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NEA conference supports LGBTQ students left behind by political policy

Queer & There

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During what some are calling this year’s “Education Spring,” teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Arizona, Kentucky and Colorado have demonstrated, staged walkouts, and in some cases called for strikes in response to inadequate funding. Teachers’ unions such as the National Education Association (NEA) have long been on the forefront of not just labor relations issues such as these, but social issues as well.

The NEA has specific caucus groups, such as the Black Caucus and Women’s Caucus, which hold annual conferences to raise awareness of social issues affecting their members. Between May 18 and 20, the NEA’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Caucus held its first LGBTQ+ Issues Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Disclosure: I am a dues-paying member of the NEA/Colorado Education Association and attended this conference as a participant. The association paid for my travel and lodging.)

According to Kerrie Dallman, current president of the Colorado Education Association, the GLBT Caucus, which is made up of LGBTQ and straight ally members, “exists to influence policy at the national level within the NEA.” During the conference, caucus members from across the country addressed a wide range of issues affecting LGBTQ students and educators, covering topics such as restorative justice, bullying prevention, students’ rights and more.

The workshops were facilitated by teachers — many of whom spend their breaks not just attending professional development training but actually creating and presenting such workshop curriculum — as well as representatives from national advocacy organizations like the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Matthew Shepard Foundation. They offered guidance on how to complete a gender support plan for trans or gender-nonconforming students, or suggestions on how to include LGBTQ voices and literature in classrooms.

These workshops inform educators about the often conflicting glut of federal, state and local laws, policies and regulations relating to LGBTQ students; and offer educators a chance to share “best practices” for supporting students. 
Such insight is vital today, as the Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos roll back protections and Department of Justice guidance for interpreting anti-discrimination laws like Title IX. In Colorado, we have broad discrimination protections, plus a number of high schools (such as Palmer and Coronado locally) with gender-neutral bathrooms. We can share strategies and solutions with educators from states that provide few, if any, protections or accommodations for LGBTQ students and often have “no promo homo” laws that legally prevent educators from mentioning homosexuality in almost any context. Such laws are problematic when you consider the importance of works from Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and others — not even getting into the fine arts, a discipline in which the LGBTQ community has always been quite robustly represented.

In our polarized political climate, organizations such as the NEA and their local affiliates are often vilified by conservative media as radical socialist organizations. While Dallman admits that “NEA is totally a progressive organization, they’ve really doubled down by focusing in on issues like institutional racism and intersectionality,” she also says that the NEA and its members are driven by an overwhelming concern for the students in their classrooms. “All kids deserve a quality education, and all kids don’t get that unless we address the things that impact all kids.”

According to the 2015 National School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 56 percent of students heard homophobic remarks from teachers or staff, and 64 percent heard negative remarks about gender expression. In addition, the 2015 Healthy Kids Survey, a voluntary survey given to Colorado students to collect public health data, shows that LGBTQ students are three times more likely to miss school because they felt unsafe, when compared to straight, cisgender students.

In an era when school performance and teacher accountability are all the rage, it is frustrating that something that so directly impacts a student’s performance — having a safe, accepting classroom environment — is considered part of a radical agenda.

Despite advancements in equality, LGBTQ people struggle to exist authentically and survive in a virulently homophobic and transphobic society. Our lives become political footballs, punted in wildly disparate directions every few years. This has and will continue to have a significant impact on the LGBTQ students who walk through hostile hallways every day. As it has consistently since its founding in 1857, the NEA is doing its best to ensure all students have unfettered access to the best public education available to them.

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