As Pride Month wraps up, the AFT gathered leaders in the LGBTQ rights movement to reflect on where we’ve been and where we need to go, particularly as we support young people in our schools and communities.
“This is about making sure that whoever we are, whoever we love and however we think about our sex and sexuality, we have a right to live freely and with the rights that every other person should have,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “That is part of justice work, and justice work is union work.”
She opened the discussion by welcoming Nico Craig, an 19-year-old activist who created an LGBTQ organization at his middle school when he was in seventh grade. Craig, a DJ and music producer who identifies as “a trans young man, a person of color, a young activist and, most important, the son of a 20-year veteran teacher and union member,” focused on the importance of community in supporting LGBTQ+ youth. “Without community, there is no liberation,” he said, quoting the iconic Audre Lorde.
“The greatest form of liberation for myself and my peers was to build a community at my school that was supportive, uplifting and affirming,” said Craig. He won the American Citizenship Award from Culver City for his pioneering efforts and is now an ambassador for the Human Rights Campaign.
While his story has a happy ending, Craig recognizes that other LGBTQ youth are not as fortunate. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey shows that nearly one-third of LGBTQ youth attempted suicide at least once in the prior year, compared with 6 percent of heterosexual youth. They experience higher rates of depression, substance abuse and homelessness as well. Transgender youth are particularly vulnerable.
Rooted in history
Pride’s roots trace back to the 1969 Stonewall riots, said Jeffery Freitas, California Federation of Teachers president and a vice president of the AFT, a trans-led protest against police brutality in New York City. Freitas recalled other landmarks like the White Night riots protesting lenient sentencing after the assassination of Harvey Milk, and the lack of action from the federal government as the HIV-AIDS crisis devastated so many families. “It’s been less than 20 years that we have been able to walk throughout this country and be able to love who we want to love,” he said, referring to the 2003 Lawrence v Texas case, when the Supreme Court threw out an anti-homosexual law in Texas.
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, noted that Stonewall was “led largely by Black and brown transgender women who were fighting a multifront battle to survive against discrimination, abusive policing and a system that treated their lives as disposable. The indifference and discrimination they fought is the same indifference and discrimination that we’re fighting today.”
David called 2021 the worst year for anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent history with state bills that target trans youth by shutting them out of the restrooms that match their lived gender, preventing them from playing sports and even withholding lifesaving medical care. Other bills prevent schools from teaching about LGBTQ issues—so no lessons on heroes like Harvey Milk and James Baldwin. “Anti-equality lawmakers are trying to suggest that we are less than, to dehumanize us,” said David.
Weingarten agreed and noted that while the marriage equality ruling in the Supreme Court made some people feel complacent, there is much work still to be done. “In 29 states, LGBTQ people can still be denied housing, access to education and the right to serve on juries,” she said.
One of the most important solutions is the Equality Act, currently making its way through Congress.
“The Equality Act will provide protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity in areas like education, employment, federal funding and housing, jury service and public accommodations,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), who co-chairs the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. “It truly would be all encompassing.” David calls it “an important backstop against so many bad bills we’re seeing in the states,” policy that would “ensure that LGBTQ people are finally protected under federal law.”
Several panelists urged participants to reach out to lawmakers and urge them to pass this bill. “I don’t care where you live, reaching out to your senators lights a fire under them and lets them know you care,” said Brian Bond, executive director of PFLAG, on organization started nearly 50 years ago by supportive parents of LGBTQ youth. Bond also pointed out the crucial role educators play every day in the workplace. “As educators, you are on the frontline in terms of acceptance and affirmation,” he said. “I hear story after story from my parents who say AFT educators have stepped up for kids and their families.”
And if people ask why this is still important, Bond suggests pointing them to the anti-trans legislation in the states, and the heartbreaking situations he encounters at PFLAG, where he recently helped raise money to bury a 13-year-old gay child died by suicide, and whose parents couldn’t afford to bury him themselves. “I don’t want this to be a downer,” he said, after sharing this story. “I want this to be a call to action.”