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Two Texas Teachers on Harnessing Spirit Day Every Day

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The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, who is up for re-election in 2022, has a lengthy history of dismantling LGBTQ+ rights across the state. From 2002-2015, Greg Abbott served as the attorney general where he consistently halted LGBTQ+ rights. Most famously, Abbott appealed two same-sex marriage cases that deemed the rulings unconstitutional in 2014, less than a year before it was ruled a right through the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to the Transgender Law Center, Texas holds a negative score for the lack of LGBTQ+ policies in the state as well as the presence of anti-LGBTQ+ laws, including laws that restrict educators from using LGBTQ+ topics in schools. However, this hasn’t stopped educators from around the state to bring LGBTQ+ equality in the classroom.

Earlier in 2020, I lived in Fort Worth, Texas working with Girls Inc. and working with public schools on anti-bullying education. I used my comic book Life On The Outside to educate K-12 students about LGBTQ+ bullying and discrimination and ways to be an ally. During these discussions, I saw my students reciprocate these lessons with pride and happiness and were eager to become allies in their schools.

For GLAAD’s Spirit Day 2020, I heard from Texas educators Jessica Alanis and Jayson Bijak. Jessica and I are both former GLAAD Rising Stars Grant recipients. She is currently a 7th-grade teacher in San Antonio. Jayson, a former GLAAD Campus Ambassador from the University of Houston, is getting his certification in Elementary and Special Education. The two are speaking up about bullying and discrimination in their communities and using their voices to support LGBTQ+ youth in education systems. These educators also describe how you can support LGBTQ+ youth in Texas through Spirit Day and beyond.

How have you dealt with anti-LGBTQ bullying in your school/classrooms?
Jessica Alanis (she/her, they/them):
One of my priorities as an educator is to have our campus be a safe space for all students. From day one, my students are taught to accept and respect one another. Throughout the years, I have implemented anti-bullying policies in my classroom – this includes zero tolerance for homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, classism, and any hate speech toward one another.

Jayson Bijak (he/him):
I do anything and everything I can to be open and push for support. I’ve educated co-workers on the best ways to support trans students, I’ve spoken to the superintendent of my school district on the importance of including LGBTQ issues in professional development topics (especially when it comes to addressing bullying), I’ve even openly discussed my trans identity. All of this to show my support for students, as well as the fact that I am unapologetically proud of my identity, in hopes that this will show LGBTQ students they have someone rooting for them and to normalize LGBTQ identities for all students.

What is your advice to educators who are looking to end anti-LGBTQ bullying?Jessica:
A beneficial method to combat anti-LGBTQ+ bullying is to request LGBTQ+ Awareness Training for schools. My advice is to get involved with local LGBTQ+ organizations for this type of support and additional resources. In addition, make connections with other staff who want to implement a more inclusive environment. There is power in uniting with LGBTQ+ staff and allies to end the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community at your school.

Jayson:
Educate, educate, educate yourself and others! Both GLAAD and GLSEN have plenty of resources on the basics of LGBTQ identities, as well as toolkits and lesson plans for including LGBTQ topics in your classroom. Including LGBTQ people and topics normalizes those identities for all students. Call out any and all name-calling and bullying, even if students are “joking;” have serious conversations with students about the impact their words can have. Understand that while Spirit Day is incredibly important, its mission isn’t a one-day affair. LGBTQ students deserve someone willing to fight for them each and every day, and as an educator you have a responsibility to accept and respect every student.

What can educators do in virtual learning environments to support their LGBTQ students?
Jessica:
If there is a GSA (Gender-Sexuality Alliance) club available, support and promote them to students, as well as attend GSA meetings to learn more about those involved. If a GSA has not been formed at the school, collaborate with local LGBTQ+ youth programs to promote their virtual meetings to students. Similarly, collaborate with school counselors as they are a great resource for LGBTQ+ advocacy. Most importantly, include LGBTQ+ friendly content in your curriculum that benefits every student by affirming all identities.

Jayson:
If your virtual classroom/site contains an “About Me,” section, I recommend first and foremost including your own pronouns. If you utilize a discussion board, make a separate thread just for students to post their chosen names and pronouns (if you use a different format, make a Google Survey for students to fill out that information). Make your support known and visible; post a read aloud of an LGBTQ picture book, have an easily accessible compilation of important resources (emergency numbers/hotlines, local shelters/support groups, etc.) posted on your class site. Be mindful that school is sometimes an escape from an unaccepting home life, and that’s been taken away this year. 

What advice do you have for LGBTQ youth who are experiencing bullying?Jessica:
To all our amazing LGBTQ+ students – you are valid, you are loved, and you are beautiful just as you are. When you are ready, speak to a trusted individual about your experiences; you have every right to feel safe at school. Please know there are so many people at your corner who will listen to you because you are extremely important. If you are feeling unsafe, please know the following free LGBTQ+ support resources are available 24/7:

  • TrevorLifeline: 1-866-488-7386
  • TrevorText: Text START to 678-678
  • TrevorChat: www.thetrevorproject.org
  • Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860

Jayson:
There will never be anything that someone says or does that makes your identity any less valid or beautiful. Find someone at your school you can confide in, be it a teacher or other faculty member, and be honest about your experiences with bullying. Try to surround yourself with positive people and friends. Remember that you’re never alone.

Abbey Perl (she/her and they/them) is a GLAAD Rising Stars Grant recipient. Abbey Perl is a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Kind Mind Collective, a non-profit organization promoting kindness and compassion through education while integrating pop-culture. Perl is also the co-author of “Life On The Outside,” an anti-bullying comic-book that has been used in schools and universities across the country to better educate youth about bullying.

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