As part of our Back to School campaign to support LGBTQ students and their families, we spoke with National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia to learn more about how the NEA supports LGBTQ youth.

1. Why is it important that your organization explicitly support LGBTQ youth?
The NEA’s three million educators in our nation’s public schools – from classroom teachers to bus drivers, food service workers, janitors, school nurses and paraprofessionals – play key roles in supporting student success and students cannot be successful at school without feeling safe and supported as their whole selves. Additionally, throughout our history as an organization we have been  tirelessly dedicated to ensuring civil rights for educators, students and our communities –the fight for LGBTQ rights does not begin or end with marriage equality and we are bound together by a vision and a mission of equality for all.

2. Describe the biggest challenge that LGBTQ youth face in schools.
We know the toll on young people when they feel there is no place for them - targeted bullying, high dropout rates, and high suicide rates are just some.  Our students are also living in a world where the 24-hour news cycle is filled with violence against their community and some elected officials trying to use legislation and policy to codify discrimination and intolerance. What’s even more challenging is that students and educators are seeing students mimicking hate and bias at schools. Our students are managing a lot and we see firsthand the positive impact when educators create spaces for students to share what they are feeling and to understand they are not alone.

3. How does your organization support LGBTQ youth?
Well, first we provide quality resources for educators, parents and the public as well as professional development opportunities for educators (www.NEAedjustice.org) to foster positive school climate and organize others in their schools to join them.  We also engage with a growing number of social justice activists who are literally speaking up and stepping forward to support LGBTQ students in their schools and in their communities in ways that are deepening community dialogue and raising issues of intersectionality.  We also work in coalition with national partners like HRC to help us be the best allies to LGBTQ students that we can be.

4. What advice do you have for educators, youth, parents etc. going back to school?
For educators, start by creating spaces to truly get to know and listen to our students. Allow them to share their fears and hopes and never forget that you are often their primary advocate and mentor at school. Hate and bias at school negatively impacts the entire community.  We have resources for you to address these incidents.

Students, we learn so much from you! Look around your school building and build relationships with your educators –it may be your bus driver or the school nurse, or it may be a teacher. Find community with other students if you can through clubs or interests. If you are struggling, please ask for help. If you are an ally, be present and listen, but also use your voice to be an advocate.

For parents, get to know your school counselors and your student’s education team. Public schools belong to all of us, and it’s critical to our collective success that we belong to each other. Together we must create spaces where students feel safe to share their concerns, fears and hopes. The voices of parents, students and educators are critical.

5. The election changed the world and some LGBTQ youth are afraid to return to school. What advice do you have for those students?
Look for your caring adults and mentors at school. Build community with other students. There is safety and power in numbers. If you feel unsafe, reach out to any caring adult. It is our duty as educators to ensure that our students have the ability to access safe schools and a public education.

Housed by the HRC Foundation, Welcoming Schools and Time to THRIVE are national programs to help LGBTQ youth succeed. Welcoming Schools provides professional development to educators and free resources to educators and families to support a respectful elementary school climate for all students. Time to THRIVE is an annual national conference that brings together K-12 educators, counselors and other youth-serving professionals to build awareness and cultural competency to better support LGBTQ youth.


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