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How Queer Teachers Can Create a Safe, Brave Space for Students


Teachers can empower queer students, especially those of color, by using authenticity, empathy, and the right words, Miguel Fonseca writes.

A fabulous teacher walks into his classroom, filled with 20 colorful students eager to learn. At least one of those students will board the discovery boat -- a ride almost all queer people of color take, learning who they are while processing their unique and marvelous identity. But currently, in my state of Texas, there aren't active policies around issues on LGBTQI+ identities, and teachers are not adequately trained on how to create safe, brave spaces. For those reasons, queer teachers, especially queer teachers of color, need to speak up and fill this identity gap in classrooms. This is a note from a queer teacher of color to my fellow queer teachers on how to make a brave, safe space for students on the elementary level who might identify as a queer and, by extension, to provide tips fellow teachers can use.

Be yourself. A queer teacher should be allowed to feel their oats and be who they are naturally. This self-confidence oozes out to the students in the classroom, and they will notice it. Students may question you about the gender norms you are breaking, and you will need to engage in these conversations with ease and confidence.

For example, one day I decided I would paint my nails and go to work. All my third-graders were in awe after seeing my nails under the document reader, and I was ready for that conversation. Student A raised her hand and asked, "Mr. Fonseca, are you wearing nail polish?" I flicked my hair back and said, "Why, yes, I am." Student B shouted out, "But that's what girls wear!" and I simply replied, "Says who?" Half the students nodded their heads in astonishment and the other half shook their heads from right to left. Having these conversations with these students allows them to explore societal gender norms and how they see themselves in those spaces. Take it as an explorative activity.

Recognize the power of words. Gendered words such as he, she, him, and her have connotations that outline the expectations of each gender. For example, when my kids say, "She hits like a boy," that simple sentence can affect how we think of girls and boys. Teachers should be able to discuss what gender the students feel most comfortable labeling themselves as, or if they prefer no label. Discussing their preferred gender pronoun (or genderless one) can allow students to not be fixated on just being categorized by gender, but instead explore the idea that gender is malleable.

Use sympathy and empathy. Whenever I see a queer student, my mind floods with memories of being forced to play soccer or do "manly" activities like mowing the grass with my father. How I wish I could go back in time and say that how I was feeling and what I was thinking was completely normal and there was no need to hide or be ashamed of it. When I am standing at the front of the classroom and see a student sitting alone in the back, I suddenly see myself again. Having teachers who empathize is important for queer students, as they can feel isolated when they do not have to be. Modeling how to express our feelings and being a human is something teachers need to do.

Be prepared for backlash. This is to be expected, especially if you live in a state that does not promote a healthy, positive lifestyle for gays. According to a 2018 report from GLSEN, an organization focused on ensuring safe and affirming spaces in school, there are seven states with laws that prohibit the "positive portrayal of homosexuality in schools."

If you happen to live in Texas like I do, be aware that you will be discussing homosexuality not as an educational topic in the classroom but instead in a side conversation with students. The moment it ties to curriculum, we cross the line. When you feel ready to talk about being gay and what implications that may bring, be prepared and informed about the policies your district may have. Furthermore, parents might come running to your classroom with torches and pitchforks ready to hang you for being you, and that is OK. Have a healthy, productive conversation with that parent about your nail polish choice and why you chose to call yourself him and the next day xe. Defend your position in a calm, positive manner, and all will be fine. Overall, being informed around your school policies and building a strong backbone will hold you up. And after all, who will make a safe, brave space for the next queer person of color if it's not you?

Miguel Fonseca is a teacher in San Antonio.

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