“He couldn’t stop smiling ear to ear when he saw his name changed from his birth name Veronica* to Ethan*,” said Bryan Meeker, E4E-Chicago member, and high school biology instructor, as he reflected on a student’s reaction to finally being identified the way he wished to be.
But Ethan’s name and gender in his school’s data system didn’t change overnight. Bryan advocated for him and his fellow students helped develop a school culture in which teachers could understand and respect students’ identities.
As an advisor of Acero Garcia High School’s Genders & Sexualities Alliance (GSA), Bryan established a safe space for students. Through GSA, students also have the chance to meet up and engage in activism -- from speaking at citywide competitions about issues that affect them to taking action to improve their own school community.
“Recently, GSA students saw a need for teachers to learn more about sex, gender, and sexuality and why it is important for themselves and their classmates like Ethan,” Bryan says. “They ran point on creating and leading a presentation for the entire school staff.”
That presentation led their school to clarify expectations for staff on using student pronouns, improve anti-bullying policies, and update definitions in the staff handbook. But, as Bryan points out, creating an inclusive and affirming culture shouldn’t stop with updating a booklet — actions need to be taken in and outside the classroom, too.
In his biology classroom, Bryan always makes sure some of his word problems do not feature a heterosexual couple and include non-binary pronouns, to better reflect the diversity of the world around them. Students are asked for their pronouns on day one. “It’s such a low lift to do, but it really matters to some of my kids,” Bryan says.
And, while exploring definitions can be helpful, situational practice with teachers is important. ‘When someone keeps telling Ethan he’s a girl, what’s your move as an educator? Or when you hear a student bully another with an anti-LGBTQ+ slur? Or if a student comes out to you?”
October commemorates National Coming Out Day, observed on October 11, which celebrates the act of an LGBTQ+ person publicly sharing their gender identities or sexual orientation, as well as creating awareness and an environment in which living openly, pridefully, and honestly is possible.
The GSA in Bryan’s school will celebrate National Coming Out Day, but he notes it will likely be a smaller activity than at some schools. Although he’s been at other schools who have decorated with rainbow balloons, papers, and the like, he says it’s also important to acknowledge what your students really need — what works with one school may not work with another. Coming out takes a great deal of courage, and students should never be pressured to do so.
“Most students who have come out to me have done so in confidence,” says Bryan, who remembers a time when a student was terrified but slowly explained everything. Acknowledging the student, he told them: “That’s wonderful, and I'm so happy you told me. How are you doing in your classes?” By accepting and supporting the student without hesitation or judgment, the student was relieved and felt heard.
“As educators, we need to approach student interactions around gender and sexual identity with empathy, rather than to make assumptions,” he says.
Moving forward, Byran acknowledged there’s more work to do. He hopes to see continued progress at his school in creating a safe and affirming environment for students. As for curriculum, a law recently passed in Illinois mandates that public schools teach LGBTQ+ history. This addition is significant, Bryan emphasizes, as many students are just now learning these important aspects of history.
For educators who want to further this work in their own schools, Bryan says finding valuable resources is the first hurdle — look to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Network and the Illinois Safe School Alliance. To start a GSA, he suggested brainstorming a laundry list of ideas and actions with students to see what they were passionate about.
“Patience is key when working toward change,” Bryan says. “But wins like staff adding pronouns to their emails, increased inclusivity in our curriculum, and the full acknowledgment of Ethan’s name change, are steps forward for our staff and for our students, so they feel they can be who they truly are.”
*Student names have been changed to protect student privacy