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Monday, March 2, 2009

Queering Our Lil High School in the Hood

I'm going to make less personal posts and reserve those for my own webspace.  I have a hard time maintaining this one, let alone two, but I'll try.  In any case, I wanted to share this ...

If you've ever been a teacher, or worked with young people in any capacity (and enjoyed it), you probably understand the experience of holding on to tiny moments in order to find revelations.  Similarly, you probably know what it's like to be overwhelmingly proud of your students over and over and over again.

Last week, I invited students to The Audre Lorde Project's S.O.S Collective Provocative Discussion, "We Got Next: Change Got Obama Elected, Now It's Our Turn."  I put up flyers, let the Gay/Straight Alliance know about it, and went into a social studies class and gave an announcement.  In the end, four students, two perceived-males, both queer, and two perceived-female students, both straight, came along.  They were not students who consider themselves the "faces" of our school or self-proclaimed student leaders, as we have some of those walking through our halls.  Even if a couple of them weren't sure about how they felt about the "queer thing," these were students who just felt like it was an important conversation to be part of.  There are constantly important conversations they're being part of.

On our way to the event, we sat on the B52 bus and talked about some of their experiences at their previous high schools and how they ended up at our school.  There were talks of recognizing how they were being tracked to fail; talks about being kicked out, despite the laws of doing so to a minor under 17; some conversation about one of the young women's son, who is 5 months-old; and an interesting confession among a pair of friends--one "Black," to put it simply, and the other Dominican--about how said Black friend is working through the inherited racism she "used to" have, and her mother currently has, for Latinos (though she admitted that she's still "kind of" racist towards Puerto-Ricans).  The Latino student sat and listened to her friend, wincing at moments, and then finally making a confession of her own: Her parents are racist too.

As we walked into ALP, we had been knee deep into our discussion about race, one our students are so used to.  I was excited and a bit nervous to have them in a space of the queer community I'm a part of outside of work.  I was excited for them to begin a conversation they aren't so familiar with.  My students know I'm queer (some have asked, some I've told, and others have assumed) and so my nervousness had nothing to do with a fear of being outed.  It had more to do with knowing that in many ways I am proud of them and in a lot of ways, they make it easy.  They question, they talk, they complicate, and they challenge.  I feared them entering the space and resisting.  Needless to say, I got off the hook easy.  They spoke, they questioned, they were open to complexities and challenged themselves.

Before the event started, we went down the list of terms they were unfamiliar with: LGBTSTGNC (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two-Sprited, Transgendered, Gender Non-Conforming), PGP) Preferred Gender Pronoun), and Ally.  I watched their faces as they took in the new information and we exchanged, using examples.  For instance, I told them, "I consider myself gender non-conforming," and continued to explain.  They nodded and we went on to discuss PGPs and Ally.  The two hetero students nudged one another.  "See, we're allies," one of them said.  I swear, it was all the cutest queering experience ever.

Throughout the event, I was impressed by their willingness to be down and participate, even in the midst of uncertainty or fear.  They loved every moment of it.  "I want to come back," one of them told me at the end of the night. "Thank you for the experience," said another.   A couple other students gravitated towards an SOS Collective member who performed a poem and invited her to be a part of our Anti-Homophobia Day.  The next morning in school, another student literally ran into my office, shouting, "Last night was bommmbb."  Later that day, at our school's Friday evening Open Mic, a couple of the students who came decided to share their experience at the SOS event with their peers  and spoke on the importance of PGPs and multiple lived experiences.  

"Most of you know me, but I'd like to reintroduce myself properly," said a perceived female student, "My name is .... and I have no PGP." Before she began her poem, she let us know what brought her to this point of sharing.  "Last night, I went to this discussion at the Audre Lorde Project's S.O.S. Collective with Cleo and I was inspired..." 

I couldn't help but be so so very proud.

I say: the young people I work with are amazing.  You know, I've always been so impressed with the power young souls find within themselves after just being given a kernel of truth, of information, of many histories speaking to their own.  I say: the young people I've been blessed to work with in my burgeoning education career have me wishing I was one of the crystal children of today.  I say all of this to say, last week I was moved, so so moved.

I work at a small alternative transfer school.  For those of you who don't know what a transfer school is, it's a high school where students who haven't met "success" at other schools (e.g., dropped out, kicked out, pushed out, yada yada) can come earn credits and graduate with their high school diploma before they age out and are forced to get their GED.  Our students are 17-21, fierce and always learning.  They frustrate me, have me working hard, and most days give me glimpses into their capacity to be powerful forces in this society.  I do the college thing, or postsecondary thing, as some students aren't about college and that's just for real.  While this affords many frustrations in ways I don't prefer delving into right now, another "thing" that I've been voluntarily hurled into at our school is the "queer thing." 

Now, I also said we're an alternative school, not in the hand-holding and singing kumbayah kind of way, but in the Che Guevera posters, Adrienne Rich quotes on the walls, liberation-talking, and "no pigs" policy in our school kind of way.  We're, for lack of better words, a social justice school in the hood fighting our way to have students understand the complexities of well, everything.  As I've said in past posts, we pride ourselves on having conversations about race and class down but when it comes to conversations about queerness, it's something we're just beginning to hone.  It's not so new but then again it is.  In February, our first trans student enrolled, myself and a few staff members revived our Safe Schools Committee, we're aggressively planning for our Anti-Homophobia (And transphobia?) Day, and queer conversations amongst staff and students are taking place on a more regular basis, and not just by queer staff members, but non-queer allied staff too.  

It's all so surreal to witness this happening at this moment in history, at this devastating point, nationally, for urban public schools.  I'm so proud of all of us, but more than anything, I'm proud of the brave students, who are beginning to manifest ways to rightfully queering educational spaces and (gen)ducating the masses.



  1. Although I work with students of different caliber, I can whole heatedly appreciate this expierience. It reminds me where I my energies need to be best invested post white suburban "fill in the blank" blind students at UVM. I have to say, I am abit envious that conversations and spaces are so readily accessible by you and your students...its those moments that signify meaning in the work that we do as young educators. I am impressed by this move to really have a recognized queer presence in high schools. It was not too long along, where I attended an all women's high school and a thought of queerness incited rage and hostility. ( and yes this was NYC high school) There is something to be said in the amount of change that has happen in just a few short years.

    And in time of crisis, real character is revealed. The shit will bubble to the top.

    Kudos C

  2. Hey, I am amaaaazed by this event/s, i could never imagine it happening in a milion years in the school that i am in or have ever worked in in the past. We don't have gay-straight alliances in school here in the U.K, in fact i don't know of any 'safe spaces' for queer young people in school. I dream of a safe 'queer presence' in schools and your work gives me so much hope on those days i doubt my dream. Thank you.

  3. actually could i repost your post on the Ms Fiz page as a little blog review?? I would love other queer youth activists to feel the hope:)