During my time providing professional development in educational equity and diversity to then current and future New York City pre-K through post-secondary teachers enrolled in my City College of New York (CCNY) undergraduate and graduate courses, I stressed that the number one priority of any school was that it create an environment in which the variety of identities that make up the human family be appreciated by all. While this may seem like a herculean task, considering the seemingly endless number of identities that this would entail, I think a good place to start is with the variations found in the following: language, race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexuality, gender, and able-bodiedness.
Keeping in mind, then, the potential variations found in the aforementioned categories, the first questions to ask are who is “seen” and “heard” in a school’s curriculum and physical spaces? How much time and space are they allotted? How are they represented? And are particular identities normed, intentionally or unintentionally, resulting in the marginalization or even exclusion of others? If so, this is obviously a problem for it essentially sends the message that certain group identities, and thus the groups themselves, have more or less value than others. For example, if one were to walk into a high school, would that person see the walls covered with signs and student work written only in English to the exclusion of all other languages? Or if this individual were to sit in on a U.S. history class over the course of an academic year, how much time would she see devoted to this country’s 500-year Black Holocaust versus the time spent on the establishment of this country by our “Founding Fathers”? Who would be a part of these narratives, and how would they be depicted?
Although I believe that language, race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexuality, gender, and able-bodiedness are equally important in terms of identity appreciation, and therefore should be given equal attention in schools, two of these categories in particular are in need of urgent attention: sexuality and gender. Jadin Bell, Jamie Hubley, Alyssa Morgan, Jamey Rodemeyer, Kenneth Welshuhn, Leelah Alcorn, Ash Haffner. These are just some of the many students who have taken their own lives in recent years after being relentlessly bullied by their homophobic and transphobic school peers. The Trevor Project, considered the leading national organization to provide crisis intervention and suicide prevention to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people, provides the following statistics:
- LGB youth are 4 times more likely, and questioning youth are 3 times more likely, to attempt suicide as their straight peers;
- Suicide attempts by LGB youth and questioning youth are 4 to 6 times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires treatment from a doctor or nurse, compared to their straight peers;
- LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection;
- Each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.
What is more, according to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, more than 50% of transgender youth will have had at least one suicide attempt before the age of twenty. These statistics are beyond alarming, and every school administration has a responsibility to actively work to educate themselves, along with its faculty, staff, students, and parents/caretakers so that all key stakeholders provide safe and affirming spaces for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning. My fear is that school administration who is not currently taking such action will only do so once it’s too late, that is, once one of its own students falls into one or more of the above statistics. In situations wherein school administration does not include the LGBTQ community on equal footing with other members of the human family, and hence does not provide these individuals with the same level of appreciation, it is usually the result of its lack of comfort in addressing what it considers to be “controversial” topics. But as the above statistics demonstrate, the cost of such an exclusionary approach is just too great to justify. For LGBTQ students, identity affirmation can literally be a matter of life or death.