus at Seattle Pride, 2008.

Across the country there are stories like this: In a high-poverty area of Honolulu, a high school social worker helps her Asian-Pacific Islander students talk with their families about being LBGTQ.

At a time when LGBTQ concerns in schools are increasingly visible — and often debated — teachers and administrators are looking for new ways to support students.

In Puyallup, Washington, a third-grade teacher coaches her students on how to respond to language like "that's so gay" by starting discussions about respect for LGBTQ people in the classroom.

Would we accept safety as the one and only goal for any other population of students?

And in a Utah, a socially conservative state, students at a high school with supportive staff connect over social media with students in communities that are less accepting of LGBTQ lifestyles.

Michael Sadowski brings us these stories in his new book, Safe Is Not Enough: Better Schools for LGBTQ Students.

He's an expert in adolescent identity development, focusing on LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) students. For the book, Sadowski talked to educators around the U.S. to find out how they're integrating LGBTQ-inclusive policies into the curricula and cultures of their schools.

In doing so, Sadowski criticizes strategies that aim for safety as their end goal. Safety is an important goal, he writes-- "a critical baseline from which all subsequent work must follow."

But, he tells NPR, "would we accept safety as the one and only goal for any other population of students? Why do LGBTQ kids have to settle for safety as the only thing they can expect from the adults who run their schools?"

Here's our Q&A with Sadowski, edited for length.

Note: NPR normally uses the acronym LGBT to refer to "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender" persons. Sadowski adds a "Q" for "queer." We're doing that as well for this report.

You raise a critical question about "safe spaces" in schools such as those labeled by stickers and posters: "If a certain place in the school is designated as a safe space, what does that say about the rest of the building?"

Am I suggesting that schools take specific measures to recruit teachers who are openly LGBTQ? Absolutely.

We're in a different political reality than we were in the 1980s and '90s. I think there are many educators out there now who want to make their schools not just safe, but affirming and empowering for their LGBTQ students. They just don't know where to start. The amazing teachers, administrators, counselors, and kids I met while researching the book show how a lot of people are already doing this work and can help point the way for others.

Why do you say it's important for queer youth to have LGBTQ adults participating in their lives as role models — not just straight allies?

Across the board, kids have told me how having one teacher they can relate to, one teacher who listens, can make or break the way they feel about school and about themselves.

Certainly a straight ally teacher can play this kind of role in an LGBTQ student's life, and many do. Yet kids have also told me, over and over, how much it means to them if they have [...] an adult they can talk to who just "gets it."

Am I suggesting that schools take specific measures to recruit teachers who are openly LGBTQ? Absolutely. We know it's important to recruit teachers of color and to get more women to teach math and science so that students have a diversity of role models for their academic aspirations. The best school leaders think a lot about these things when they hire staff. They should also think about making sure LGBTQ students have positive role models at school.

Some chapters of your book deal with students whose experiences of queerness intersect with other key aspects of their lives. Why do you think it's important for these students to have spaces to form queer communities?

Unfortunately, access to LGBTQ-supportive programming in schools varies a lot by ZIP Code. Students attending school in high-poverty urban areas, many of whom are students of color, tend to have less access to all sorts of facilities and programs that can help them develop a positive sense of who they are. This goes for everything from sports to accelerated curriculum to the arts, and LGBTQ-positive groups and programs are no exception. That's why the examples in the book from Honolulu and Brooklyn are so inspiring. [...]

The school in Honolulu, for example, has found creative ways to involve community volunteers who help make the school not just a safe space but a learning space about LGBTQ topics and LGBTQ Hawaiian culture. And at the school in Brooklyn, kids read literature that includes LGBTQ characters of color, and older students help younger students navigate the challenges of being LGBTQ not only at school but on the street.

You also talk to educators in Nixa, Mo. and Park City, Utah-- tell me about how they've been "turning adversity into activism," in your words.

Park City's gay-straight alliance has a very active Facebook page and has live-tweeted from its meetings so that students in more isolated places—who might be struggling with conflicts associated with being LGBTQ and Mormon–can at least know they have allies, even if they don't have a GSA in their own school. The Park City students also got involved with two of Utah's most highly contentious LGBTQ-rights struggles in recent years, the fight for marriage equality and for inclusive antidiscrimination laws.

The work in Nixa, Missouri is among the most heroic I learned about in my research for the book. In the midst of administrative resistance and intense anti-LGBTQ attitudes among many students and community members, the brave teachers there are modeling for students how adversity can be turned into a catalyst for action. When the Zach Wahls book My Two Moms wasn't approved for classroom use, they brought Wahls to Nixa for a community discussion that drew around 300 people. They've taken students to the statehouse to advocate for anti-bullying legislation and for a meeting with a state representative who had criticized the gay-straight alliance in the past.

Kids should never have to deal with negative messages about who they are from their parents or their peers or their religious or political leaders. But the teachers at Nixa are showing their students that if this happens, there are ways to respond that can lead to real change.

I was surprised to learn that Los Angeles Unified School District has had comprehensive policies in place to accommodate transgender/ nonbinary students for about a decade. What can educators and administrators learn from LAUSD's example?

One of the best things about it, I think, is that it makes very clear what's expected of teachers under various scenarios. For example, a lot of teachers might worry that calling a transgender student by a name different from the one on their official school records could get that teacher into trouble, yet the policy makes clear this is precisely what's required.

As far as what LA's experience with the policy teaches us, I think Judy Chiasson, the district's Coordinator for Equity and Diversity Initiatives, said it best. In an interview for the book, she said: "To my knowledge, no one has ever fraudulently identified themselves as transgender so they could sneak into the bathrooms. Never, I've never had that. Not once." So LA's experience can teach the rest of the country that our policy decisions with regard to transgender rights should be based on reality, not myth and fear-mongering.

Finally, you cover curricula aimed toward teaching awareness of and respect for LGBTQ identities to middle- and elementary-schoolers. How do educators navigate those issues for younger students, and why do you think it's important for them to do so?

Welcoming Schools, a national organization I profile in the book, organizes this elementary-level work in three areas: family diversity, gender stereotypes, and the harmful effects of bullying. Kids where Welcoming Schools lessons are used learn that families can be headed by all sorts of parents: a mother and a father, a single parent, two moms, two dads, grandparents, adoptive parents, etc. They learn about the stereotypes that say boys need to act a certain way or girls need to look a certain way and how these can be harmful. They learn about how bullying can have a lasting effect on how people feel about themselves. There is nothing about sex or sexuality—it's all about issues that elementary-level students can and need to have discussions about.

In middle school, homophobic and sexist language are at their peak, as students use it to define themselves and set the boundaries of who's in and who's out. For those who are questioning their sexual or gender identity, this can be an especially painful time. They need adult guidance to help them navigate this landscape and to counter the negative language and messages they are hearing all around them.

It's impossible for me now to think about this kind of education without also thinking about the tragedy that took place in Orlando's Pulse nightclub a few weeks ago. I don't know much about what Omar Mateen's early schooling was like. News reports paint a portrait of a troubled child who was written up repeatedly for academic and social difficulties. Were he and his classmates ever taught anything to foster respect for diversity or their own self-acceptance? Were they ever taught to question gender stereotypes that equate masculinity with violence? Did they hear anything from adults at school to counter the bigotry toward LGBTQ people they'd inevitably be exposed to in society? Obviously, a lot of factors were involved in that horrific shooting, but I can't help wondering if lack of education was one of them.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kendra Yoshinaga