Noticing the lack of LGBTQ visibility and support as she walked the halls of Bronx Leadership Academy II, dance teacher Belle Torres decided to become an LGBTQ advisor because she felt the students of her school needed to see someone like them in her position.
First, she worked to create an inclusive environment in her classroom, and now she is trying to make all students in the school feel comfortable with their identities.
Torres helps run an afterschool program called the LGBTQ+ Club, where students and allies feel safe coming together to host events, discuss their needs and learn some history about their identities.
As ‘Don’t Say Gay’ and book ban bills pile up in legislative offices across the country, Torres and others in the Bronx feel that supporting LGBTQ students and teachers must become a priority.
In 2017, the advocacy organization Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network did a survey in New York schools that revealed more than half of LGBTQ students in the state experienced some form of verbal or physical abuse in their schools. More than two out of five transgender students said they were unable to use the restroom aligned with their gender.
The network, the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students, also found in its survey that only 31% of students were taught positive representations of LGBTQ people, history, or events, and less than half of students were able to find inclusive library resources.
Torres’ LGBTQ+ Club collaborated with a librarian on a program connecting more than 50 students from different schools, including attending an author talk where they discussed their book. The discussions encouraged open dialogue about the queer experience in schools.
“It’s really about listening to their needs and their voices, and then meeting their needs, as best as we can,” Torres said. ”It’s also making sure that they understand that, you know, advocating is a good thing. It’s not like you’re doing something bad or it’s okay to stand up.”
Torres said even if she wasn’t a lesbian, she would be supporting her students and their varying identities and experiences because she feels that is what a teacher needs to do. She recognizes this especially, as her son is transgender.
Students are also doing their part to be heard in their schools.
Yessenia Crane, 19, joined the LGBTQ center in the South Bronx, Destination Tomorrow, as a community health organizer. She also does outreach to the community to provide resources.
“We’re an open arms facility and welcome everyone not only within the LGBTQ community but anyone who seeks our services,” Crane said. “As a person of color and as a lesbian woman, I love the experience and conversations we get to share with each other and discover different pieces within ourselves.”
Crane feels responsible to support her younger peers as anti-LGBTQ bills and book banning proliferate across the nation. Currently, there are approximately 16 states considering similar bills to ‘Don’t Say Gay’—each of them affecting LGBTQ clubs in schools, use of gender pronouns and school curriculums.
“There are always going to be those who try to break us down, put us in a box, limit us, copy our roots and swag,” Crane said. “They can try, but I don’t know how successful or for how long it will stand. Nobody can ever take away what we were born from and what power we hold.”
Destination Tomorrow supports LGBTQ youth in many ways – from gaming night and wellness classes to teaching how young people can advocate in their schools. The organization has also worked with schools to assist their LGBTQ clubs and allied groups, and hopes to grow that roster as COVID-19 restrictions begin to lessen.
Sage Rivera, the director of programming at Destination Tomorrow, said not every school has an LGBTQ club that students are able to access, but their group tries to make sure that every school guidance counselor is aware of their group as a resource.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found only 69% of students were able to attend some sort of LGBTQ student organization at their school in 2017.
An NYC Department of Education spokesperson said the department will continue to support young people and provide resources for identity-based student electives like Gender and Sexuality Alliances and educational materials to teachers.
“Our schools are safe havens for our children, and all DOE schools are encouraged to provide resources and programs in support of LGBTQ+ students and community members,” the spokesperson said.
Destination Tomorrow will hold a Pride event on June 18 to showcase the LGBTQ community in the South Bronx, and has invited students to join the fun.
Crane finds Pride events to be a beautiful celebration and feels inspired by previous LGBTQ activists such as Marsha Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Gladys Bentley, Bayard Rustin, Stormé DeLarverie and Gertrude Pridgett.
“I live in my pride every day, openly and happily, but on that day it’s euphoric,” Crane said. “I feel the tingles around my body just flooding with joy because that day sets a reminder of what these legendary advocates and musicians have done before us…”