Kathleen Brown asked the teachers in the room to identify themselves in a word.
“Teacher ... mother ... runner,” came the responses.
Then Brown asked the group to imagine that for the next year, they could not, must not, express that identity. If they had identified as female, as a mother, or sister, no one could know.
How would you feel, she asked.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
“Angry ... not good ... lost,” teachers replied.
What would you do, she asked.
“Lie ... hide ... not speak,” teachers replied.
It was just an exercise, but for young people who know or think they might be gay or transgender, it’s real, said Brown, 51, a professor in the UNC School of Education. “These are our kids, who are coming to understand themselves at a very young age,” she said.
Queer and questioning kids challenge heteronormativity, the assumption that everyone expresses their gender and sexuality in the same widely accepted ways.
And Brown, whose 11-year-old son is questioning his gender, said, “even me, who teaches this stuff, struggles with it.”
Brown, a former middle school teacher and elementary and middle school principal, spoke Nov. 21 at the first annual SAFE Schools NC conference, held at Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill.
About 140 teachers and administrators from across the state came to learn more about LGBTQ youth and how to make their schools a better place for them.
A 2011 national school climate survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network shows schools are not always safe now.
In a survey of 245 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender high school students in North Carolina, 86 percent reported being called names or threatened because of their sexual orientation. Thirty-eight percent said they had been pushed or shoved because of it, and 18 percent said they had been punched, kicked or injured with a weapon.
Of those harassed or assaulted at school, 60 percent never reported it to school officials; 57 percent never told a family member.
If any of you can be that teacher, that gave them hope, that actually listened to them, then that would mean the world to a lot of kids.
Mason Kotarakos, 16, Cedar Ridge High School
“When we look at our culture, the dominant norms prevail, and it’s reinforced every day in our (communities) and that includes schools,” said SAFE Schools NC President Meg Goodhand, an assistant principal at E.K. Powe Elementary School in Durham.
“If we don’t begin to be visible and speak up, nothing is going to change for our students who are gender diverse or who are LGBT or are perceived to be,” she said.
‘King & King’
Goodhand was at the center of a controversy at Efland-Cheeks Elementary School in rural Orange County this year when she gave teacher Omar Currie a copy of “King & King,” a gay fairy tale, to read in his third-grade class after Currie said a boy had been called gay and teased in gym class that he was acting “like a woman.”
A school committee twice upheld the book, in which two princes fall in love and get married. About 200 people attended a school hearing, most to support Currie. A second hearing was canceled after Currie and Goodhand, the assistant principal at the time, resigned and the parents who had lodged the complaint dropped their appeal.
At the conference, Currie, now teaching fourth grade in Alexandria, Va., said he’d do it again.
“I never missed a day (in middle school), so I never missed a day to be bullied,” Currie said. “I got called faggot every day in middle school.”
He even grew his hair out in corn rows to try to look tough, he said.
“Youth today are coming out younger than ever before,” Currie said, “but schools are not keeping up.”
“King & King,” which he learned about as an undergraduate at UNC, tells the story of a queen who wants her son to marry so she can retire. The prince is not attracted to any potential partners who visit the palace until one princess visits with her brother. The attraction is mutual, the two princes get married and on the last page, after the story ends, kiss, a red heart covering their lips.
“My decision to read ‘King & King’ was a natural response for me,” Currie told the teachers. “Our number one job is to keep all students safe. We cannot do that when we are picking and choosing which students and families to represent.”
Terri Phoenix, director of the LGBTQ Center at UNC, agrees that young people are identifying as LGBTQ at an earlier age.
While the average age of coming was 18 to 23 in the 1990s, it’s 13 to 16 today, research shows, said Phoenix, who is transgender and goes by “T,” rather than the binary pronouns “he” or “she.”
“Their notions of (gender and) sexual orientation are not as fixed as my generation was,” said Phoenix, 48. “I think young people feel a freedom to identify how they are in the moment.”
A student panel at the conference showed how rapidly things are changing. Speakers identified as gay, queer, transgender or pansexual, which means not limited in sexual choice by sex, gender or gender identity.
But freedom does not always mean safe.
Jaden Jules, of Riverside High School, told how he was punched in the face in front of a school bus a few weeks ago, “and nobody did anything about it.”
“It was kind of like, damn, this is really messed up,” the 16-year-old said. “Sometimes you’ll be walking down the hallway and somebody will say the F (faggot) word. It just really hurts.”
Jessica Dawson, also 16, described herself as asexual and said teachers sometimes make students feel even more alone. Asexual typically is defined as having no or little sexual feelings.
“Everyone assumes that everyone is the same,” Dawson said, “The teachers will say, ‘All of you eventually are going to have sex.’ It just feels like they’re pushing you away.”
“I wish I could tell teachers that’s not what everyone does and that’s not what everyone feels.”
SAFE Schools board members hope to make the conference, for which participants could get professional development credit, an annual event.
Next year, Goodhand said, she’d like to see a broader range of topics, including a discussion of gender identity and religion.
“This just really felt like a beginning for me,” she said.
Graffiti at East Chapel Hill High
This fall vandals spray painted homophobic graffiti on a building and parking lot signs at East Chapel Hill High School.
The vandalism was discovered Saturday, Sept. 26, hours before the school’s Queer Straight Alliance club was to carpool to the N.C. Pride Parade in Durham.
In a recorded message to the East community last month, Superintendent Tom Forcella deplored the “hateful, anti-gay rhetoric.”
“There are some in the community who are publicly criticizing the school’s administrative team for not doing more in response,” he said. “To the contrary I believe the school leaders handled the incident wth wisdom and with professional savvy. Two calls were immediately made, first to the Chapel Hill police and second to our maintenance crew. The graffiti was quickly removed.”
Security cameras showed three suspects, but due to lack of lighting and their head coverings they could not be identified. “However if or when one gets identified we will push for prosecution to the fullest extent allowed by law,” Forcella said.
“It has been made abundantly clear to the student body that such language, whether typed, spoken or spray painted, will never be excused,” he said.