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Embracing Our LGBTQ+ Students, Teachers, and Community

Join us as we work for the day when every LGBTQ student has the opportunity for an excellent education and a safe, affirming classroom.

Teach For America – Alabama corps members share takes on Brave Education at our Inaugural Brave Education Summit at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, AR (2014)

By Kathryn (Kat) Ling

October 11, 2018

I grew up as a queer Asian American student in a predominantly white town. Having teachers who shared my identity, whether my race or sexual orientation or both, felt like an impossibility. It wasn’t until college that I met my first “out” queer teacher: a professor who talked openly about her life with her wife and kids. I was mesmerized. It quickly became one of my favorite classes, and she later became my thesis advisor.

I joined Teach For America and moved from the northeast to rural Mississippi in the course of a three-day road trip. I came to the Delta with my queer identity like a locket held close to my chest and under my shirt—after being out with friends since high school and some family since college, I didn’t know if this was something I could bring into the classroom, to my roommates, to the organization.

I didn’t see my queer identity as an asset to my role as an educator, but rather a looming question mark. What did it mean to bring my full self into the classroom? How do I do that with twenty-five 9-year olds? I didn’t even know the laws or policies of Mississippi, that I lacked employment protections, housing protections, or hate-crime legislation. I didn’t know how my deeply religious context would intersect with my identity as LGBTQ. Who will accept me? Will this serve as a barrier to building relationships?

I navigated through my corps experience with trepidation, building up my confidence as a teacher and building relationships with people in my community, my corps, and Teach For America. I found strength in my teaching team and my roommates; they were people who cared deeply about all of our kids and who believed in the liberation of all people. I learned from friends whose faith drove them to accept, love, and encourage LGBTQ students and adults alike, and through these relationships, I became comfortable being “out” to myself, to my friends, and to increasingly more and more allies.

The First LGBTQ Education Summit

In the five years since I joined staff, I’ve seen massive changes on an organizational and systemic level, thanks to the passion and persistence of predominantly queer staff, corps members and alumni.

In 2014, Tim’m West, who runs TFA’s LGBTQ+ Community Initiative, and I worked to organize the first Deep South LGBTQ Education Summit in Little Rock, Arkansas. What started as a two-hour event quickly escalated into a 10-region multi-day summit, as more and more people across the southern regions heard about it and said, “We need this too.”

It was one of the scrappier summits I’ve ever worked on, and a beautiful example of what our community can do with little resources, limited capacity, a short timeline, and a ton of passion. The summit created a space where LGBTQ alumni, corps members, and staff could feel a part of a community, where we could see, tangibly and in person, that we were not alone. It was a way for people to stand in their allyship no matter what their identity, and to see the vast diversity in race, class, ethnicity, and more within our LGBTQ and allied community. We had over 100 people attend from Arkansas, Mississippi, South Louisiana, Louisiana Delta, Rio Grande Valley, Dallas, and elsewhere. It was the first summit of its kind within Teach For America, and since then the summits have multiplied across our country with specific regional contexts.

“I draw inspiration from every coming out story I’ve heard from a child, a teacher, a community member.”

Kathryn Ling

Managing Director, Alumni & Lifelong Leadership Development, Teach For America Arkansas

Mississippi Delta Corps Member 2011

Seeing Progress

We have also seen progress across our entire organization. Today, more than 13 percent of our corps self-identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer. We collect and disaggregate data to better understand the experience of our LGBTQ corps members. We host calls for accepted applicants and incoming corps members to support their own development as queer educators. More and more regions proactively address policies and legal protections to provide our educators with a better understanding of their context. We have an LGBTQ Alliance, and an amazing staff member dedicated to the work of ensuring equity and visibility for LGBTQ communities across all of our networks.

We have annual summits where each year, I get to see new and familiar faces from all over the country. This year, there are four LGBTQ Education Summits: Dallas-Fort Worth, Jacksonville, Memphis, and Milwaukee. Tim’m works in collaboration with regions to host the summits, specifically empowering alumni in each of these areas to lead the charge. We’ve developed a national network of people who are dedicated to ensuring that educational equity includes LGBTQ students

The efforts of our alumni don’t stop there. In 2014, I was a part of a group of alumni who founded the first GLSEN chapter in Arkansas. In our small, rural town in Arkansas, we heard students who were fed up with the bullying of LGBTQ students in their school. They wanted resources to help steward change in their school culture. GLSEN provided us with the opportunity to create a locally-based chapter that had access to national networks and resources. Two years later, the demand for support for LGBTQ students was so apparent that we became a statewide chapter: GLSEN-Arkansas. Our board and chapter serves over 700 educators a year across the state and Deep South in low-income areas, training teachers on creating safe classrooms, and empowering students to lead efforts in their own schools. We partner with Teach For America at summer training institute and in the Greater Delta region, as well as with teacher training programs in the state, the teacher’s union, local school districts, and universities.

And while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go before every one of our LGBTQ students has the opportunity for an excellent education and a safe, affirming classroom. We must shift the conversations that focus on the deficits and needs of our LGBTQ community to ones on their beauty and their assets. We are not beautiful because of our obstacles, but despite them. Yes, that makes our beauty and strength that much more admirable, but it also means that I don’t need to talk about my struggles in order to recognize my assets.

Being LGBTQ means envisioning a world that is not limited by the status quo or the way things are; it means holding optimism and a belief in humanity, a belief that as humans and as a society we can do better, we must. It means strength in conviction in your own beliefs, and a flexibility in navigating binaries and boundaries. For the TFA queer community, it means always holding kids at the center, in serving as role models whether you are out to yourself, your peers, your friends, your family, your classroom. For the TFA queer community in the south, it means serving where the need is exceptionally great. It means pursuing equity and achieving success despite laws grounded in hate and fear.  

Building Coalitions 

We are about building coalitions, not because we have to in order to survive, but because we know from the work within our community that coalition building is always necessary. There is too much diversity in any and every group for us to arrogantly and selfishly assume similarities in experience or thought. Right now, in our increasingly dichotomous political climate, we must learn to build coalitions more than ever.

And this is the place where my fire sometimes comes in tension with my desire for equity. From past experience, I know that simply calling someone out doesn’t change their mind. Shutting someone down, cutting someone out, doesn’t move them to empathy. It doesn’t move hearts and minds. It doesn’t create change for our kids. Creating the change we’ve seen in our organization, planning and executing these summits, has required thoughtful dialogue, patience, persistence, and a deep love and belief in people. It has taken time, attention, and energy.

As I write this, on National Coming Out Day and the anniversary of our first summit, I recommit myself to this ongoing work, grounding in the energy of every person who came to that first summit at Philander Smith in Little Rock, Arkansas. I stand with queer educators across the Deep South and our entire country. I celebrate in every coming out story that I’ve lived and every one that I will have in the future. I draw inspiration from every coming out story I’ve heard from a child, a teacher, a community member. I treasure the day I first came out to myself. I remind myself that children need queer educators everywhere, no matter what laws exist, and that I am a part of the work to ensure that more and more kids get queer educators in the front of their classrooms.

Kat Ling (she/her/hers/they/them/theirs) is a queer Asian American living and working in Little Rock, Arkansas. She serves as the Managing Director of Alumni Lifelong Leadership in Teach For America Greater Delta and as the Board Chair for GLSEN-Arkansas.