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One Day Magazine

Who Will Make Schools Safer for LGBTQ Kids?

A four-part look at how educators are making every space safe for students, with close-ups on Orlando, New York, and an evolution within Teach For America.

By Susan Brenna

October 11, 2016

It was around 7:30 on a Sunday morning in Orlando, Florida, and Lauren Chianese (L.A. ’02) was getting dressed to play soccer. The first text message arrived from a friend in Idaho. “Oh my God. I just heard. Are you OK?”

She had no idea what he was talking about, so she looked at the news, “It’s surreal,” recalls Chianese, who grew up in Central Florida. “You’ve seen it happen in so many other places, and now it’s your community, and these are your people.”

The night before, Latin Night at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, a gunman had gone to the club and shot to death 49 people. Most were Latino, and many were around the same ages as the teachers in Teach For America’s charter Orlando corps, who were spending their first full summer in the city.

Part 1: The Response in Orlando

During the previous school year, Chianese, the executive director of this new region, had spent her energy on what she calls “pouring the concrete:” supporting the region’s first 19 teachers and building relationships with partners in Orange County Public Schools.

Her apartment had also been the Teach For America office, so she’d come to know the charter corps members like family. “They felt comfortable calling the executive director at 9:30 at night to come make copies,” Chianese says. So when word of the shooting spread that morning, and corps members began texting each other to organize car pools to blood banks, Chianese was in the middle of the message storm. 

First-year science teacher Michelle Azmat was sick with horror at the news. “I grew up in a gay bar,” Azmat says. When her mother had become unable to care for her children, a gay uncle and his partner had stepped in, and Azmat would go to their New Jersey club, Connexions, to do her homework.

A woman talking in a group
© Photo Edward Linsmeir Michelle Azmat, left, was among the first teachers to tell Gettig she would help activate a PRISM chapter.

On the morning after the shooting, Azmat was the first corps member to arrive at the blood bank nearest Pulse. She reported that people were sweating in a growing line that stretched around the block. Chianese and Azmat spent that Sunday walking the line, passing out water and ice packs and letting volunteers take turns hugging Chianese’s dachshund-Chihuahua mix Jellybean. 

“And then it’s Monday,” Chianese recalls, “and I’m thinking, what’s going to happen with our corps—our incoming corps in particular?” Across the country, several Teach For America institutes were already underway. Leaders were hustling to organize vigils, discussion groups and support particularly for incoming Latino, Muslim and LGBTQ corps members. In Orlando, the members of the 2016 corps were due to arrive the next day for their induction dinner. “We were worried that people wouldn’t come, that they wouldn’t feel safe,” Chianese remembers.

In that soul-searching mode, Chianese also began to think about how, in that hectic first year, LGBTQ inclusiveness had slipped off her agenda. “One of my emotions that week was guilt, honestly, that we had not talked about addressing hateful language in our classrooms,” she said. “And it’s so important, because every time you let it happen, you’re giving permission to your students to create hateful environments.”

So she gathered her team, and—with the contributions of multiple alumni and staff members active in Teach For America’s LBGTQ Community Initiative—they pulled together a guide to LGBTQ resources in Orlando that teachers could use to support their students and families. They also revamped induction plans and invited the initiative’s  leader, Tim’m West, to come speak to incoming corps members about cultivating inclusive, affirming classrooms where all students are treated as they deserve to be—fairly, and with dignity.

As the new corps began to arrive in Orlando, Chianese got a note from a 2015 corps member, 23-year-old English teacher Hannah Gettig, who had gone to the vigil for the shooting victims that brought thousands of people together near Lake Eola in downtown Orlando.

Gettig had come out as a lesbian when she was a middle school student in Houston. Memories of what that cost her were still fresh, including the time she was surrounded by a gang of seventh grade girls, yelling, “You’re going to hell.” When she started teaching middle school last year in Orlando—even though she felt fully supported by her principal and fellow teachers—she had decided not to come out as a lesbian to her students, for fear of alienating them or their parents.

A woman standing in the front of a classroom looking at the camera
© Photo Edward Linsmeir Middle school teacher Hannah Gettig remembers what it cost her to come out as a lesbian when she was in middle school.

But now, reeling from the impact of the lives lost, she thought about how it was one thing to rally in the immediate aftermath of violence, and another to do the long-term work to create inclusive classrooms and change mindsets—the ones that could hurt her students now, and in a few short years when they are old enough to go to a place like Pulse.

Gettig called Chianese and told her, “We have to do something. I want to lead this. I want to make sure our teachers know how to create safe spaces for their kids.” The first thing she volunteered to do was lead a moment of silence and a call to action at the induction dinner.

That was the beginning of  this young corps’ effort to work with greater Orlando—a mecca of gay life in Central Florida—to combat homophobia, beginning with schools. Having volunteered to lead, Gettig would get busy, quickly.

Before the start of the school year, she would meet with the chair of the board of GLSEN Orlando (the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) to plan a collaboration, one goal of which is to get more GLSEN resources into the hands of teachers (such as toolkits for teachers in grades K-to-5 and 6-to-12).

With Thomas Lawson, a local GLSEN leader who had just joined the Teach For America staff, she would talk to City Hall about providing transportation to bring kids from the poorest neighborhoods to upcoming citywide LGBTQ youth events.

At the start-of-school orientation session for the Orlando corps, Gettig would lead three case study sessions that began by examining how teachers can be “interrupters” who stop the use of slurs in their classrooms to make schools safe places.

“Two or three days after the shooting, people were talking about putting up memorials,” Chianese says. But she preferred Gettig’s instinct to mobilize. “What I hope,” Chianese says, “is that we can honor and memorialize the victims by making every space safe for our students.”

A group of people standing in a row
© Photo Edward Linsmeir Lauren Chianese (left), Hannah Gettig, Jenn Ovares (who coaches corps members for Teach For America-Orlando, Fatemah Bernard, Michelle Azmat, and Thomas Lawson by Orlando's Lake Eola

One of the first things the team did was to email Brittany Packnett (D.C. Region ’07) for advice on how to activate. Packnett (who is moving from being the executive director of the St. Louis region to leading national community initiatives for Teach For America) told them to “go to the people who are already doing this work and ask what you can do.”

That’s the agenda that Hannah Gettig, as Orlando’s PRISM chapter organizer, has pursued, beginning by reaching out to City Year corps members (including one who applied to join the GLSEN Orlando board) to collaborate. “We want to get some more PD (professional development) going for corps members,” Gettig says, “and we want to spend the first year building relationships and partnerships with other LGBTQ organizations that are doing the work around us.”

Matthew Broffman, the director of innovation for the city of Orlando who met with Gettig and Lawson, says their action is well-timed. The loss of lives at Pulse “opened peoples’ hearts,” Broffman says, “so I think there’s an opportunity to push people forward a little bit on equality.”

Chianese says that far from feeling frightened, as she had feared, new corps members have felt “enveloped in love” as they’ve met others like Broffman who are pushing ahead. “Even if you’re not from here,” Chianese says, “you feel proud of the way people of Orlando are coming together and responding.” Now the challenge is to keep it going.

Part 2: The LGBTQ Community Initiative

This October marks the second anniversary of the launch of Teach For America’s LGBTQ Community Initiative.

While the rights of LGBTQ adults have advanced dramatically in those two years, it’s not clear school life is getting easier for LGBTQ students. A string of studies have shown these students have a worse experience than their heterosexual classmates. They pay a long-term price in a drop-out rate that’s three times the national average, according to GLSEN research. 

In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published new results from a 2015 survey, its first national study on the health risks of high school students who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. The CDC found these students were significantly more likely than others to report being bullied at school or online. Some 60 percent reported being so sad or hopeless, they stopped their usual activities. And more than 40 percent of LGBTQ students said they had seriously considered suicide.

Teach For America launched its LGBTQ Community Initiative to answer long-standing calls from corps members for more help in knowing how to respond when students are harassed, or struggle with rejection by their families, or when they face resistance when trying to start Gay-Straight Alliances at their schools. What distinguishes this initiative is its central focus on race, class, and culture, and the intersections with gender identity and sexual orientation, which can cause acute challenges for many of the students whom corps members teach. 

“Learning to support LGBTQ kids is a necessary part of educational equity, and we have to learn to do this in tandem with all our other efforts,” says Kathryn Ling (Mississippi ‘11). Ling, the director of leadership and diversity, equity & inclusiveness for the Arkansas region, led a pilot project that helped document teachers’ demand for the initiative when 25 corps members in southeast and northeast Arkansas signed up to spend Saturdays learning to support LGBTQ students.

In 2014, Tim’m West—who had 20 years of experience working with youth, particularly LGBTQ youth of color—was hired to lead Teach For America’s LGBTQ work. In addition to training, his first priorities included welcoming LGBTQ corps applicants and addressing a situation that had caused strife for many LGBTQ alumni: how to be out and authentic—or live with suppressing their identities—in all the places where corps members teach.

Some 35 states have no anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBTQ teachers from getting fired, according to GLSEN.  Eight states have what LGBTQ rights advocates call “no promo homo” laws that prohibit teachers from referring positively in class to homosexuality or gender non-conformity. Teach For America places corps members in many of these states. In Orlando, for example, the state of Florida offers no protections for gay teachers, though Orange County Public Schools does have an anti-discrimination policy that applies to both teachers and students.

“Learning to support LGBTQ kids is a necessary part of educational equity, and we have to learn to do this in tandem with all our other efforts.”

Kathryn Ling

Teach For America-Arkansas Director of Leadership and Diversity, Equity & Inclusiveness

West states the obvious: There are no simple formulas for how LGBTQ teachers should operate in the thousands of schools where they teach, many of which create their own more-or-less queer-friendly culture in spite of what state law says. He believes, however, that the key to progress is to have “brave conversations” about the intersection of race, class, religion, gender and sexual orientation, centered on affirming and protecting the rights, safety, and humanity of all students and teachers.

And he’s seen evidence that those conversations—though not without tensions—can be had in ways that respect the cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs of parents and students, as well as the multiplicity of beliefs and points of view within the big tent that is Teach For America.

“I think sometimes the message people get is that LGBTQ equity is an agenda that is forcing beliefs on people, as opposed to just insisting on fair and equal treatment of kids in school situations,” West says. “Some of our LGBTQ people are of the belief that everyone has to be gung-ho affirming” of the initiative, “and I don’t think that’s realistic, nor do I think that’s authentic. I’m less invested in people shifting their beliefs or modifying the way they think about the LGBTQ community. What I am saying is that in this classroom, in this school, students all should feel safe and affirmed.’’

A woman standing with sunlight behind her
© Photo Edward Linsmeir Fatemah Bernard told her students to "solve for X."

Last school year, TFA hosted four LGBTQ Education Summits where corps members and alumni, including those of different faiths, hashed through those brave conversations. Two more were scheduled for this fall, one in October in St. Louis and the upcoming Deep South Summit in Atlanta on November 19 and 20.

The focus of these events is on professional development and the sharing of strategies that attendees can bring back to their regions. On that front, West invited a 2016 Orlando corps member, Fatemah Bernard (who is lesbian and married to fellow Orlando corps member Marquita Bernard), to speak about how she handled questions about her identity while teaching at institute this past summer in Tulsa, Oklahoma (a state with so-called “no promo homo” laws).

When students asked about her husband, Bernard told them she didn’t have one. When they asked why she was wearing a wedding ring, she challenged her students to treat the question like a math problem: Consider the possibilities and solve for X.

While summits are great for addressing universal questions, West says, ultimately people in each region have to understand their community’s complexities and the work that’s most locally relevant.

That’s where PRISM chapters come in. These are regional LGBTQ support groups—many of which focus on training and partnership-building—open to teachers, alumni, and community members. Several regions have active PRISM chapters, including Jacksonville, Arkansas, Charlotte, South Carolina, and St. Louis. Others, like Alabama, are forming.

The most well-established chapter may be Massachusetts, with an active board that’s led events ranging from socials for new corps members to teacher trainings on bullying prevention. One of the first chapters to organize was Memphis. Led by alumni educators Jamilyn Cole (Memphis ’14) and Gus Connelly (Memphis ’12), PRISM volunteers created a resource guide and helped the region train 200 corps members and alumni to support LGBTQ students. In conjunction with the Memphis region’s revamp of its cultural competency curriculum at institute, Cole worked with the regional staff leader on diversity, Tami Sawyer, to introduce corps members to leaders of LGBTQ support organizations, including Memphis Area Gay Youth (MAGY).

Memphis PRISM volunteers have also confronted a common struggle across regions: how to help the LGBTQ students who are the poorest, the most socially isolated, and the least likely to know about or have transportation to safe havens, like MAGY, for queer youth. This past school year, a local alum, Hardy Farrow (Memphis ’13), met a high school senior named Isiah Jones who wanted to organize an LGBTQ awareness-raising event with help from Farrow’s student-entrepreneurship nonprofit, LITE (Let’s Innovate through Education). Farrow knew of the Memphis PRISM group, and that Jamilyn Cole could connect Jones with the mentors he needed. 

Cole made those introductions for the student. But due to his spotty phone and Wi-Fi service and problems with transportation, Isiah Jones was never able to meet potential mentors. Jones went to MAGY’s citywide gay prom—which Memphis PRISM members chaperoned—and headed off to college this fall at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

A man standing and looking off past the camers
Tim'm West is the founding senior managing director of the LGBTQ Community Initiative.

Part 3: A question and Answer with Tim'm West

Tim’m West is the founding senior managing director of the LGBTQ Community Initiative. He describes himself as “a preacher’s kid” who grew up mostly in Taylor, Arkansas, where he survived a suicide attempt while in high school. “I didn’t have anybody in my school culture or environment who affirmed me,” he says, “and it was better just to die and have a finite end to everything than to struggle every day.” He went on to work in education and public health, teaching high school and college philosophy and English and counseling HIV-positive youth.  He is a poet, emcee, author of four books, and a member of the board of the LGBT Institute at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

What brought you to this work at Teach For America?

I had been director of youth services at the Center on Halstead in Chicago for a little over two years when I got invited to a United Way conference for educational equity. Mind you, I'm serving well over a hundred LGTBQ youth in the city of Chicago over the course of a week, many of whom are homeless or unstably housed. The center that I ran was the place they could come and feel safe, sometimes after very traumatic experiences in their schools. The irony is that Chicago has some of the more progressive policies on the books, when it comes to LGBTQ students. So I go to a big conference, with hundreds of educators, and for two days I do not hear one mention of LGBTQ youth. I had a pit in my stomach.

As I’m experiencing this conference, I’m thinking, what if I could do more than tend to the immediate trauma of a young person? How could I take my experiences and really begin to shape systems? On the second day of that summit, I had my first interview with Teach For America.

How do you define the limits of this initiative?

What’s important to understand is what TFA can’t be. We are not an LGBTQ advocacy organization. This is not an advocacy initiative or an identity initiative. It is an education equity initiative to ensure that our students get a quality education if they identify as LGBTQ.

You spent your first weeks on the job conducting a listening tour with corps members and alumni in big cities and rural regions. What did you learn?

First, I grew to understand that there was so much work done before I got here through individual efforts by corps members and alumni and staff who, all along, were writing documents and pushing for TFA to support queer teachers.

I realized that people felt like they just need more training and resources on how to support LGBTQ students. That’s how the regional summits developed, from so many people wanting and needing concentrated training that they can take back to their regions and integrate into their own professional development for corps members and alumni.

One of the things I heard most often that shaped my priorities was that Teach For America often says we want our teachers to bring their full selves to the classroom and their identities are important to the work. What became really clear, especially from alumni, is that that’s not an option for many LGBTQ corps members.

I heard alumni reflect on their experiences of not having been terribly well-supported in the corps around their orientation—their efforts were not heard to say, “Hey, teaching is already hard, and sometimes being a teacher of color is hard, and being a teacher of color who is LGBTQ—that’s multiple points of stress.” What became clear was there’s a disjunction between the idealism of “bring your full self to the classroom” and alumni getting advice like “you shouldn’t talk about your identity.”

By no means am I being prescriptive and saying that all people should come out in their schools. But it became clear to me that people need a lot of support, a lot of instruction, a lot of tools and skills around how to bring their full selves to the classroom, or even to know how to answer the question when a student asks if they’re gay.

I can’t lay down the law around queer issues at TFA and say, “This is what teachers need to do,” because we work in 53 regions with very diverse circumstances and diverse political landscapes, where the policies are different from place to place. What I realized is that we need to create the kind of leadership development that allows regions and corps members and alumni to think through “what’s going to be best here?”

What’s a common question you hear?

People ask me, is the work you’re doing corps member-focused or is it student-focused? And I think it’s both. If we can create the conditions for teachers and educators to feel good about who they are, even in the most daunting and challenging circumstances, then the quality of education they can give their students is going to be that much better, and that’s what I’m most concerned about.

I’m really concerned about teachers being depressed and sad because they can’t be themselves, and how that affects their ability to be focused and excited about their lesson plans. That’s a burden that a lot of heterosexual people can’t even process: What if you had to keep something that was so central and normal to your identity a secret? What if you had to hide your wedding ring?

One of the reasons we need to support—as much as is allowed in different regions—the ability for our teachers to be who they are in their classrooms and schools is because there are kids who are struggling with these issues, and they are contemplating suicide. Imagine if they have no one at their school who is affirming. If you have one or two, it may not be enough, but it may be the only thing that saves a kid.

What do you say to members of the Teach For America community whose religious convictions cause them to question this work?

Avoiding the topic of faith is dancing around a real issue. We have to name it and discuss it. At each of our LGBTQ summits, we have a discussion on Sunday morning about the intersection of faith and supporting LGBTQ students. Trying to decide what is the right thing to do from a social justice perspective—that’s a conversation and a process, and if people with convictions get yelled at or ignored, it shuts the conversation down.

That’s what it means to have brave conversations with each other, because if we create a polite conversation where people don’t say what they really think and feel, then biases are sustained because people are afraid to mess up. I think for people on both sides of this, there’s a lot to learn.

If alumni want to connect or get something going in their community, what can they do?

Contact your region. There are PRISM chapters in many places, and if there’s not, one thing alumni can do is talk to their region about forming a PRISM chapter. That’s a place where alumni can play a huge role, especially because we have community members in PRISM groups who are not Teach For America. We’re not hoarding information. This is about TFA teachers working with other educators and partners to create safer schools. And PRISM groups create a space for that.

A man walking down steps onto a New York street
Jared Fox

Part 4: Out for Safe Schools in NYC

The nation’s largest school system, in New York City, has a full-time LGBTQ liaison in Jared Fox (G.N.O.–LAD ’09).

“My role has a lot of different aspects,” says Fox (pictured, on his way to a school leader training in Brooklyn). “One is programmatic, making sure that we are developing and delivering programs that help students feel affirmed in their identity, regardless of what that identity is… Because LGBTQ students aren't just LGBTQ. They're also students of color. They may be students with disabilities. When you look at those intersections, creating a welcoming environment for one specific population is not what you need to do. You need to create a welcoming environment for every single student who walks through your door.”

As one central staff member in a system with 1.1 million students, Fox spends much of his time building the capacity of teachers and administrators who support others—including guidance counselors and cafeteria workers—to engineer inclusive school environments. So far, the New York City Department of Education has issued 9,600 “Out for Safe Schools” badges to educators who attended full-day or tune-up trainings. The target is 30,000 more this school year.

“I wear this badge everywhere I go, and I get questions about it everywhere—at the bank, on the train,” Fox says. “I’ve had young people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for wearing that.’”

Part of Fox’s job is also responding to bullying and harassment, stepping in where more support is needed than school staff members can provide. “The third part is serving as a subject matter expert,” he says. “We have many ideas and initiatives that come across in many offices of the DOE. I'll get called in to advise on how policy would impact the LGBTQ constituency.

“That's not just students,” Fox adds, “because we also have LGBTQ faculty and staff, as well as families with same-sex households. That's super important for us as well. We want to make sure that we're supporting all of our families, realizing that LGBTQ families have some unique attributes that may not be affirmed in their school environment.”

Fox’s activism goes back to when he was one of GLSEN’s first student organizers as a 15-year-old in Cleveland. For educators just getting started in their schools, he suggests a first step could be to administer a school climate survey (available from GLSEN) to gather data on the issues facing LGBTQ students. “People have to be willing to listen,” he says, “and that’s where data is useful.”

Communities and Resources to Know

  • To join a local Teach For America – PRISM group, contact your regional staff. To start a PRISM group in your region, email t.west@teachforamerica.org.
  • To stay connected, find information on how to attend regional summits or tap the network for resources and best practices, join Teach For America PRISM on Facebook and follow @TFA_LGBTQ on Twitter.
  • To find resources for schools or communities, contact these LGBTQ Community Initiative partners: The Trevor Project provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ people between the ages of 13 and 24. The Human Rights Campaign Welcoming Schools project provides elementary school book lists and lesson plans, plus tips for answering questions related to gender and LGBTQ topics. The Teaching Tolerance arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center publishes best practices for creating an LGBTQ-inclusive school. GLSEN tracks federal and state policy, publishes research on the status of LGBTQ students (including a new report on school discipline practices that push out LGBTQ students), provides resources for teachers (including educator guides, curriculum and lesson plans, and school climate surveys), hosts regional chapters, and organizes national events such as GLSEN’s