In Between: When queer students of color speak out
Navigating the seas of adolescence can be tough for pre-teens and young adults trying to discover their place in this world. For students of color identifying as LGBTQ+, figuring out how to tread those waters can be an additional challenge. There's an ongoing effort in SLO County by students, parents and some school district employees to make school a more accepting and safe place for queer students of color.
Students, family members and community members took over the auditorium at Paso Robles High School in late January for the Equity Club’s first “Stories of Pride” event — a gathering of queer students and their allies designed to acknowledge struggles, celebrate identity, and shine a light on hate.
PSHS senior Israel Perez-Pedraza led the discussion that called for change at the school and in their district.
"I'm tired of fighting for my spot and I know my Queer community is tired of this," Perez-Padraza said. "We are the same, we love the same and we function the same, so stop treating us as inhumane."
Israel is just one of a dozen who courageously stepped up to speak at the event. Stories of Pride is one example of advocacy for change being made in SLO County schools to help queer students feel just a little more like they belong, and to draw attention to hateful incidents toward them.
Kamela Proulx has been working at Atascadero High School since 2016. As the behavioral health and wellness coordinator for Atascadero Unified School District, she helps oversee the wellness center at the school.
"There’s the typical teenage stuff that we deal with — all of that stuff," Proulx said. "And then layered on top of that, a lot of our queer and trans students of color are dealing with a lack of support, a lack of recognizable role models, lack of use of the correct pronouns and names. Several, unfortunately, deal with a lot of lack of support in their families, or in the religious institutions that their families ascribe to."
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the U.S. and the third leading cause of death between 15- to 24-year-olds, according to an article published by JSciMed Central.
Statistically, bullying or lack of support from those around them is one of the primary contributors. New research published by the journal Pediatrics shows LGBTQ+ youth are significantly more likely to have suicidal thoughts and more likely to attempt suicide compared with their heterosexual peers.
Matt Pennon is a father of three with his husband Michael, a queer black man. He is a school board trustee for Atascadero Unified School District.
"The question of do you feel safe or comfortable at school has been asked, and it’s been answered, and there are students that don’t feel safe, and they don’t feel comfortable on campus because they’re being bullied, they are being targeted for who they are as a human being," Pennon said.
Like the incident that happened in October 2021 where two Paso Robles High School students defecated on a pride flag, which led PRHS to host an event called “Coming Out Against Hate.” Or, recent threats launched against the safe spaces of family drag events and the passage of laws like the “don’t say gay” bill in Florida. The growing question is: what are the school districts doing to address bullying and harassment and to help create safe, equitable, spaces for queer and trans youth of color?
Students in this community are asking that question: like the students at Paso Robles and Raine, a transgender person of color who we heard from last week. We’re not using Raine’s real name and we’ve altered their voice for privacy and safety.
"Hello, I am Raine from Atascadero High School. Latino student. Year 12," Raine said.
Raine had a strict religious and traditional Mexican upbringing, which means they present themselves very differently at home than at school.
"I'm very openly queer at school, but not at home. And then for gender identity-wise — well, it's a — it's an experience because I can't really express what I want to present as, or anything like that at home," Raine said. "I don't feel comfortable as a guy.”
In early December 2021, an Instagram page began posting anonymous stories shared by some students of AHS.
The posts range from stories about homophobia and transphobia to accounts of racism and sexual assaults at the north SLO County school.
One recurring theme: the lack of action by the school administration. Raine agrees.
"Practically nothing has been done to, like, change the rules or anything like that," Raine said. "The only thing that they did change at the beginning of the year was update the dress code because it was very incredibly outdated. But apart from that, they really haven't done anything."
But what do you do when even teachers and staff become a part of the problem?
"I have had instances where teachers have kind — or a teacher specifically — has kind of, like, harassed me," Raine said.
Raine’s teacher ignored their pleas to stop referring to them by a name they felt was derogatory. After asking the teacher to stop, correcting them, and informing them that Raine would have to bring the teacher’s actions to the attention of the administration, the teacher began to ignore Raine altogether.
"After that — the day I came into class — after that one, she just refused to call me by my name, period," Raine said. "Like, just when she needed to refer to me, she just, like, didn't refer to me using my name at all. So, at that point I realized, you know, like, this isn't a genuine mistake. This is just a teacher being an asshole."
Victor, a trans boy who’s a junior at Atascadero High School also has parents who aren’t open to his exploration of gender identity. We are also not using Victor’s real name.
"Like, even like right now my parents were like, like, oh, you should try to be more feminine because — not like the other girls your age who are cutting their hair and trying to be boys," Victor said.
Like Raine, Victor has experienced teachers making questionable remarks at school.
"The health teacher says like, oh, being gay is a result of trauma and mental illness," Raine said. "Also the English — the case where an English teacher was talking about a student's trans identity, as well, without their consent when they weren't even there in class."
School officials did not respond to a request for comment about these allegations by publication time.
"I'm very openly queer at school, but not at home."Raine, Atascadero High School student
Farther south, leaders in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District want to change how administrators and schools tackle these issues. Dr. Eric Prater has been the superintendent of that district since 2010.
Six years ago, San Luis Obispo High School published an issue of the student-run newspaper, Expressions. that included multiple stories on LGBTQ+ topics and students. There was a backlash after one of the school’s teachers, wrote a letter to the editor quoting Biblical scripture saying those who commit homosexual acts “deserve to die.” That’s what sparked Prater to begin looking at equity among students. He created a three-system infrastructure for change.
"It forced me to really think through a system lens as opposed to an incident lens, because when you are just reacting to situations, you can’t change the underlying reasons for why those incidents occurred," Prater said. "We came up with three systems or structures that would then influence the system."
The first structure: The Superintendent’s Student Senate. The senate is made up of 110 middle and high school students who meet every month of the school year to discuss issues and identify strategic goals that they want to see implemented.
Some of the key takeaways are the collective need to belong, strengthening the relationships between staff and students and having relevant school work to help students feel more engaged and prepared for the future.
"The students are picking up from their peers that this is a thing that they need to be open — they need to be overt with the adults to challenge frequently experienced biases or incompetencies, and how how they understand things, and how they might perpetuate long-standing behaviors that, quite frankly, that have to do with trauma-informed environments," Prater said.
The second structure is the Equity Leadership Team, made up of staff, parents and students. The team's recent recommendations called for increased trauma-informed practices in schools, enhancing support to address trauma so students can learn and train for, as well as use practices that support their well-being.
"The third structure that we created is called the common ground advisory Taskforce. And now this one is a big kahuna. And I run this," Prater said.
It’s made up of 25 divergent community members, including students, district employees, civic leaders, faith-based leaders, conservative community members, liberal activists and Prater’s own staff.
"So, we have, in effect, a balance of conservative and liberal or progressive advocates, and I'm in the center with an attorney," Prater said.
It’s charged with providing “recommendations and practical suggestions to ensure all students, regardless of their background, feel respected, included and engaged.” The productive tensions and controversial topics, as Prater likes to say, have helped spark conversation among the group to seek common ground for students.
"In those recommendations, they want us to implement history, social science that includes the FAIR Act," Prater said. "If you’re going to talk about historical events, then you also have to make sure that — when you are discussing historical events — that you include diverse players in that time that influenced those events. That includes religious and LGBTQ and, of course, people of color that influence that time."
Prater looked at SLO County’s Healthy Kids Survey, which found a disproportionate number of LGBTQ+ students experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. He partnered with the GALA Pride and Diversity Center in San Luis Obispo to develop a training strategy that is starting to be implemented across the whole county.
"So, we hooked up with the County Office of Education. And we reached out to them and asked if they would do a joint project with us and, and expand it out to the whole county, and — a professional development series specifically honing in on diversity, equity, inclusion, and calling out the LGBTQ community," Prater said.
Prater hopes adults listen, learn, participate, and embrace much-needed changes.
"I think the idea is, is that we’re not trying to dictate what individual districts do but we are trying to educate and have conversations about how kids' lives are influenced when we don’t become more aware of what’s going on," Prater said. "They really want a seat at the table. From middle school to high school, you have 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kids looking at the superintendent and saying, ‘we want to be heard."
While these reforms are taking place at the school district level, it’s the students themselves who have led the way in making change. Just like the students at the Paso Robles High forum, it’s the voices of young people in this community advocating for systemic change at local schools.
"Change is long overdue," Perez-Padraza said at the forum in PSHS. "We need students to understand pronouns, gender identity and sexual orientation and use inclusive language and so much more. And this should be mandatory because change is long overdue and it's needed."
But despite this ongoing change, it’s clear that queer and trans people of color are still bearing heavy burdens. The disproportionately high suicide rates we heard about earlier don’t just apply to young people in this community: the numbers are similar for queer people of color at any age.
Next week, we’ll explore how healthcare disparities for LGBTQ+ people are playing out locally, and how Central Coast healthcare professionals and community members are addressing it. That’s next time on In Between.
In Between is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.