Promoting Equality with Stonewall Democrats of Central Texas

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Stonewall Democrats of Central Texas Pride event in downtown Belton. Here is the full text of my speech:

I’m so excited to be here today among people who are so passionate about protecting equality. We have made great strides in this effort this year, but we have a long way to go. This election season, we will make decisions as a country that will decide whether those protections will be maintained and extended or repealed. As a teacher and mother, I always look at new policies through the lens of how they will affect our nation’s children. Unfortunately, our schools have become battlegrounds in the fight for equal rights. Our children deserve better. They deserve schools in which they are free from bullying, feel a sense of belonging, and have their many identities recognized and honored. We know that when students feel safe and nurtured at school, they improve not just their academic achievement but their confidence in themselves and their ability to work toward justice in the world.

I became a teacher because I loved school as a little girl. The classroom was a magical place for me, but I was well aware that this wasn’t the case for many students. In part, I became a teacher because I wanted all students to have the kind of experience that I did. As a teacher, I worked hard to develop a positive and loving classroom community and to be especially attentive to the needs of minority students. Diversity and equity have always been at the center of my professional work. When I was introduced to the Welcoming Schools approach in 2013, I found a new calling.

Welcoming Schools is a project of the Human Rights Campaign, and it’s a comprehensive approach to creating respectful and supportive schools. Welcoming Schools provides professional development and resources around 5 strands of emphasis: embracing family diversity, creating LGBTQ inclusive schools, preventing bias-based bullying, creating gender expansive schools, and supporting transgender and non-binary students. Welcoming Schools is designed for use in elementary schools because we know that primary prevention efforts must begin early on in order eliminate bias before it manifests in aggressive behaviors. We know this work is essential because students who experience acceptance in school are more highly motivated, engaged in learning, and committed to school. But it’s not just academics: we are protecting the emotional and physical well-being of our children when we make schools places of inclusivity.

I became a facilitator for Welcoming Schools because I’ve seen firsthand how it works. As a teacher, I was always wary of yet another anti-bullying program. As far as I was concerned, no good curriculum came from a box. That’s why I liked this approach. It was about building classroom community, making structural changes, and using interpersonal relationships to educate…in addition to outright lessons. Let me give you an example. As a novice teacher, I would come unglued at the use of the word “gay” as a slur and immediately discipline the child. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I was missing an opportunity to educate. My last year in the classroom, a child said “that’s so gay” on the first day of school. I pulled her aside and asked her if she knew what “gay” meant. She said, “When a man and a man or a woman and a woman love each other.” “That’s right,” I replied. “Being gay is part of someone’s identity, and we don’t use that as an insult.” It was so much more effective. Through interactions like that throughout the year, along with read-alouds that built empathy, lessons that taught ally-behavior, and tiny shifts in my conduct as a teacher, my classroom became a place where a girl who had a toileting accident (the week her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer)was met with care and concern by her classmates instead of ridicule.

It’s not always easy to get this kind of work into schools. We made major headway earlier this year when the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education jointly released guidance and best practices that ensure the civil rights of transgender students in schools. Unfortunately, the Attorney General of this state has led an effort to undo this historic advancement. Texas, along with twelve other states, filed a motion in federal court to block enforcement of the federal guidelines, and sadly, a Wichita Falls court issued a temporary injunction. Fortunately, the ACLU of Texas has followed up with districts in this state to clarify what the order does and does not mean. In their letter, they explain that the order temporarily prevents the Obama administration from acting on the guidance. It does NOT mean that districts may discriminate against transgender students with impunity. In fact, under Title IX, districts that do so may face legal liability. Furthermore, nothing in the order prevents schools from embracing inclusiveness and implementing policies that support transgender students.

And it doesn’t prevent YOU either. As a parent, grandparent, concerned citizen, LGBTQ equality advocate, or ally, there are many steps you can take to ensure the best for our children. Encourage your local library to stock books that are LGBTQ inclusive. Make sure your school’s PTA is welcoming to all families. See to it that sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are specifically enumerated in harassment and bullying policies. Get a GSA started at your child’s school. Let’s work together to form a PFLAG chapter in Belton or Temple. Petition your child’s individual school or the district at large via the school board to provide much needed professional development to teachers.

Schools play an incredibly important role in the work we are all doing to protect equality. In many ways, schools are on the front lines. But our children deserve to be so much more than pawns in a political game. They need schools that are safe, nurturing places in which they are free to be their authentic selves...and together we can make that happen. Thank you.