In a time of increased polarity, where the right seems to be growing more violent, afraid, and vindictive, and where queer people are caught in the spotlight of the culture wars, I feel so lucky to be a Jew. Certainly not all Jews and not all Jewish communities are open and welcoming to LGBTQ folks, but many are. Every Jewish service or gathering that I have been to in the past couple of weeks has not only mentioned the problem of harassment toward LGBTQ students and it’s root causes, but issued a call to action from its members to act on this problem. As a queer Jew in non-queer Jewish spaces, this has lifted me up, and filled me with hope. Not all LGBTQ youth experience harassment and bullying in schools, and no one should have to experience this type of intimidation and violence. Knowing that many Jews and Jewish communities support my convictions makes me feel even that much more comfortable within the Jewish spaces that I inhabit.
The current rash of teen suicides also holds deeply personal meaning for me. I teach middle school students, and also train teachers in working with LGBTQ youth and teach them strategies for creating safe environments for all students in their classes. I am also currently in production on a film, The Next Gender Nation, which highlights the particular challenges faced by gender variant students (those who do not neatly fit into the girl/boy model of school life).
This work has always been incredibly important to me because of the high drop out rate of gender variant students, and because of the depression and negative behaviors that often result from extreme harassment and mistreatment. Hearing from students can create a powerful catalyst to inspire educators to become better allies. This often requires teachers to stand up for their students when administrators are acting unjustly, or when other teachers are singling students out for abuse.
Most of the youth I interviewed for The Next Gender Nation experienced harassment from administrators and teachers, which they categorized as significantly worse than the bullying they experienced from peers. As one interviewee described her experiences of harassment in middle school: “It was really the Deans, I can’t really remember any of the students. It wasn’t as bad as the Deans, just because, I guess, they had power. That was, that was my whole case since middle school. It was always Deans, not really students. And if it were they were it was, like, occasional. But when it was the dean’s it would be, like, whenever I see them.” She went on to describe specific ways in which she had been harassed by Deans, including intimidation: “One of the Deans told me that “my days are numbered.” This Dean also told my friend’s mom that “my days are numbered.” My friend’s mom then told my mother, who finally believed me that the Deans were unfairly targeting me.” This type of harassment is unacceptable and illegal. AB 537, the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 clearly states that schools have a responsibility to act when harassment is occurring based on a students’ gender identity or sexual orientation. My work as an educator is to inform school personnel of their legal obligation to protect students, and educate them about how to do so effectively. I hope that we can all pledge to work a little harder on this issue, to ensure that the next generation of students can experience a safer school climate than this generation. I know that those who came before me worked tirelessly to create greater opportunities for me, and now it is my turn to do so for those younger than myself.
Article written by Kalil Cohen. Visit Kalil online at www.kalilcohen.com