Monday, 10:00 AM, Wegmans parking lot: I make eye contact with a young person walking by. They look vaguely familiar, but after teaching thousands of students everyone looks vaguely familiar. They say, “Hi Mr. O.” I struggle and they save me by saying, “I’m ****. I never had you as teacher, but I went to Fairport.”
We chatted a little about their current graduate program. Then, after a pause, they said: “I recently figured out that I’m non-binary. And I appreciate all you did with the Gay-Straight Alliance at school. It helped me a lot.”
This type of chance encounter with queer alumni has happened often over the last 20 years. Sometimes their revelation is surprising; other times it is not. But I am always honored when a member of the LGBTQ community shares their journey with me. And I’m grateful that my school provided a safe, emotionally supportive environment for these kids.
I thought of that person today as I read about the plethora of states passing anti-transgender, anti-gay laws. Laws that limit how schools can support queer kids. Laws that come from politicians like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, who are looking to score points with their base.
These laws are reminiscent of the cult classic “Reefer Madness,” trying to create moral panic about the myriad dangers of a perceived new threat. Proponents of the laws rant about protecting kids from “gay groomers” or keeping “transgender predators” out of the wrong bathroom. They prey on fear, stereotypes, lies, and the misguided belief that exposing kids to knowledge about gay and transgender people will cause more kids to be gay or transgender.
This divisive, moral-panic strategy is a hearty perennial: If we let schools become integrated, America will be ruined! If we give women equal rights, families will be destroyed! If we welcome these new immigrants, our way of life will disappear! If we allow gays to marry, chaos will ensue!
The current Queer Madness is a reaction to the fact that young people view sexual orientation and gender identity more broadly than previous generations. In particular, the fact that kids are comfortable with the idea of gender existing on a spectrum and moving fluidly along that spectrum.
I say this as a middle-aged, gay, binary male who freely admits there are parts of gender identity I don’t fully understand. And as a grammar nerd who found it hard, at first, to use “they” as a singular pronoun.
What I do understand is that queer kids are just kids, worthy of the same love and support that we provide everyone else. What I also understand is that schools have more kids identifying as gay, non-binary and transgender than ever before, not because we are teaching this information; rather, because the world has changed.
Kids today have the Internet, smartphones, TikTok, Instagram and myriad other places to find information about sexual orientation or gender identity. Passing laws to prevent schools and medical personnel from supporting queer kids will not make the smallest dent in the number of people who identify as gay, non-binary, or transgender. It’s like locking up the rooster to prevent the sun from rising.
What these laws will do, however, is prevent kids from receiving the support of trained professionals who have their best interests at heart. If it were your child coming out as gay or trans, perhaps with their life in the balance, would you rather have them reach out to a caring educator or take their chance with an influencer from TikTok?
If it were your child trying to figure out how to safely navigate same-sex dating, would you rather they learn from a skilled Health teacher or from a stranger they met on Tinder? If it were your child struggling with gender dysphoria, would you rather them work with a medical doctor or self-medicate with hormones from sketchy online sources?
As a teacher of 34 years, I can assure you these are not hypothetical questions. I can also assure you that kids do better academically when they feel valued and loved.
As teachers, we have a moral obligation to remember that in every classroom, in every school in America, there are kids like the young person I met in the grocery store parking lot. Kids who will eventually identify as gay, nonbinary or transgender. Kids who might be too young to know who they are, or too scared to say who they are, but who need our support, nonetheless.
In New York, political leaders and NYSUT leaders make it possible to provide that support. But moral panic is contagious. And given the current political environment, it’s not hard to imagine a future Congress proposing national versions of these anti-gay, anti-transgender laws. Or to imagine a future Supreme Court allowing these laws to stand.
As elected officials exploit vulnerable kids for political gain, we must speak for those who cannot. We must support queer kids and queer colleagues. We must support our AFT/NEA sisters and brothers who teach under these shameful laws. We must demand that all school libraries have books about gay and transgender people.
We must make sure our lessons occasionally include references to queer people. Most importantly, we must tell legislators that we value the LGBTQ people in our lives. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because we all have students, like my young friend in the parking lot, who are counting on us!