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Supporting GLBTQ Students: A Perspective From Boulder Valley

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Guest blogger Becky Whittenburg is a Gifted Education Resources Specialist at Boulder Valley School District, in Boulder, Colorado.

When I was attending elementary through high school, issues of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) students were mostly invisible.  There almost certainly were students who would later self-identify as LGBTQ, but schools didn't acknowledge their existence, and the vast majority of students never encountered openly LGBT peers. Having worked in the field of education now for twenty-two years, I have watched as LGBTQ student visibility and school issues have risen to some level of prominence.  I also have a long history as a musician for a variety of dance companies and their affiliated schools.  I work closely with talented, creative, and often gay professionals and students in a culture that is openly accepting of the many gay artists in its community.  I am struck by the contrast between the cultures of the world of the creative arts and that of public education, even though many of their aims, like nurturing students' abilities, instruction in skills, and development of talents, are similar.

In education we often talk about the importance of fostering creativity and problem solving, but creativity doesn't exist in a vacuum.  It requires recognizing, nurturing, and promoting certain elements of personality that are free, experimental, experiential, and questioning.  It also requires an environment that accepts and encourages differences in people, perspectives, attitudes, and ideas.

Certainly, not all creative people are gay even though there are some creative fields that seem to have more people who identify as LGBTQ than other fields.  Jane Piirto, in Understanding Creativity (2004), asserts, "The point is not that there is a risk of homosexuality in being creative; the point is that following rigid sex-role stereotyping limits creativity" (p. 149). As schools have developed acceptance of diverse populations, LGBTQ students have naturally been a part of this growth.  Whether motivated by a sense of taking up a defensible, moral cause, or by fear of lawsuits, student suicide, and negative public relations, schools necessarily must respond to the needs of their students as they arise.  Some of those will be LGBTQ.  In the more distant past, students would only rarely "come out" or self-identify as LGBTQ before leaving high school, but more recently students are coming out in middle school and even, especially in the case of transgender students, elementary school.  

The Boulder Valley School District has been working openly and actively with LGBTQ students and issues for more than a decade.  The Coalition and later the local Safe Schools Coalition are community advocacy organizations. They work with schools to support the needs of LGBTQ students and included educators, parents, administrators, local university LGBT resource center representatives, county health department representatives, mental health professionals, and students.  The broad representation of the group has been a notable strength. The presence of these community coalitions advocating for the physical, psychological, and emotional safety of young people helps move the schools forward in addressing issues about this historically marginalized population.

By working closely with the school district leadership, building trust and cooperation, and creating resources for schools, the relationship between the local Safe Schools Coalition and the school district has expanded.  Professional development and school outreach has grown.  

More than a decade ago, when the district nondiscrimination policy and health curriculum was updated to include LGBTQ students and gay-straight alliances began organizing in area high schools, any opposition was wisely met, not with shouting, but with dialogue.  The finding of common ground - that all students have the right to feel safe in school served as the foundation of all discussions. The conflict faced at that turning point required finesse and strategic planning in order to bring out the best of both groups who were equally passionate and committed in their beliefs that they had the best of intentions and held the needs of children foremost.

The District Leadership Team comprised of principals and upper administrators and school board members attend annual training that addresses all potentially marginalized student populations including LGBTQ.  Last revised in 2012, the district's Equal Education Opportunities Policy states that "every student of this school district shall have equal educational opportunities through programs offered in the school district regardless of  . . . sex, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression,  . . ."

Beginning at about the same time as the district began addressing the needs of LGBTQ students, sexual orientation and gender identity concerns grew more public in other education groups. In my own field of gifted education, for example, the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) created its GLBT inclusive nondiscrimination policy, created the GLBT task force, and adopted a gifted/GLBT position paper. Presentations at its annual gifted education conferences began to include more sessions addressing gifted LGBTQ populations and gifted education journals and publications showed an increase in articles about this population.   In recent years, the NAGC task force was disbanded having served its initial established purpose and the GLBTQ population was mainstreamed within the organization by including GLBT youth in the Special Populations Network, and by the formation of a GLBTQ special interest group.

Transgender children are at the center of many conversations today.  More and younger openly transgender children are entering school systems and more of their parents accept their child's gender assertion.  These families expect schools to support their children as transgender.  School conversations often begin with bathroom, prom, and gym class concerns and then move to issues of psychological wellbeing, bullying (overt and subtle), and discrimination.  In the process of working with these transgender children, schools can be helping their young peers who struggle to understanding the transgender child in their class who is "out" or a child who identifies as both male and female at different times. In 1973 homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Now, the recent DSM-5 recognizes that transgender individuals may be psychologically healthy.  That continued the shift from "fixing" the student, to providing support for them just as they are.

Many teachers want to do right by these students and seek the tools to do so. They have many questions. When district provide ample opportunity for teachers to have their questions answered and provide guidance for staff who are increasingly likely to have students of openly diverse sexual orientation and gender identity, they are creating opportunities for all to learn and grow and contribute to safe, inclusive environment. By doing so, they are meeting the needs of students who are increasingly likely to have peers identifying as LGBTQ.

All staff needs to be able to meet their diverse students where and who they are to guide them along the paths of who they will become.  Students and staff who are not open about their sexual orientation or gender identity or are questioning these aspects of their identity are in danger of feeling at risk, invisible, and isolated in an environment that doesn't feel positive and inclusive.

School districts around the country are committed to supporting all their students in a safe environment. They recognize the virtue in allowing creative students the freedom to express themselves and develop their creativity or artistry.  Sometimes school districts need help in determining how to go about implementing these goals when previously invisible or minority populations such as LGBTQ are concerned.  There are many organizations and resources that can help districts become more proactive in creating a plan to meet the needs of LGBTQ students.  Groups such as GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network), Safe Schools, Matthew Shepard Foundation, and others have spent decades developing expertise, resources, and tools.  School districts that have not yet done so can begin the process of educating staff and providing a safe culture for students before a possible crisis, tragedy, or legal issue arises.  By embracing diversity, educators support students' creativity, self-awareness, and independence, which in turn helps students develop into healthy, successful, and fulfilled adults.   

Resource:
Piirto, Jane. (2004). Understanding Creativity.  Scottsdale, Arizona :Great Potential Press, Inc.

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