How can we make our school an ‘affirming space’ for LGBTQ students?
UPDATE 2/23/2021: read Equity & Diversity Policy Recommendations for LGBTQIA+ Students for the results of family feedback.
Queer and gender non-conforming issues have been on my mind a lot in the past few years. My daughter and her friends have moved into middle school, become very aware of sexual identity and gender issues and empirically speaking I’m hearing from and about more students who identify in this population at LPAS. In addition, the public conversation around LGBTQ kids - especially (and perhaps regrettably) around sports - has reached a historic and fevered peak.
This has made me consider what place schools have in this. Having known (and coached) a number of queer and gender non-conforming students in my 8(!) years at LPAS, I’ve seen that for many students this can be a struggle in a world that barely recognizes their “non-conformity” as real or valid. And school is the world for young people.
Are we doing what we can to provide an environment - an “affirming space” - that provides the validation and belonging that these kids need?
In my experience at LPAS - I would say yes - but I am not directly part of that community. It’s time to find out for sure. Luckily, we have processes and policies to help. During our January 2022 SBDM Meeting we reviewed our Diversity & Equity policy. This policy struck me as giving this council the charge of ensuring that we recognize and account for this struggle - so I requested a review of that policy through that lens.
(Note: I’m happy to announce that we’ll be discussing this during our standing meeting, Wednesday, February 23rd - with our JCPS SBDM Liaison Dr. Shawna Stenton in attendance.)
I’m in the process of reaching out and hearing from current and former LPAS families of LGBTQ students to hear about their experiences, and am gathering more info from the school and JCPS. If you are one of these families, don’t hesistate to contact me.
Below are my current understanding and thoughts:
How does the Diversity & Equity Policy apply?
While our Diversity & Equity policy was likely originally written to specifically address racial diversity and equity - it’s core covers diversity and equity generally, as it requires us to “ensure that each and every student…”:
- Is able to achieve at high academic levels.
- Feels safe, welcome, and valued at our school.
- Receives a full, fair share of the opportunities our school has to offer.
- Knows and honors the achievements of his or her ethnicity, cultural identity, perspectives, and tradition.
- Knows and honors the achievements of other cultural traditions he or she may encounter in our community and later in life.
- Respects and understands that different life experiences lead to different perspectives.
- Allows/Encourages equal access to all programs.
And with rising numbers of LGBTQ students and generally greater visibility of LGBTQ students in our schools, I feel this is a group that may need consideration.
How is our school (and it’s policies) handling this vulnerable population?
As a long-time parent I can’t say that I am aware of any official policies or guidelines regarding queer or gender non-conforming students. I’ve sparingly heard of some issues over the years - use of restrooms, gender affirming pronouns - and they seemed to have been resolved ad-hoc by administration. But it strikes me that this student population is growing, and if there aren’t school or JCPS guidelines or policies in place to help teachers, staff and admin to make consistent decisions to support - there probably should be.
I am glad that when I suggested an LGTBQ-focused review of this policy, our SBDM Council did not hesistate to entertain it. Here’s why, I think:
Why? Because Belonging is Important
According to the largest survey of it’s kind, queer and trans youth are far more vulnerable to mental health issues and suicidal thoughts and actions and “LGBTQ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide than those who did not.”
Schools can be - and should be - affirming spaces.
We have moved so far in recent years to create racially, culturally and socio-economic affirming spaces. This happened through study, initiative and policy.
We should do the same for LGBTQ students as well.
What do we need to address, specifically?
As I mentioned, I’m not sure, and I think the first step is to listen.
That said. I do know the basis of any action we should take should be on fact and not supposition, so let’s start with two basics:
The facts state that queer and gender non-conforming students are a vulnerable population that should be represented in some way in under Diversty & Equity. We should include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as a consideration in this policy.
How well do we understand the LGBTQ community in the school? The D&E policy itself calls for an annual review of data “disaggregated by gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and disability” - but not by sexual orientation or gender identity. However, this is an incredibly sensitive space - as a friend of mine put it: “Unlike more obvious/surface demographic information, the ability to come out OR NOT is a huge point of control for queer youth, perhaps their only one. How do you reliably know what your queer youth population is when many members of it are unable to come out because of legitimate fears? How do you ask? (You shouldn’t.)”. So: do we currently offer a space where families (or students) can offer this about themselves, should they choose? And how do we use that information to promote that student’s achievement?
(UPDATE 2/18/2022: For #2, some wonderful feedback from a friend regarding privacy and control has informed my perspective)
Once we have those two things - recognition and understanding, then we can take action.
What have other schools done?
From my research, I have not found elementary schools with LGBTQ-specific policies. They might be out there, but SBDM policies are set individually at each school (and finding the actual policies documents can be a nightmare).
That said, the SBDM councils for Brown School, Atherton High School and Meyzeek Middle have all instituted transgender student bathroom policies.
From past experience, I would expect that if the council saw the need for a policy like this, we would likely follow from another school, so it’s a pertinent example.
You can read Meyzeek’s policy here, but here are the critical points:
“AUTHORITY. Per JCPS Board Policy 09.13, Meyzeek will ensure protection, respectful treatment, and equal access to educational program and activities for transgender students. The implementation of this policy will reflect the reality that transgender and gender nonconforming students are enrolled in schools.”
“RESTROOM ACCESSIBILITY. The use of a restroom should be determined by a student’s choice in accordance with their gender identity; no student shall be compelled to use an alternative restroom.”
If our Diversity & Equity policy would be updated with inclusive language, we would likely have #1 set. #2 would be a separate policy - under the authority of the SBDM to set policy regarding to “use of space”.
Again, just an example.
We still have a lot of ground to cover, but I believe that LGBTQ students are vulnerable and under-represented in the language and action of our policies. They are here, they are struggling, and it’s our charge to provide them equal access, protection and opportunity.
Sports are not my main concern at the moment - though as a coach I certainly have been paying attention to the current onslaught of anti-trans bills in State assemblies across the country. Earlier this week, both the Kentucky General Assembly discussed anti-trans bills in the House and Senate.
These bills are under the auspices of “saving women’s sports” - specifically access to wins and scholarships. The counter-argument is that these bills do not accept non-conforming gender identity, and limit access to vulnerable populations - and in fact threaten them with punitive damages and lawsuits.
While I can see the argument about wins and scholarships - I firmly believe that access to sport and its benefits, especially for vulnerable populations - will always outweigh top-level achievement.
And, as Jonathan Lowe, a father of two transgender students eloquently put it, equal access is the only thing that the Kentucky Constitution demands:
“The Kentucky Consitution underlines that obligation for the General Assembly regarding public education. You are required to create and mantain a systeem of common school for all of Kentucky’s young people - even the queer > ones. HB23 by eexcluding a set of kids from a key benefit of Kentucky’s common schools is an abrogation of your obligation to Kentucky’s families. You must do better.”
I highly recommend that you watch the Kentucky House Education Committee discussion on House Bill 23 - there is critical testimony from transgender students, families and allies here. (And little acknowledgement that they even exist from the supports of this heinous bill).