by Lori Cohen, a Bright Morning Associate and contributing blogger
“I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do.”
– Audre Lorde
A Rough Beginning
When I first came out to my mom at age 23, I told her there was something wrong with me. Back then, I believed there was. Growing up, my exposure to what it meant to be gay was narrow. LGBTQ representation in the media mostly included people (predominantly white) who were tokenized, suffering, dying, or losing their jobs by coming out. The film industry portrayed same-sex love as a forbidden act, and protagonists died violent and dispairing deaths. Even in my first years teaching, coming out was a transgressive act, one where I could have possibly lost my job. It was a rough beginning.
I became an educator for many reasons, chief of which was working for social justice and increasing access for all students. While coming out was painful, I also realized what a difference it made not only in my own life, but what it meant for my students. Being out was a necessity rather than an option. If I wanted all my students to feel honored in their identities, I needed to embrace my own, even in spaces of risk and vulnerability.
In recent years, we have become increasingly aware of how representation matters in our schools. Students of color who have teachers of color in elementary school are 39 percent more likely to persist through high school, and LGBTQ-identified students who have an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum will have better educational outcomes. In many of our organizations, it is easy to perpetuate the status quo if members of the dominant culture have a seat at the table; yet with the increasing numbers of students of color in our public school system, we need schools to be places that contain more dynamism and representation, ensuring our young people are learning in conditions that allow them to be fully themselves.
A Changing World
Thankfully, my mom has always been my most loving and supportive champion (and quickly responded that there was nothing wrong with me), and the media is increasing our exposure to healthier and more complex portraits of the LGBTQ community. While we have a long way to go in dismantling dominant and oppressive systems, and while acts of extremism and hate continue to be on the rise, we’re living in a time where our definitions of humanity are evolving and striving to be more inclusive. For as many acts of hate as there are, there are a greater number of opportunities to practice acts of love.
Equity as an Act of Love
As an educator, I have learned that equity is an ongoing practice—a slow, messy, evolving one. And that process begins by seeing ourselves as complex people who have been conditioned by systems that value some parts of us while marginalizing other parts. And if we want a better world for our students, we each have a role to play in dismantling those destructive systems. My approach is to practice equity as an act of love (both for myself and those I serve). The following reminders keep me grounded and ensure I’m centering my practice on love:
- Fumble forward: I certainly had a clunky time of coming out, and I have had equally clunky moments of talking about race and difference at my various school sites. And those fumbling moments are when I do my most learning. If we recognize that all of us are doing the best we can with the tools we have, and that talking about difference will be as awkward as puberty, then we’ll have more compassion and care for one another—and be willing to fumble forward together.
- Stay optimistic; stay open: Once upon a time, there were very few LGBTQ role models who I could look to in our larger culture. Twenty years later, I can barely count all the LGBTQ heroes. This was the consequence of a culture shift, of our collective willingness to understand that the labels we ascribe to ourselves aren’t simply ways of being more politically correct, but rather, validations of our humanity. The more open we are to people around us and the more we are able to love people as their full selves, the greater the possibility that we’ll see the world change for the better.
- Be humble: In practices of equity, “truth” is a moving target. As I learned from navigating my own coming out process, we never know what’s going on for someone else, the stories and messages that have shaped who they are. Consequently, it is important that we own our stories, experiences, mistakes and blind spots, that we say “I don’t know” and approach people from places of humility and curiosity. After all, it is what we would expect from others when they are learning about us.
Engaging in these dispositions invites us into community with one another, serves as an antidote to a world where difference sanctions hate, and allows us to be better models for our students: the ones who need us to be our truest, most flourishing, and authentic selves.
The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of Bright Morning.