It went from idea, to discussions, to a NYSUT resolution, and finally to a face-to-face meeting: 20 union members of a new task force met this past weekend to share stories and begin determining the best way to educate peers and advocate for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning colleagues.
Their task, as set out by a 2013 NYSUT resolution from the Representative Assembly, is to examine the atmosphere toward LGBTQ people in education, which has too often included bullying, exclusion or derision, creating anxiety and secrecy.
Members of the task force include teachers, higher ed faculty, retirees, school librarians and school psychologists, and their enthusiasm for their new roles was tangible as some educators revealed how their personal situations are often hidden and sometimes ridiculed. They came to their first meeting prepared with ideas for change and left the meeting room buzzing with the sound of their voices, so often suppressed.
"Teachers would come up to me and say, 'What are you doing for teachers? I'm being bullied, I'm being harassed,'" said Melinda Person of NYSUT's Legislative Department.
Legislative advocacy is one aspect of dealing with this social justice issue, and NYSUT's pursuits in this arena have included supporting the right for gay people to marry; the right to non-discrimination based on gender identity and expression; and a non-discriminatory workspace. The union has also hosted several LGBTQ educator appreciation receptions in a few parts of the state during gay pride weeks.
The task force will meet twice more and then prepare a report for the NYSUT Board of Directors to eventually be presented at the 2015 RA in Buffalo. Their report is to include a plan about how to create programs within the union for training and staff development of educators on LGBTQ issues.
"We need concrete actions," said Paul Pecorale, NYSUT vice president overseeing social justice. "It floors me that this is still an issue."
"This is something that needs to be done for our members," said Catalina Fortino, NYSUT vice president, welcoming the task force.
"It's important for students to see positive, open, 'out' role models in schools," added Jim Larson, a NYSUT legislative relations specialist.
The resolution to create the task force came at the request of United University Professions, the higher education union and NYSUT affiliate representing academic and professional faculty at SUNY campuses.
Patty Bentley, a UUP retiree and task force member, said, in addition to providing training, she hopes that NYSUT's Social Services department will be seen as a resource for members to discuss and learn more about LGBTQ issues.
"We need to reach out to our brothers and sisters who are afraid," Bentley said. "It damages a relationship when you can't acknowledge your partner."