Testimony regarding reporting from the Department of Education on Gender and Sexuality Alliances

Testimony of UFT Vice President for Academic High Schools Janella Hinds and UFT Director of Community and Parent Outreach Anthony Harmon before the City Council on Education

Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to testify here today.  The United Federation of Teachers, and its 200,000 members who serve children of all genders and sexual orientations, would like to thank the Committee on Education’s Chairman Danny Dromm for holding this hearing.

Childhood is often a difficult time in the lives of LGBTQ people. They grow up in a society that assumes children are cisgender and heterosexual by default. LGBTQ children discover — often at an early age — that they’re different from the stereotypes and expectations they encounter everywhere from movies and television to their own families. That alone would be a challenge for any child but, sadly, it’s only the beginning. Many LGBTQ children cannot even rely on their own parents for understanding, with disproportionate numbers facing verbal and physical abuse or abandonment.

All too often, school presents LGBTQ students with more challenges. The majorities of New York’s LGBTQ students are bullied or physically assaulted because of their identities, according to a report from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. Black gay males and LGBTQ students with disabilities often find themselves at an even greater risk. These factors leave these students more vulnerable to feelings of isolation and depression, fights, substance abuse, truancy and dropping out. Tragically, the risk of suicide among the LGBTQ population is also much higher than other students.

The UFT — including our many LGBTQ members — is committed to the safety and civil rights of LGBTQ students and teachers. We’re proud to have worked with the Department of Education, Councilmember Dromm, and many other members of this council, past and present, to make New York City’s schools a safer space for LGBTQ students. Curriculums and classroom discussions now focus on building respect, inclusiveness, and understanding among students. Outside organizations — including the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network — regularly provide a wealth of supports and materials to schools.

Our work is includes training thousands of UFT members in the Dignity For All Students Act around the specific needs of transgender and gender-nonconforming students. Educators who participate in these trainings explore everything from how to be a visible and vocal ally to the correct choice of pronouns to use when addressing a transgender student.

What’s more, our Positive Learning Collaborative, a joint initiative with the DOE, provides teachers and staff with intensive training to help students deal with feelings of frustration, anger, rejection and depression. And our BRAVE anti-bullying program includes a student and parent hotline, parent workshops and conferences — all with the expressed goal of responding to and preventing bullying, including how to talk to children about bullying and how to support affected children.

At the Earth School, an elementary school in the East Village, teachers help students learn about different rights movements — including LGBQT rights — through an inquiry-based approach. Students work in groups to research and examine the history, major events and key figures in the different movements. Then they connect what they’ve learned to overarching themes of solidarity and consciousness-raising. They present their understandings through a group project, one that entails education, outreach and empowerment, as well as an individual project on a specific area of their choosing.

At Harvey Milk HS, the country’s very first public high school dedicated to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning students, it’s the students who are leading by example. Each month, a group of students and educators travel to middle schools, high schools, and colleges across the city to present their unique LGBTQ+ Diversity Panel to other students. They share their inspirational stories to packed auditoriums, relating their experiences on how they identify, how they came out to their friends and family, and how they work through being bullied. This is part of a larger mission of raising gender awareness and educating other students and teachers about identity.

Critically, teachers work with students to create Gender and Sexuality Alliances and Gay Straight Alliances — both called GSAs — such as the one created at Staten Island’s New Dorp High School by two teachers and a paraprofessional. The club went from a few students a decade ago to about 30 regular attendees. They collaborate with the Pride Center of Staten Island to bring activities to the school, like an annual LGBTQ prom, and they help organize the school’s Day of Silence — a national event bringing attention to anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of GSAs like these. Providing LGBTQ students a space to come together and share their experiences, affirm each other, explore their identities and learn about their history is absolutely vital to their education, mental health and safety. GSAs help create a refuge for LGBTQ students from pervasive hostility, provide them a necessary emotional support and empower them to assert their rights and needs.

GSAs also build bridges between LGBTQ and straight and cisgender students, helping them to understand one another and serve as a resource to entire school communities.

We must be diligent in making the whole school a safe place for its LGBTQ students. One way we can do that is by doing all we can to encourage the formation of GSAs in our schools. That’s why it’s so important that the Department of Education report which schools have these groups and whether the city supports them financially. As teachers, we often say that knowledge is power and this knowledge will empower us to identify which schools and students still need GSAs.

Going forward, the UFT’s Pride Committee will be a major vehicle to bring about more positive change for LGBTQ students and teachers. Though recently dormant, the committee has a notable history: At the height of the AIDS crisis, it established a hotline which provided hundreds of our members with counseling and other assistance. The Pride Committee was rekindled in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016. That tragedy — the deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter and the deadliest act of violence against LGBTQ people in modern United States history — galvanized our members and redoubled our resolve to fight for the LGBTQ community inside and outside our schools.

We are grateful that the Council and this committee are working to support LGBTQ students and encourage GSAs in our schools, and we look forward to working with you on this issue in the months ahead.

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