Rainbows: Societal change and safe spaces

January 10, 2022

By Andrew Taylor: GEAR UP NH Alliance AmeriCorps Member

Throughout this AmeriCorps year, I often had new experiences and learned from my mistakes. Capacity building is something that is new to me, but throughout my service, I was able to learn from my failures and revel in my triumphs. My time working with GEAR UP, Campus Compact for New Hampshire, and my site, Hillside Middle School, allowed me to build stronger connections with the LGBTQIA+ part of my identity. As an extension of my previous AmeriCorps year, I continued to spread positivity and inclusion at my site.

Normalizing queer identities and providing a safe space for students in an educational environment is my ultimate goal. Through my presence, I wanted to show LGBTQIA+ youth that although it can be scary to be yourself there is nothing wrong with how you identify. However, this is not enough. Throughout my service, I gauged how openly inclusive schools were in Manchester and integrated resources where I could. By talking to the students, I discovered there was a lack of representation, educational resources, and safe spaces for students. In an effort to gather more resources for students, I met with a teacher at West High School who provided resources to help normalize queer spaces at school. She mentioned the challenges she faced in creating these spaces. Upon learning this, I was compelled to come up with a plan for helping to mitigate this problem at Hillside.

Initially, I wanted Hillside to form a Pride club for students to learn about their identities and find community. I also wanted students to have more peace of mind while at school, a place where they can be bullied because of their identities. Unfortunately, the school was unable to form this club, so I teamed up with 21st Century, a fellow organization that was working at Hillside.

21st Century was a big help; they allowed me to meet with some students after school for a makeshift Pride space. There were only ever a handful of students who attended at a time, but students appreciated having a place where they could share that part of themself with others. It was great to hear their perspective and learn about how they navigate school being young, queer, people. However, their stories were not always positive. Some students lacked a place where they could learn about LGBTQIA+ history while others did not feel safe being themselves around family, staff, or other students. Interacting with them made me want to maintain this space for them even if it was just a safe space for arts and crafts, talking, or getting a better understanding of the queer community as a whole.

The U.S. education system likes to erase the LGBTQIA+ identity and history from the classroom, like what happened in my home state of Florida. The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. That bill, titled Parental Rights in Education, states that lessons about sexual orientation are banned outright in kindergarten through third grade. It also prohibits lessons in other grades unless they are “age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate.” This wording could be used to extend education past third grade and has gotten teachers fired with queer identities, queer family members, or educators who feel it is right to foster questions and conversations around this topic. Erasing LGBTQIA+ identities from educational spaces and conversations has to stop, so I made an attempt to advocate for fellow LGBTQIA+people.

With previous experiences polling students for incentive prizes, I chose to survey them again with an optional questionnaire to get a better understanding of their position on LGBTQIA+ representation, education, events, and safe spaces around school. The results were better than I expected. Students were saying that they wanted events, representation around school, gender-neutral bathrooms, and education for all students. Here is one student’s response, “Actually educate people on the hardships some people in the LGBTQIA+ community have gone through and still go through today. Don’t be afraid to actually make it not sugar-coated and just tell it like it was and still is.” I was surprised by how adamant and forthright this student is with wanting education around this part of society and they were not the only one. Since they are young and fearful adults will minimize their concerns, and infantilize them, students lack confidence to advocate for themselves and others. With my position, I was happy to share this exciting data with the school. Sadly, many staff members were not happy that I used the students’ voices to show things could be better. The principal told me that they have been trying to push for more representation, but it has just been an uphill battle.

A positive that came out of this experience was the ability to uplift the voices of the students that can go largely unheard. Hillside Middle School will hopefully have a Pride club next year (I was assured they would push for it). This experience reinforced my belief that school should be a safe and inclusive environment for all students of all identities and backgrounds.        

My service year has not been easy but worthwhile opportunities come with challenges. I learned that although I may be ready to see change happen, it may not be realized in my lifetime. Societal change is slow but I want to make sure it continues moving forward so today’s LGBTQIA+ youth do not have to grow up in the world I did. Hopefully one day LGBTQIA+ students can focus on their studies and making friends instead of the potential of being ostracized because of their identity.

Andrew Taylor (They/Them) is the 2021-2022 AmeriCorps VISTA for GEAR UP at Hillside Middle School. Andrew recently rekindled their appreciation for making art. They will never be the same again.