By Nathan Whitman
When I became employed at my first and present job as an English teacher in 2012, I knew that I was in for a culture shock. I had graduated from a 6A KSHSAA (Kansas State High School Activities Association) division high school of more than 2,000 students, and now I was going to teach in a 1A school of a few more than 200. However, upon having one of my first meetings with a school employee, I realized that Burrton was in for an equally stark culture shock from me.
I’d read the state data reports. I knew that the majority of my students would be white. I knew that a handful were of various minority and cultural groups. Nevertheless, when I inquired of a staff member about how many students in the school were LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) and if there was a GSA (gender and sexuality alliance), I was told, “We don’t have gay students at this district.”
With that perspective – no wonder! I was certain that these kids did not feel like they had a welcoming culture to be themselves. Clearly, this “educator” either did not know, did not care, or chose to be in denial of the hard fact that 4.5% of Americans are LGBTQ, and that number represents only the self-reporting to a Gallup poll. Those in the closet are surely even greater in rank. In my head I’d done the numbers: at a school of around 250 individuals (staff and students) – and I may be rounding up – 11-12 had to be LGBTQ in a given year. Knowing those statistics, I was determined to chop that closet door down: Here’s Johnny!
Throughout the course of my studies at Wichita State University, not only did I become certain of my career path as an English educator, I also realized that as much as I wanted to be a queer role model for my students and ally, I still had to play my cards carefully and closely to the chest. At the time, Kansas had no workplace protections for LGBTQ individuals unless they were written into the employment nondiscrimination clause (to no one’s surprise: sexual orientation was not and still is not covered by many districts’ contract language – my own included). Furthermore, with Kansas being an at-will state, I’d have to document anything I did in support of LGBTQ students or advocacy for myself (for legal reasons), as I could – and still can – be terminated from my job at my employer’s whim with no reasons given. While the at-will language states that “your employer can fire you for any non-discriminatory and/or non-retaliatory reason,” unless I had proof that my firing was discriminatory or retaliatory, I would and still can be sunk. This blog post could even be cause for termination, and I’d never know. Luckily, I’ve had fantastic administrative support, but I know that others are not so lucky.
I would like to think that LGBTQ educators can feel more at ease with their own personal lives and advocacy of LGBTQ students as of June 16, 2020, which is when I am writing this new draft of this blog post. For those unaware, in an unprecedented motion, two conservative Supreme Court justices sided with the four liberal that Title VII protects LGBTQ employees from workplace discrimination and termination. Hooray! I can now put up a picture of my husband and me after our wedding this summer and not be fired – I hope.
I preface the core of my post with these anecdotes and current events because we LGBTQ educators may now have more protections in our employment, but our students still lack protections of the most basic kind in their school policies. Check yours: Does it include a nondiscrimination clause on student sexual orientation and gender identity? Now is the time to use our newfound privilege to advocate and lead by example because, even with the Supreme Court ruling, there are political ploys at play to undermine trans youth via Title IX. I say this with resolve and guilt, for I know that I haven’t always been the best example and that I could have done more for many students, but I didn’t because I was afraid.
Instead, I did minor things to advocate: I put more LGBTQ affirming texts in the school, counselor’s, and my classroom libraries; provided Safe Zone training and signage for teachers who were interested; encouraged students who asked to bring same-sex dates to dances; made sure to highlight queer writers in the school-approved curricula. It wasn’t until the last few years that I dared to even show my partner in the beginning of the year “About Mr. Whitman & His Class” slideshow. But, I digress.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has an enlightening list of ten – often bizarre – myths about LGBTQ persons employed by those who wish to discriminate or do harm to that community. One thing that all teachers need to recognize is that these myths are still believed and used to justify discrimination toward LGBTQ students and educators. Three of them – in my opinion – form the core of what many students experience in their schools in Kansas, and if we’re going to truly support our students, we have to be willing to confront these misconceptions head-on.
Myth 1: LGBTQ Persons are Pedophiles or Perverts (SPLC no. 1)
This myth often appears when it comes to bathroom and locker room usage – particularly with trans students and educators. While more awareness is finally being afforded to the trans community, many still don’t understand that trans people just want to go to the bathroom, that they aren’t wanting a peep show, that they already feel out of place in their body and want nothing more than to be left alone and to be themselves. LGBTQ youth are one of the highest risk groups for suicide because of so many factors such as rejection from family and homelessness. With LGBTQ students already facing so much stress and pressure, allowing them proper bathroom privileges is the least a community can do to alleviate some of that stress. I personally know the hassle that bathroom usage can bring, as I choose to use the staff unisex bathroom. One homophobic accusation is all it takes to ruin a career.
Myth 2: It’s a Sin (SPLC no. 9 & 10)
According to the Pew Research Center, 76% of adults in Kansas identify as Christian. As much as we love talking about the separation of church and state, you’d have to be an absolute fool to say that religion plays no part in Kansas’ political or educational landscape. Two respectable professors from state university education programs have told me stories of teachers in training who said that they’d refuse to use a trans student’s pronouns or accommodate LGBTQ students in other ways if it conflicted with their religious beliefs – and they’re not the only ones. For students from all walks of life to have a welcoming climate in a public school, all students must be welcome, loved, and validated, regardless of the staff’s private religious practices.
Myth 3: It’s a Choice and/or It’s an Illness, and You Can Change (SPLC no. 9 & 10)
I have a hard time deciding which myth is the most damaging, but I’d say it’s a safe bet that telling LGBTQ youth that they’re broken (this ties to the sin myth) and need to change is pretty close to the top of the list. Ex-gay and conversion therapy have done irreparable damage to LGBTQ youth and spread like wildfire in states like ours: my own brother survived it, and I narrowly escaped having to participate. Now that scientific studies and mental health professionals even confirm that trying to change one’s sexual orientation can lead to lasting mental health consequences and even suicide, many states are banning the practice. If we as educators truly value the buzzwords “social-emotional wellness,” then we better damn well do our best to crush this myth for our students.
This leads to the inevitable question: What can you as an educator do? That’s easy. Educate yourself. Attend a Safe Zone or Safe Space training. Help start a GSA. Advocate for unisex bathrooms and nondiscrimination policies in student handbooks. Call out anti-LGBTQ comments and microagressions in staff meetings. Watch queer cinema and television. Read queer YA literature. God-forbid, meet and befriend an actual queer person without asking prying, borderline-fetish questions. It’s amazing how human we are. Use your power and privilege to advocate for LGBTQ equality.
At the end of the day, I don’t want any student to feel the way that I felt – to be told that they’re hopelessly broken, that God doesn’t love them, that they didn’t pray or try hard enough to change. High school is hard enough as it is. One of my most formative memories originates from high school when I was arguing with my brother – also gay – regarding his sexual orientation. I told him that I wished he was “normal” because deep down inside, at that time, I wished I was “normal.” What I didn’t realize, and what’s taken me close to over a decade to come to understand, is that I truly am that: normal. And all my queer students are, too. And, what a difference it would have made, if just one adult had told me, “You’re fine just the way you are.”
About the Author
Nathan Whitman is the current Kansas Association of Teachers of English President. He teaches 9-12 English at Burrton High School USD 369 and is also an adjunct professor at Hutchinson Community College.
By Erica Shook
This year, with all its insanity, was my tenth year of teaching. During those years, I have had a number of LGBTQ+ students pass through my classroom--some who are open with their sexuality or gender identification, and some who don’t choose to share that until after they have graduated high school and have gone on to the next phase of their lives. But all of them hold a special place with me forever. I have had a couple of transgender students over the past couple of years, one in particular whose voice I want to share with you. You see, this student has an amazing talent as a writer and an important perspective to share. I remember how nervous he was the first time the counselor brought him to my classroom to introduce us so that I would know him by his chosen name instead of the birth name listed in PowerSchool. He has a quick wit, a clever mind, and an amazing smile. But he was also struggling, though he shared that with very few people. Early one February, as we were talking about senior showcases, I asked him if he knew what he wanted to do after high school. His answer broke my heart: “I haven’t really thought about it. Most days I’m not sure I’ll be alive that long.”
Talking was hard at first, but writing was cathartic for him, so we focused on that as a way for him to communicate his feelings and experiences. Many days we spent my planning period working side-by-side at a table in my classroom: him writing, me grading or lesson planning. I would help edit when he asked. I believe very strongly that what he has to say should be read by everyone--certainly all educators--and I am sharing that voice here with his permission.
The following is a small portion of his words, shared with me over a period of months. My hope in sharing with others is that they will reflect on the relationships they have with students in their classrooms or school communities and ask themselves if there are areas in which to grow:
“To begin, I struggle with dysphoria from being transgender. Being trans has affected almost every part of my life.
Every morning when I wake up, I struggle to get ready to start my day, beginning with chest binding. This can cause many internal problems such as pain and overheating and can worsen already existing problems such as asthma and respiratory infections. It gets hard to look at things positively when every morning you have to face your worst flaws. When brushing my teeth, sometimes I have to refrain from looking into the mirror. If I do, I tend to wonder if I am passing well enough? Is my chest flat enough? Would changing my shirt help? Nevermind, I will just wear a hoodie every day, even when it’s 95 degrees outside. However, that's not even the hardest part. Night routines. That’s the hardest part. After the day is done with its battles, I have my worst one going home and taking a shower. Time to undo the one thing keeping my confidence up. My appearance. There is a mirror, which is very inconvenient when the last thing you want is to literally face yourself. So now my gaze stays fixed. Fixed on one thing. Getting dressed. Do you enjoy a hot shower? I wish I could say yes. That’s where most people relax. Yeah... not me.
Truthfully, I do not enjoy a hot shower, or even a cold one. However, I do enjoy the relief of the constant pressure on my ribs and being clean.
When I go out to eat, go to school, or go to a public place, I have to use the restroom before I leave the house and normally won't return to a restroom until I get home. Yeah, imagine that discomfort. At school there are two restrooms I am allowed to use: either the one in the nurse's office or the staff restroom. I feel as though this just calls me out further. How am I supposed to feel normal when I can’t even use a restroom 95% of the time?
Being trans has caused a lot of mental health issues--it's depressing being separated. Which name do I write on my papers? Which line do I fit in during P.E.? Which locker room do I use? I constantly feel like no one gets it. It is very lonely, and it’s hard to explain why I can’t just go to a certain place, or why I have to cut my trip short because there is no restroom for me to legally use. I constantly struggle with feeling accepted, especially around my family. I have been bullied and harassed for being transgender. I am different--everything is different. I have all the typical teenage bullshit, but on top of all of that, I am trans. I need to find less destructive outlets. To hide one problem, I tend to take on a different problem. I need to find some balance in my feelings. I can never find a good place between being too feminine or too masculine. Puberty is something that is making me anxious; it’s something I am going to have to go through all over again in the future.
Throughout life, you have to meet new people. I hate having to introduce myself to anyone. I don’t know how they will feel about me or the intrusive questions they may ask. I don’t know how to explain myself. Really, I don't want to. Coming out can either make you closer to family or destroy your relationship with them. There are countless reasons why relationships are difficult with a significant other. You have to open up even when you don't want to (about your triggers, about where they can and can’t hold you, about things they can and cannot say, and about dealing with how their family and the public feels about you). It feels so unfair to put someone you care about through all of that. I hate name problems, like when I am dead named (called my birth name) because of my family in front of someone who knows me as my chosen name or having to explain pronouns.
My future is my biggest worry, aside from my day-to-day problems. I don’t want to go to college, and that is going to upset my family. I have fear of what my future might look like. Financially, for myself, things are going to be very expensive. Things like surgeries and testosterone. I fear failure. I hope to one day do something big, like write a book, or maybe even a play. I want to try and make a difference for kids like myself. But, I worry about being fired due to my identity, being harassed or bullied by the public or coworkers, potentially ending up homeless, being denied housing or evicted, denied medical care or being targeted by others.
A lot has been taken from me because I am Trans. My childhood was not always happy, and I remember being alone a lot of the time. My sister and cousins never wanted to play things that I enjoyed. They played with makeup or Barbies and did each other's hair. They would play house, and I would only take part if I had a male role...like a dad or brother. I didn’t enjoy having family occasions--my birth name was said and used too often. I love the beach. God I love it. The sand, the water and the smell. It helps me feel free. It helps my mind. Which is amazing but sad because I have to wear a t-shirt. It’s hot there, and it makes me uncomfortable. The city pool is just Hell. I can’t get married wherever I please. I can’t have my own kids like a normal cisgendered male, and that kills me inside. Thinking about it makes me sick...it makes me feel empty. I think I hate that part the most. Anger overwhelms me, and makes me hate the world as well as myself. I hate my body so so deeply. I love children, but having them, that is going to be hard. It’s unfair for my significant other. I fear I am not enough, or won't be enough. I feel that I am not enough. I am not as strong nor as big as a typical male. I don’t have many friends because it’s hard to bond. I never got to play the sports I wish I could have or write the name I felt was right on the top of my papers. I never got to express myself. I fell... deep. Into a hole of self-loathing and doubt.
Sleep sucks, waking up sucks, peeing sucks, going out to eat sucks. I am alive, but am I living? I am scared. I am so scared of losing hope and just not having anything but myself. I was always alone, so I came out to fix that. I was wrong because now I feel even more alone. It is hard to even breathe thinking of all the things I didn’t get to see. I didn’t get to control. Yet, I am still in the same spot and not shit has changed. The world has expressed my unwelcomeness, but I did not ask to be here. When I am asked why I chose this, I say I didn't choose a thing. I didn’t choose to hate my physical existence. I didn’t choose to fight all the time with loved ones or my own personal battles. I did not choose to struggle every day. I wish that was understood. I want nothing more than what those people who question me have. I want what you do, I promise.
I have yet to understand why such bad things happen to the best of people. Especially things that no one should ever go through. I guess life just isn’t fair. I feel sad right now, maybe the word I'm actually looking for is overwhelmed. I broke yesterday. I cried...on the floor in the bathroom and made some very bad decisions. I just hurt...all too bad. Replacing emotional pain with physical pain. Does it help? Well, my honest answer is yes. But only for a moment. Only while it's literally tearing you apart. Then its effects last forever. In a helpless spiral you will fall. I want to love and be loved. I want to spread it and I want to feel it. I want to love myself the most. It is so confusing. I hate my physical being; however internally, I don’t believe I am terrible...
I hope one day it all won’t hurt so bad. Some things that happened, I will take to my grave remaining secret. That is where they belong. Dead. As dead as they made me feel. In time I will be better. I hold onto that thought. I don’t know how, or even when. But that time will come.”
About the Author
Erica Shook is the English Department Chair at McPherson High School, USD 418. Because of her passion for students, educators and education, ELA, YA literature, and social activism, she is also a Project LIT Community chapter leader and the KATE Vice-President. One of the most important things she has learned during her time teaching is that absolutely everything that happens in one's classroom hinges on the relationships built there. Representation matters and is an essential component of those relationships. Follow her on Twitter at @Ms_Shook or on Instagram at @ms_shook for book suggestions to build classroom libraries or for continued professional development. You can also check out https://www.glsen.org/ or https://www.tolerance.org/ for additional resources.
Leveraging NCTE’s Position Statements to Support Teachers’ Curricular Inclusion of Sexual and Gender Diversity
By Dr. Katie Cramer
As a teacher educator, I have been preparing future middle and high school English teachers—first in Georgia and now in Kansas—for more than a decade. Since 2007, I have used position statements from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) to support my professional practice, particularly my decision to center sexual and gender diversity in my curriculum.
When NCTE passed the Resolution on Strengthening Teacher Knowledge of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Issues in 2007, I was able to further defend my curricular inclusion of sexual and gender diversity in my English methods class against resistance from a small but vocal minority of my teacher candidates who argued that …
Aside from expressing my dismay at each of these claims (and my absolute horror at the last one)—as well as my relief that I’ve not heard teacher candidates express these views in the past 10 years—I will not belabor them. In fact, I have written about these challenges before, including in Kansas English (Mason & Harrell, 2012) and more recently in a chapter in Incorporating LGBTQ+ Identities in K-12 Curriculum and Policy (Cramer, 2020).
Instead, in this piece, I want to remind all of us that we can be even more powerful in our teaching for social justice when we seek out support from our professional organizations at the state and national levels.
What are position statements?
For the past 50 years, NCTE has published position statements on a number of issues that guide and support our professional practice. According to NCTE, position statements “bring the latest thinking and research together to help define best practices, offer guidance for navigating challenges, and provide an expert voice to back up the thoughtful decisions teachers must make each day” (NCTE Position Statements). They begin as resolutions, crafted and submitted by a group of at least five NCTE members and reviewed by the NCTE Committee on Resolutions before being discussed and voted on at the Annual Convention and later ratified by NCTE membership. NCTE notes the value of both the process and the product on its resolutions page:
“When a resolution is ratified it signals to members and the wider education community that these issues are top concerns. Most resolutions also come with research about and suggested solutions to the problem. As such, a resolution is a tool you can use as an educator to advocate for these issues, knowing you have the backing of a national organization in your stance.” (NCTE Resolutions)
The oldest position statements NCTE lists on its website were discussed and voted on at the NCTE Annual Business Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1970 and include fascinating and still relevant resolutions on …
More recently, NCTE membership has ratified statements that center sexual and gender diversity. During LGBTQ Pride Month, let’s turn our attention to two position statements that support our efforts to recognize and affirm sexual and gender diversity in our schools and curriculums.
Resolution on Strengthening Teacher Knowledge of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Issues (2007)
NCTE’s Resolution on Strengthening Teacher Knowledge of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Issues was ratified in November 2007 at the beginning of my career in teacher education, and it has provided the support I needed to center sexual and gender diversity in my teacher preparation curriculum. It states that “effective teacher preparation programs help teachers understand and meet their professional responsibilities, even when their personal beliefs seem in conflict with concepts of social justice” (NCTE, 2007). It advocates for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ studies in teacher education programs, even going so far as to advocate that accrediting bodies recognize the importance of the study of LGBTQ+ issues in such programs. This resolution/position statement not only strengthened individual faculty members’ rationales for the inclusion of sexual and gender diversity in their coursework, it also led to positive changes within the NCTE. Less than two years later in March 2009, English Journal published its first themed issue on sexual and gender diversity, and more recently, the NCTE formed the LGBTQ Advisory Committee on which I am currently serving my second term.
Statement on Gender and Language (2018)
In 2018, NCTE members ratified the Statement on Gender and Language, which evolved out of NCTE’s previous position statements on gender and language from 1978, 1985, and 2002. The most current iteration of this statement “builds on contemporary understandings of gender that include identities and expressions beyond a woman/man binary” (NCTE, 2018). This 12-page document—one of the longest NCTE position statements I’ve encountered—features a plethora of information to guide teachers’ understanding of gender diversity. It defines gender-expansive terminology; describes research-based recommendations for working with students, colleagues, and the broader professional community; and includes an annotated bibliography of resources to help us “use language to reflect the reality of gender diversity and support gender diverse students” (NCTE, 2018).
Stay Tuned …
This summer, I was invited by the NCTE Presidential Team to collaborate with colleagues across the U.S. to revise three statements on gender and gender diversity. Two of the statements are 25 and 30 years old, respectively, and they need considerable updating as conceptions of gender and sexuality—and the language we use to describe them—have evolved (and continue to evolve). This committee, under the leadership of Dr. Mollie Blackburn, is currently planning to address both sexual and gender diversity in curriculum design in our revisions, and we hope to have one or more statements ready for discussion and vote at the 2020 NCTE Convention, which will take place virtually this year.
Your Next Steps
I invite you to take some time this summer, as you reflect on your curriculum design and prepare for the next academic year, to engage in the following activities:
Alongside our state affiliate the Kansas Association of Teachers of English (KATE), NCTE’s vision is to empower English language arts teachers at all levels to “advance access, power, agency, affiliation, and impact for all learners” (NCTE About Us). NCTE’s position statements are just one of the many ways the organization enacts that vision.
Cramer, K.M. (2020). Addressing sexual and gender diversity in an English education teacher preparation program. In A. Sanders, L. Isbell & K. Dixon (Eds.), Incorporating LGBTQ+ identities in K-12 curriculum and policy (pp. 66-111). IGI Global.
Mason, K. & Harrell, C. (2012). Searching for common ground: Two teachers discuss their support for and concerns about the inclusion of LGBTQ issues in English methods courses.” Kansas English, 95(1), 22-36.
NCTE (n.d.). About us. https://ncte.org/about/
NCTE. (n.d.). Position statements. https://ncte.org/resources/position-statements/
NCTE. (n.d.). Resolutions. https://ncte.org/resources/position-statements/resolutions/
NCTE. (2007, November 30). Resolution on strengthening teacher knowledge of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues.
NCTE. (2018, October 25). Statement on gender and language.
About the Author
Katherine Mason Cramer is a former middle school English teacher and a professor of English Education at Wichita State University. She has been a KATE member since 2010 and an NCTE member since 2000. She serves on the KATE Executive Board, and has served as Editor of Kansas English since 2017. She can be reached at Katie.Cramer@wichita.edu.
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