The greatest obstacle facing LGBTQ young people today is adults. As a library specialist who works with students from Pre-K to the fourth grade, I know that the students understand that LGBTQ people deserve respect — it’s often the adults who are stuck in old ways of thinking. I believe it’s the responsibility of adult allies to work to educate themselves about LGBTQ young people to better create a safe environment in schools for all students.
And for me, the key to being a better ally to LGBTQ youth has been listening.
Although it is not the responsibility of LGBTQ people to educate allies, I’ve had the opportunity to learn by listening to the experiences of those closest to me. My exposure to allyship began by listening to my aunt who faced discrimination after the death of her partner; being denied the government support readily given to straight widows pushed her to greater connection with her community and a position as an advocate for LGBTQ rights. I’ve also learned from my teenage son, who has come out as transgender. Trying to be supportive through his transition, including changing his gender marker and name, opened a completely new level of my understanding of the experiences of transgender youth — and trying to be supportive, both as a parent and an ally, meant that I needed to listen.
As educated and as open as we think we are, especially about LGBTQ issues, it’s good to know how much we don’t know. It’s good to be humble and recognize that adults, especially straight and cisgender adults, cannot completely understand the lived realities of LGBTQ young people. Despite that humility, it is our responsibility to do more every day in terms of understanding the realities of our students that we might not ever have to face. We should never stop working to treat each other better; we should never stop listening.
We must also take initiative to educate ourselves and not burden LGBTQ youth with the responsibility of teaching us. It’s okay to have questions, but it’s also okay for people to not answer them, especially if they are about their own identities. Not having exposure to certain life experiences doesn’t make you a bad person — it just gives you more opportunities for growth.
There are so many resources out there for you and for me. For one, GLSEN’s Ally Week is coming up in September. It’s a time when LGBTQ students organize in their schools to share what they need from their allies, and educators can facilitate the conversation in the classroom. Educators can register for the program to receive free streaming of LGBTQ-inclusive classroom documentaries from the Youth & Gender Media Project and Groundspark!
GLSEN has a host of other resources, like the Safe Space Kit for secondary educators and Ready, Set, Respect! for elementary educators. There’s also PFLAG, and there’s even the American Library Association, which will work to help you find LGBTQ-inclusive books for all ages and subjects to incorporate into your curriculum. The learning never stops!
Stacey Pepper Schwartz is currently a library specialist at an elementary school in Connecticut.