Teacher on Special Assignment Student Support Services Department
Q: In your role as a teacher what have you done to create a safer climate for LGBTQ students and their families?
We do various workshops here at the Student Support Services Department. One of my main responsibilities is to provide technical support and professional development resources. Sometimes I make presentations to school sites. I work mainly with middle schools and high schools. But this year I’ve also been working with elementary schools. Today is a professional development training specifically on LGBTQ youths and schools. We will teach how we can support them at school sites in order to create a safer environment for all students, but specifically in this case for our LGBTQ students.
Q: What fun activity have you done for LGBTQ youth?
When I was in the classroom I worked as a peer resource coordinator and I did a lot of education around the history of various people who were historical figures and were also out and gay. For example Frieda Kahlo was a big artist in the Latino community. I worked at various schools and a lot of them had either large Asian populations, Latino populations or African American students. I always tried to find someone who they could relate to.
I remember specifically doing a whole lesson around the history of the word “fag” and “faggot”, so they would find out where that word came from. One of our researchers found out it meant a bunch of twigs, or a bunch of pieces of wood put together that was used to start a fire—someone who was being persecuted and in this situation, killed. So they would light these pieces of wood. My students were really, really shocked by that. Then they learned that historically, it could also mean cigarette. It can mean many things, I can’t remember all the definitions but they were really taken aback by that and they used it in their peer education presentation, as one of their ways that words can really be hurtful and the history of the word. It made these students think twice about using that word. I remember specifically one student in seventh grade just running with it and enjoying doing the presentation. They were very serious about it when they did it.
Q: What are some challenges and barriers that you’ve encountered?
The biggest challenge is our own fears and insecurity as adults around the topic. Noticing my own growth and my questioning of the topic and how to discuss it with students is one notion. But then it really challenges you to think about how comfortable you feel talking about this topic. Then challenging it and knowing in your heart that it is wrong and it’s not right to discriminate for whatever reason. To then talk about a topic that’s not usually mentioned in our society.
Then to ask teachers to talk about it might be a little unfair if they’re not in the same space you are in. Everyone develops, gains knowledge and uses that knowledge at a different rate. I think that the biggest challenge is working with well intentioned adults who sometimes don’t have all the resources they need or the time to really teach something so personal. But it’s a challenge in our society in general, not just in the educational system. It’s in our political system, it’s in our life and family structures and it’s hard to talk about sometimes. Everyone gains and uses knowledge at a different rate. So we’re not always on the same page so it is challenging.
Q: What inspired you to do this work, to be a mentor?
I think my main inspiration comes from experiences with students and as a human being growing up. You know when things are wrong and I think there were times I wish I knew what to say, and I didn’t know what to say. I felt it was wrong and I think living in San Francisco is a unique experience, but it’s not the only place where you’re going to find people who are different. I know that while I lived in Mexico I had family members who were gay and weren’t comfortable being out. And I’ve run into them here in San Francisco and they’re out—at least to the San Francisco community. I have a cousin who is 10 years younger than me that came out to his family and I thought, wow how brave of him to come out to his immediate family and to the rest of us. And working with youth, how can you not support the youth you work with? I mean that’s what we’re here for. Our schools are a reflection of our society. If you can’t make our schools safe, then it means our society isn’t safe. Anything that happens in our schools is happening outside. It’s just very localized and very in your face in the schools.