By Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson
Since September of 2021, “Rainbow Connection” has engaged members with resources, methods and support to create safer, more affirming schools for LGBTQIA+ youth, educators and school professionals. In schools, queer and trans teachers face similar challenges to those of our LGBTQIA+ youth counterparts, but most of the time we don’t have the benefit of our own GSAs or queer-affirming spaces to gather, share and take action.
While certain demographic data is clear, sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) data is harder to come by. 2020 estimates put the number of LGBTQIA+ New Jerseyans at somewhere between 300,00 and 400,000, or just over 4%, with that percentage likely being represented among teachers and school employees too. LGBTQIA+ educators everywhere—whatever the numbers—deserve affirmation and support.
Hillsborough Education Association members, seeking a more secure and supportive space to be their authentic selves at work, initiated an LGTBQ+ Affinity Group in their district. Meetings helped the small group feel more empowered. They recognized that if they weren’t feeling great about things at school, students probably felt similar. In 2022, they partnered with the local YMCA to organize a Pride event that included the district middle school and high school GSAs, and in 2023, HEA President Henry Goodhue asked them to become an official committee!
The new HEA LGBTQ+ Alliance Committee, a multigenerational affinity group, responds to the needs and goals of its members by meeting regularly, sponsoring community events and hosting signature events for students throughout the school year. Their organizational goals were formed with student input: support LGBTQIA+ inclusive curricula and be visible—including on the district website.
Their first official event, “Voices Unveiled: A Spotlight on LGBTQ+ Student Experiences,” was carefully curated to lift up the voices of queer students through personal narratives, with a kickoff presentation by the HEA LGBTQ+ Alliance Committee.
The event was for queer community and “co-conspirators”—with opting-in opportunities for ally students and faculty. It provided the audience with education and background to prepare them for the personal storytelling they would engage with. These stories illuminated the more complex intersectional challenges students face daily, based on their intersectional racial, ethnic, gender and sexual identities.
Particular attention was given to the student GSA participants speaking to the invitation-only group, with special organizing attention toward SEL issues, consent, and safety for students before, during, and after the event.
Occupational therapist Jeannette Sena, the committee’s chair, said the event was:
…aimed at amplifying the voices of queer students and fostering understanding within the broader school community. It centered a series of powerful and personal narratives shared by students who bravely recounted their unique experiences as LGBTQ+ individuals in a school setting.
The diverse range of stories illuminated the challenges and triumphs faced by queer students, fostering empathy and encouraging an open dialogue. The event drew a substantial turnout, with both students and faculty members in attendance. Attendees actively engaged with the speakers, asking thoughtful questions that further enriched the conversation.
The HEA LGBTQ+ Alliance Committee’s commitment to creating a space where students can authentically share their stories not only contributes to a more inclusive school environment but also promotes empathy, understanding, and allyship among the entire school community.
Happily, the committee is seeing growing support in participation and queer-affirmation work more widely in their district, bringing their mission to life: advocate, educate, inspire and support LGBTQ+ faculty, students, and community to make safer schools and illuminate LBTQ+ joy!
Let us know about what’s happening in your district at rainbowconnectionnNJEA@gmail.com!
Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson (both she/her) are out queer educators, leaders and agitators working to make education affirming and inclusive for all of their students and colleagues. Moran has taught middle school for 29 years and was a high school GSA adviser for 16 years. Okeson is a 26-year art educator, GSA adviser for 14 years, local association president, and co-founder/program director of Make it Better for Youth.