Editors' Note: Abe Louise Young teaches writing for social change workshops for youth and adults around the country. Please visit her website to read more.
Queer youth are here. They're sitting at the very same desks in classrooms you and I sat in for grades K-12, in every school of the country, carving the names of their crushes into the wood with ballpoint pens. Wait, K-12? Does that mean, K-5, too? Yes.
In the just-released book project called Queer Youth Advice for Educators: How to Respect and Protect Your Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students, 30 students from around the country detail in concrete terms the crisis of being queer in school, and the solutions they require. (It's free to download, and ten bucks to order a hard copy from Next Generation Press.)
Their first point is this: "Awareness of our difference starts in elementary school - and so does harassment." Teachers need to support gender fluidity, represent LGBT families in a positive light, and interrupt teasing and bullying, from the first day of kindergarten.
In the Southwest, a transgender girl named Alexandria arrives for a new school year in her chosen gender, with her new name and wardrobe. She tells her fourth-grade classmates that the boy they formerly knew had moved to France, and she is his cousin from Paris, arriving as an exchange student. Mais oui, mais oui!
Her guidance counselor takes charge of educating all school staff about gender transition while protecting her privacy. As a result, Alexandria felt that her transition went wonderfully.
In Kentucky, a young third-grade girl named Carolina is punched and pinched in the chest by classmates when she's caught looking at pictures of women in National Geographic magazine. She feels there is no adult to tell, no support to be had, and that she'll be the one in trouble. She hides her bruises and shame.
The disparate experiences that these two youth faced are a tiny example of how widely life varies for LGBTQ youth--and how critical it is that schools step up.
In this slim guide, fourteen points are laid out, each with personal stories, strategies for how adults can best handle them, and the most current resources and research.
I was lucky enough to interview the 30 youth in this guide over six months in person and via telephone, Skype, and social media. The national nonprofit What Kids Can Do commissioned the work in response to the epidemic of LGBT youth suicides last fall.
Working solo and in groups, the youth participants defined what strategies and infrastructure - interpersonally, and in policies and physical geography - they need to make school safe. They are very clear about how grown-ups inside and outside of school can help.
The youth contributors are from Latino, Caucasian, African-American, Middle Eastern, and Asian families. They identify as lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, transgender, androgynous, curious or questioning, genderqueer, two-spirit, and straight ally. They live in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Illinois, Washington State, California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
National attention has crystallized on the "It Gets Better" project as a way to connect with queer youth and offer them hope. But "It Gets Better" is also critiqued as a forum for pep-talks focused on personal growth, rather than societal change or life-and-death issues. For this reason, "It Gets Better" falls short of reaching youth who are challenged by poverty, racism, immigration status, and other oppressions.
A different way to help LGBTQ youth voices and to engage with what young people need, is to read this text and act on it.
The story here is that it can get better, but that it takes a lot more than time. Kids in elementary school can't afford to wait until adulthood and a job and an apartment for it to get better. They actually need things to change before summer is over.
One way to participate in that change is to download the ebook or buy a print copy. Give it to a teacher friend or a queer youth, or bring it to the school you grew up in. If that town is far away, walk it over to the school nearest to your house. Walk in and start a conversation with the principal, on behalf of the kid sitting in the desk you once carved a broken heart into.