By Marla Gai, AmeriCorps member serving on the Cardozo Education Campus team
City Year is committed to Social Justice for All, a value which represents the deepest beliefs and highest aspirations of our organization. Every day, we dedicate ourselves to building a more just, equal and compassionate world. For each of us, this devotion to social justice looks different and reflects our own beliefs and experiences. As a queer woman, my mission for this value is to inspire acceptance and understanding of queer identities in the school setting. Last month we celebrated LGBTQIA+ History Month, and took the time to contemplate the various sacrifices and accomplishments of the LGBTQIA+ community. I would like to share some experiences from my service thus far and some insight on how to advance inclusion and compassion for the students, parents, staff and community members we serve who identify as queer.
Each October, coinciding with National Coming Out Day (October 11), we honor queer history and the civil rights movements that brought positive change for our community. Past generations have quite literally given their lives to conquer many adversities, so that we could live and identify however we want. However, there is still significant change to enact. Through my participation in City Year DC’s affinity group CityQueer (a group that brings City Year AmeriCorps members with similar identities, hobbies and interests together to build community), I can conclude that being queer, out or not, can be a challenging experience in our schools for students and AmeriCorps members alike.
I have been out and identifying as queer to the 7th grade students at Cardozo Education Campus since nearly the beginning of the school year. The first student I shared this information with was understanding and kind, and in that moment I was hopeful that all of my students would respond in the same way. However, they didn’t all have the same positive reaction.
Many students simply do not understand what it means to be queer; society often tells people to fear or reject any semblance of “different” in their lives. Inclusion and acceptance can be taught, but LGBTQIA+ identities are sometimes misrepresented or underrepresented in media and in society at large. Discriminatory language or making fun of those who are different from you can be a distraction or a vehicle for confusion and low self-esteem, creating even more challenges for queer and cisgender students alike. Through City Year’s model of the near-peer relationship, we have the unique opportunity to help address these inequalities in schools.
It is important to first check your language and hold students accountable for the things they say. Some students still use the term “gay” to describe something negative and casually call each other derogatory names.
It is also important to make curriculum relevant and relatable. There are numerous historical icons who identify in some way as LGBTQIA+. To include their accomplishments in our history, science, math and English classes is an easy way to normalize LGBTQIA+ identites. Lastly, if you do identify as queer and if it is safe for you to do so, consider coming out to your students. We are role models and mentors to our students, and we have the privilege and responsibility to impart our wisdom to them.
For those of you who serve DC’s schools and have established yourself as LGBTQIA+, I commend you. We have prevailed in the face of adversities, we have found our voice though they try to silence us, and we have felt the pain and the love that is associated with being queer. I personally have spent 12 years finding my light and fanning the flames of my uniqueness. Now that light shines brighter in me than I ever thought possible. My hope is that my students can learn to appreciate and accept their own light, whatever that may look like.