IN FOCUS Discussion: Creating safe spaces in schools for LGBTQIA+ youth

In Focus

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Coming out about your sexual and/or gender identity at a young age can be a scary thing for LGBTQIA+ students, especially if the individual doesn’t feel comfortable doing so with their family. Often times, they look to their peers or educators for support, but that could be hindered by barriers within the school system.

Last year, there were 41 registered Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) groups out of Utah’s 427 high schools before the pandemic. This year, that number has dropped down to seven.

“My first theory is COVID. We need teacher advisors to run GSA groups. I think our teachers are at their bandwidth. But it’s okay that our teachers aren’t available right now. They’re dealing with shutdowns and online teaching. My second theory is that I’m not sure our GSAs know that they need to register their group with the Utah Pride Center. The allows them to get resources and support from us as well,” said Amanda Darrow, the Director of Youth, Family, and Education Programs at the Utah Pride Center.

She added, “However the consequence of this is when they don’t have that space, we’re telling them they don’t belong, they’re not important, this is not a space for that. That can be detrimental.”

Back in 2007, a new law called the Student Clubs Act restricted non-curricular clubs in middle and junior high schools. That means the majority of LGBTQIA+ students in these grade levels across the state have no support or representation at school.

The law also requires high schools students to get a parental signature to join any extracurricular club, adding a barrier for LGBTQIA+ students who don’t feel comfortable with sharing their sexual or gender identities with their families yet.

GLSEN reported that in 2019, 66 percent of students reported there were no LGBTQIA+ related topics taught in their classroom. Research shows positive representation of the queer community in books, movies, TV shows, and other media can mitigate negative experiences, improve resilience, and foster self-esteem in LGBTQIA+ youth.

In the same year, a Student Health and Risk Prevention statewide survey found that 8.8 percent of youth identified as LGBTQIA+. The survey also reported feelings of sadness and serious consideration of suicide at higher rates than their heterosexual peers.

“For a long time and even still today, we still see a lack of conversation around LGBTQIA+ identities in schools. Particularly in the world where I work in elementary, there’s even a lot less as LGBTQIA+ topics historically have been seen as not been appropriate for elementary students. Even though we know they have family members or they themselves are starting to come out and identify as LGBTQIA+. Right now in Utah, I think we have a lot of room to grow,” said Kody Colvin, Assistant Principal at Escalante Elementary.

Colvin co-founded a group with another educator called Friends, Allies, and Mentors (F.A.M.) of the LGBTQIA Community in 2016. The group’s goal is to help educators and administrations to better support their LGBTQIA+ students, change the heteronormative narrative in the classroom, and provide tools to support conversations for these students to feel more seen and validated in K-12 schools.

“We realized in our pre-service coursework and even on our job training, we ourselves felt really unprepared to support conversations around LGBTQ identities and knowing that this conversation hasn’t been common practice. It’s important that as educational practitioners, we receive the training and practice before we have those conversations,” he said.

This year, the Utah Pride Center is seeing a much higher demand for their Pride Not Prejudice virtual conference, which is centered on creating a supportive and accepting environment for LGBTQIA+ students in Utah schools. The number of registrations increased from 33 educators in 2020 to 300+ in 2021.

Darrow said one of the contributing factors could be because the conference is online this year, allowing them to reach educators across the state from Logan all the way down to Washington County.

“Also as I’ve reflected not the last four years, we’ve had such a divide in this country and now, we’ve just become refreshed. We’re starting to realize that we need to lift our community up and the educators in Utah know that this is the time more than ever to do it,” she said.

The conference will take place online through Zoom and feature 20 workshops, lectures, and panels offered by community members, educators, students, caregivers, and professionals both in the LGBTQIA+ community and allies.

“The more that we embed this work and validate our LGBTQIA+ student experiences, the more it will allow them to have a memorable and enjoyable experience at school. I encourage educators and school employees to really think about the impact this inclusive work can have on our queer community,” said Colvin.

One of the speakers at this weekend’s conference is Savannah Skyler, who is known for her courageous story of coming out at church as a lesbian in 2017. The video went viral after her microphone was silenced.

“What I was thinking of when I was speaking to this group of people was that they were family and friends. I had been living there for eight years and this was my ward. It was important for me to come out to them because I see them as my caregivers,” she said.

Skyler went on to say, “When my microphone was silenced, I compared it to this. When I went on stage, I put every emotion into a bottle and when my microphone was shut down, the bottle was cracked and it exploded. I felt a range of emotions including sadness, but I also felt relieved because it was letting go of something that was keeping me down. I was out and I finally allowed to be who I am.”

Since then, Skyler has become an advocate in spreading awareness and creating change within religious and LGBTQIA+ intersecting communities. She now works with multiple organizations, has spoken at multiple events, and has been features in various documentaries.

The pre-conference is Friday at 6 p.m. and the all-day conference will starting at 9 a.m. on Saturday. Registration for students is free, $29 for adults.

For more information or to register, click here for the Pride Not Prejudice virtual conference website.

To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Skyler, Colvin, and Darrow from Thursday, click on the video at the top of the article.

Catch IN FOCUS discussions with ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen weeknights on the CW30 News at 7 p.m.

Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.
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