|MISSION, July 28 - Just last month, I was at a high school talent show and the auditorium was dark save for a dimly lit stage.
The murmurs of 200 teenagers filled the space as we waited for the next act to begin. In a flash, the lights brightened and thumping music assaulted our ears. For a few seconds there was nothing else but then, just as quickly, a young man bounded across the stage in a choreographed flurry of leaps and limbs.
For nearly two minutes, the student we will name Juilliard, because that he where he wants to go after high school, attacked our senses and the stage with passion and so much talent that we all sat in awe of his artistry. Just as quickly as it began, his mix of ballet, modern dance and athleticism was over. The auditorium was silent and my heartbeat, after years of seeing people who have made themselves vulnerable reduced to tears by bigotry and ignorance, quickened. How would the crowd react to this bold display of self? But within seconds, my fear was proved unfounded as the entire space in the auditorium erupted into screams and applause from nearly everyone. After Juilliard left the stage, he was surrounded by students of every gender, affiliation, sport and grade all showering him with praise for his performance.
As a teacher, I’ve seen students struggle to find their place in the school community because of the perception of difference. On that night, however, I didn't see anyone who refused to clap because of his perceived sexuality, I did not hear anyone tell him he was a good gay dancer and no political conversations were had about whether he would marry the boyfriend that may have hugged him after the performance. He was simply a person with a great talent that left us amazed. I have to think, in light of the recent Supreme Court decisions around marriage equality that the reaction to this performance was evidence of the equality that many of us have been searching for. It took the highest court in the land decades to give us equal relationship rights, but the next generation gave their classmate equal standing without question.
And yet, while we can celebrate being one step closer to equality, we also have to acknowledge that for every scene like this, welcoming environments are still all too rare for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students. Every day, students exploring their emerging sexualities, especially those facing the compounding challenges of race and class, find few supports from peers, teachers and school leaders. The dropout rate for LGBTQ students across the spectrum of sexuality is three times the national average and sexual orientation and gender expression are some of the most common reasons cited for students of color, including Latino students, dropping out of school.
With only 18 percent of LGBTQ students of color reporting that their school had a comprehensive policy to support students with protections and support based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the time is perfect to start these programs and build on the important steps forward taken by the Supreme Court. By creating safe and affirming spaces in an educational environment, we are allowing our kids to feel a total sense of self-worth that empowers them to succeed in school and beyond.
Each of us – teachers and community members alike – has a role to play in creating these safe spaces for our LGBTQ students. Teach For America, in partnership with The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and The Trevor Project, offers resources on their SAFE Classrooms web page to help teachers create classrooms that are Safe and Affirming For Everyone. The site creates an online space for resources, support and most of all, celebration of our schools and communities. In my high school in Pharr, Texas, we have created not only safe space at lunchtime for students to find commonality, but have also started at a Diversity club that welcomes all students who are looking for safe space, support and simple understanding and acceptance. This group has tackled tough topics like gender issues facing students (challenging the norm of bi-gendered bathrooms), spread the word about a Valley wide GBLT prom that was held in McAllen, Texas that was open to all students, and they have introduced their fellow students to diverse music, cultures and opinions during information sessions during lunch and beyond. Because of student driven programs like this, we’re seeing a community rooted in respect and appreciation that can make all the difference for students like Juilliard.
So, please join me in celebration of my student's talents and creating a space where their limitless potential is the most important thing we focus on. And join us in bringing the spirit of equality heralded by the Supreme Court decisions to our students by creating safe classrooms and educational environments where all rights are equal rights and where our students can feel safe and affirmed for who they are.
Kelly Woodard is a social studies teacher at Southwest High School in PSJA and a 2012 Teach For America-Rio Grande Valley corps member. She lives in Mission, Texas.