Jackie Gardner is a member of the San Jacinto Teachers Association. Her opinions are her own.
“Hey, put this on Carson’s desk!” a student shouted. I turned too late; the note passed through 2-3 giggling 7th graders’ hands before I could confiscate it. On the back was written “your f*ing gay.” My heart sank. I am gay, my students know this and know that I don’t hide that. Did they know they were insulting me and the gay students around them?
This felt even more poignant since it was the International Trans Day of Visibility. I had taught a lesson highlighting queer ecology (natural occurrences of gay and trans organisms, including humans) and trans scientist and sitting Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine. This lesson was important for me to share because I have witnessed various forms of bullying against my trans students including harassment for using new names and dressing differently. Many of my queer students share with me feelings of depression and anxiety stemming from negative encounters with their peers but also from school staff and their families. Some of my students, as young as eleven, are so deeply hurting that they have already been hospitalized for contemplating suicide. Someone has to stand up for them; I wish someone had stood up for me.
In California, language already exists that supports LGBTQ+ students. Along with disability, race, and religion, the law protects varying classes of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. California’s Education Code (EDC) § 60040, which highlights the teaching of materials portraying cultural and racial diversity, also includes “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.” While the law requires schools to provide training, many educators are still not aware of to what extent they should be supporting LGBTQ+ students. California Code EDC § 220 protects queer students from discrimination and EDC § 51500 prohibits any school endorsed curriculum or activity that would otherwise be discriminatory. EDC 234-234.5 specifically requires certain protocols to be put in place to prevent bullying and intervene in gender or sexuality based harassment. It was updated by Seth’s Law (AB 9) in 2011, which was sadly named for a 13 year old who took their own life in 2010 after experiencing extreme bullying for being queer. The protections in Education Code § 221.5 – 231.6 were updated in 2013 by the School Success and Opportunity Act (AB 1266) to ensure students can participate in sports and other gendered activities that match the student’s gender identity and Section 118600 of the Health and Safety Code was updated in 2016 by AB 1732 to require all single-user restrooms be designated for all genders. Family Educational and Privacy Rights (FERPA) protects a transgender student’s right to privacy and school personnel may not tell their parent or legal guardian about a student’s preferred name and gender identity unless they specifically give their permission to share that information.
The headlines are often reporting new legislative attacks on LGBTQ+ children, especially trans youth. According to The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health’s Key Findings – 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Their pain, loneliness and frustrations feel familiar to me. As a teenager I never saw a positive example of an openly queer teacher or educator. I did not know that I was not broken, that love comes in many valid forms, or that gender is open to interpretation. After years of confusion, I now live in my gender fluid skin and try my best to be the supportive teacher I needed for my queer-questioning little self. My classroom today has become a safe haven for self-discovery and expression. Within these walls, kids have come out to me, tried new names and pronouns, and shared their queer joys. The moments I treasure most are when my kids affirm that the work I am doing is having a positive impact on their lives. One 6th grader in our Gender and Sexuality Alliance club wrote this to me: “I realized I was bisexual in 5th grade. At the time, I only knew two other queer kids. I went into middle school thinking I was alone, that there wouldn’t be anyone else like me. I was wrong. So wrong. It was [trans 7th grader] that first told me about you and when he told me what the club was I had to stop myself from screaming out of pure excitement. I finally realized that I wasn’t alone after all. I had people I could count on. People I could trust. People who loved me for who I was.”
Queer students need to know that they are authentically cared for. They are valued members of our school communities who exist in our naturally diverse world and have agency over their own identities. Before even teaching them reading and writing it is my job and your job to stand up for the basic human rights of our students, to protect them from attacks, and validate who they are. Our students’ lives depend on the support systems we choose to build or deny them. To this day, I have no clue if Carson is queer nor is it any of my business unless they choose to tell me so, but I am glad that note never reached their desk. Perhaps these small interventions will become less frequent, and in the meantime I hope more educators will feel empowered to begin the baby steps (and kangaroo leaps) toward making school more inclusive.
Jackie Gardner (she/they is a 7th grade science teacher on the ancestral lands of the Soboba people in San Jacinto and a 2022-2023 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.