More Visible Than Purple: LGBT Kids and the Road to Safer Schools

Last Thursday, schools, companies, media outlets, and individuals were encouraged to “go purple.” No doubt, many of you wore purple t-shirts or, for those of us lacking purple wardrobe options, turned your facebook or tumblr purple to celebrate Spirit Day — a GLAAD-sponsored event to show “support for LGBT youth and to speak out against bullying.”

I don’t know the statistics, but I’m guessing a LOT of people “went purple.”

Are our schools safer today because of it? I mean, yes, I tweeted for #SpiritDay; I tried to find something purple to wear. I showed my support and stood up against anti-LGBTQI bullying. I’m all for solidarity and visible allies, but really – is a gay kid safer in school today because half of his peers wore purple? Will the trans girl in 9th grade start feeling safer now?

The question here is not about the efficacy of #SpiritDay and similar campaigns against bullying; what I’m questioning is the scope of these efforts. What does it mean for LGBTQI kids to be safe at school? Does school safety only mean protection from physical and verbal assault?

Let’s step back for a second, to our school days. Maybe some of you are still in school and won’t have to move through the cobwebs in memories like the rest of us (I turned 24 recently and middle school seems like ages ago).

What did you get out of school? An education? Fine motor skill development? A friend group? A loose direction in life? The development of an ultimately lifelong passion? A respect for authority and walking in straight lines?  Probably these things. How about identity development? I wish we were all in a room so I could say, “If you are LGBTQI, could you please raise your hand if you believe you had room to develop your identity at your preK-12 schools? Your full identity?”

Right there with you, Zooey

Listen, I’m not raising my hand, and my queer and trans friends aren’t either. Almost every school lists in their mission or their educational philosophy that they want to develop the “whole child.” They’re shaping people not manufacturing educated machines. And yet, there was a very large part of my identity that I didn’t even get to explore in school. I am of course talking about my gender identity and my sexuality. I was talking to friends about this recently – about how I was never offended by the fact that I couldn’t bring a girl to a dance, for example (oh remember that at this time I was presenting as a woman, didn’t know I was a guy, and sort of identified as a lesbian). My friends agreed that we just assumed school wasn’t the place for that part of us.

But looking back, school did seem to be the place for that part of my straight and normatively-gendered peers. Heterosexual, cisgender people, for the most part do get to develop their gender and sexual identities in school. From early childhood through high school graduation, schools seem a little more committed to the development of the whole child for those guys.


+ Through the families depicted in children’s books
+ Role-playing options in PreK and Kindergarten
+ Characters studied in literature and film
+ Gender segregation (boys’ line, boys’ sports, boys’ bathrooms)
+ Pairings supported by faculty and administration (whether it’s a teacher commenting on the cute “couple” in 1st grade or the awarding of Homecoming King and Queen – again, gendered – to the well-liked straight couple in high school)
+ Alums whose weddings or work are celebrated in publications
+ Sex education classes that only talk about heterosexual sex or marriage
+ Teachers who talk about their personal lives and families
+ Photos on seemingly-benign motivational posters or in textbooks
+ Science courses that only address the binary sexes and genders in biology
+ History lessons that include spousal and familial details for heterosexual figures, but not homosexual figures.

From the seemingly-benign to the explicit, from classroom lessons to social traditions, schools are constantly presenting normative messages about gender and sexuality

School life from age 3 to 18 has images of what it is to be boys and men and what it is to be girls and women in our society. If you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, intersex or even gender non-normative (the butch girl or effeminate man), don’t count on having your gender or sexual identities represented, let alone celebrated, like those identities of heteronormative students. How can students feel safe – or even BE safe – at school when parts of their identities are ignored and even denied 8 hours a day, for 13-14 years?

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich (who has been one of my heroes since I was 15 or 16 – she’s brilliant right? I saw her do a reading once and almost died… but now I’m rambling) captured the significance of this lack of room for identity development in her 1984 essay Invisibility in the Academe:

“When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”

Yes, the bullying needs to be curbed. It is hurting our students. It is the catalyst leading them to take their lives. But I think the bullying would be far less potent (and perhaps even less frequent on the end of the bullies themselves) if LGBTQI students weren’t looking into a blank mirror.

So I’m going to use Rich’s simile here and say that real school safety for LGBTQI students means being able to look in that mirror and see themselves, and to see possibilities of whom they might become. Being safe in school in its simplest step means being visible and having the affirmation and opportunities that come with that visibility.

Rich also writes that invisibility is a way of fragmenting people, of preventing them from integrating the different components of their identities and feelings and ideas. This invisibility is preventing schools from completing their missions of developing the whole child. Further, years and years of invisibility of one group and visibility of another unconsciously establishes a hierarchy – why wouldn’t a straight, masculine student (who sees himself and his relationships celebrated daily) feel his identity was more valid or “better” than the effeminate bisexual male student (whose sexual and gender identities have never even been discussed in school)?

PFLAG made a checklist of things educators can do to make schools truly safe for non-heteronormative students:

  • A harassment policy or student bill of rights that explicitly includes sexual orientation and gender identity/expression that is being implemented, monitored, and enforced
  • Annual, mandatory training for teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses, and other staff about sexual orientation and gender identity, and on anti-GLBT bullying intervention
  • A student group for GLBT and straight students
  • Accurate information in the library on GLBT lives, history and issues
  • Accommodations for students identifying as transgender including bathroom use, dress codes and athletic teams
  • Resources for parents and family members of GLBT people
  • A GLBT-inclusive curriculum – including current events, history, social studies, literature, political science, health, arts, etc.

I think there is way more to be done. LGBTQI people and lives need to be fully integrated into school life. We need to reevaluate the purposes of certain traditions and social events, and expand them to be inclusive of non-normative genders and non-heterosexual pairings. We need LGB families to be presented as normally as heterosexual families (though admittedly less frequently, as representative of the population) – for example, the problem solving questions in children’s math classes could every once and a while include two dads. Or cheesy posters that feature girls with short hair and loose-fitting clothing? And how about publishing a story about an alum working for marriage equality or trans rights? It’s not just about studying the contributions of LGBTQI people, it’s about reflecting our presence in day-to-day life. It’s about giving students a reflection of their own identities and providing them with role models and ideas of what it means to emerge from adolescence and into adulthood with those identities.

Don’t get me wrong – I want to thank all of you for going purple. I commend the anti-bullying campaigns, I commend the LGBT-support campaigns, the GSAs, the messages of stopping the hate. They’re all doing important work. But you know? Even more, I commend the school districts making LGBT-inclusive curriculums mandatory.

There’s so much more work to be done. We can’t keep failing these kids. In the Rich quote I used earlier, she concludes with this:

“Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul–and not just individual strength, but collective understanding–to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.”

Five year olds, 6 year-olds, even 16 and 18 year olds don’t always have that kind of strength. Some don’t even know others like them exist. It’s up to us — the advocates, the educators — to help them fight this invisibility, to help them be seen and heard, and to give them the opportunity to develop their whole and many identities.

In addition to writing for AS, Sebastian is a research assistant to Dr. Jennifer Bryan, a psychologist and educational consultant who works with schools to help them acknowledge and address (and ultimately embrace) the diversity of sexual and gender identities, expressions, and behaviors among their students, families, teachers and communities. If you’re looking for more on this topic or for a more strategic and pedagogical approach, keep an eye out for her book, From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK-12 Schools, which will be coming out next year.

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Sebastian has written 16 articles for us.


  1. i agree!! my high school was pretty much the picture of the rich and the non rich. and all the rich kids were straight, popular jocks. so for a confused, abused, goth kid, it pretty much sucked. anything other than straight was never accepted, or discussed in my school. it makes me sad now, b/c if it had maybe i wouldn’t have had so much confusion later on in my life. maybe i would be able to come to terms more with my sexuality instead of struggling so much. it was there, just hidden b/c it was never openly talked about, so i just learned to deny it my whole life.

  2. YES! Excellent article. Thank you for articulating my generalized discomfort and barely repressed anger at my public school experience.

  3. This perfectly describes that invisible feeling I get at school. Most of the time my teachers don’t even know that they are being heteronormative. They don’t think there is a problem with what they say. Like a chemistry teacher to explain alloys saying “girls, that ring guys will give you is an alloy”. It makes me so mad, and I can’t even talk about it with my friends, cause they are all straight.

  4. Beautiful essay and so right on. I do want to point out that Adrienne Rich has said some very ‘eff’d up stuff about trans people (really trans women) through the years so I’m not so crazy about holding her up as a great teacher about respecting identities.

    • Oh no! That breaks my heart. I guess I’m not surprised because she did go through a pretty intense (and well-published) lesbian separatist phase and that movement wasn’t very great about trans women (or trans men – but mainly the critiques were of trans women and women’s space – but you know all this).

      I know that she in her later years reversed her stance on some things (e.g. she used to say she wrote for lesbians and wasn’t interested in having straight people read her work and then more recently revoked that) so maybe she’s become more enlightened re:trans people? Something I’ll need to look into if I continue to gush over her.

      I do think that quote though is spot on about identities and visibility. But thanks for pointing this out!

  5. Great piece Sebastian! And can I say that I am so happy that the movement to repeal California’s new LGBT-inclusive education law failed to get enough signatures to be on this year’s ballot?

  6. I’ve actually really been thinking about starting an LGBTQ alumni group for my school. I went to a small, liberal all-girls K-12 private high school in NYC. It was generally very accepting of queer issues and queer faculty– we even had an English class called “Sexual Identities,” one of the girls in my class has 2 moms and there was a GSA started when I was in high school. However, by the time I graduated in 2008, there had still NEVER been an out student at the school. NEVER. Now at the time I, uh, thought I was straight, so I never felt actively oppressed by that, but I feel like there was just this assumption that “other” people are gay, not [school name] girls. I mean, I don’t know any LGBTQ alums myself– except in a vaque, rumored way. We’ll see whether I can summon up the effort to do it, if possible.

    • I think that’s a great idea! Also I don’t know about you, but the private schools of my past are already asking me for donations as an alum. My father suggested that I track down LGBTQI alums or start a group/caucus and make sure that every year we each at least donate something so that we can point to our group’s 100% participation rate and we can say, “hey look yr queer and/or trans alumni are actively supporting the school – how about you start actively supporting yr queer and/or trans students?” Money talks as they say.

  7. The intersection of LGBTQI students and schools and education policy is my favorite thing to read about on Autostraddle. Thanks for another great article!

  8. It is always intriguing when someone points out the obvious that even so, you had never recognized. Sometimes that obvious observation, just once or repeated several times, is enough to open your view of reality and create positive change. Thank you for your broadening perspective which has applications in the adult work world as well.

    • Jennifer uses the Schopenhauer quote: “It’s not so much to see what no one has seen before but to think what nobody has yet thought about that which everybody sees.”

      It’s really applicable to heteronormativity and you’re right heteronormativity is everywhere!

  9. Further, years and years of invisibility of one group and visibility of another unconsciously establishes a hierarchy – why wouldn’t a straight, masculine student (who sees himself and his relationships celebrated daily) feel his identity was more valid or “better” than the effeminate bisexual male student (whose sexual and gender identities have never even been discussed in school)?

    YES. THIS.

  10. where is the picture in the bottom left of that collage in the middle of the article from? it looks really familiar like schoolhouse rock or some caldecott medal picture book shit but it’s two people having hetero-sex and it’s making me laugh

    • It’s from the book Where Did I Come From a Baby-Making/Sex Education book geared towards young children in the 70s or 80s (that would now be considered pretty inappropriate because of its frankness and nudity honestly). It’s how I first learned where I came from actually.

      But it’s a “when a mommy and a daddy love each other…” story. Heterosexual married couple has sex, has baby. You know the drill

    • On a lighter note, it’s hilarious to look at now though. The way they describe sex gives me the giggles. Something about “you know when someone’s tickling you and it feels like you are going to explode?”

      • That book was actually how I learned what heterosexual sex was (in lieu of my parents giving me a talk.) And I think it’s part of the reason that to this day I find straight sex more comical than enticing.

      • Err, it’s funny except that I’m studying primary teaching in Australia, and that’s still the book we have been taught to use… And you know what, the people in my class thought it was a great idea (except that some thought it was too ‘explicit’).

        I think it’s more complicated than teachers standing up for kids and creating a safe place for them, although that’s certainly important. Teachers are under a lot of pressure in most primary schools that I know of not to provide any queer alternatives – stories with gay dads, maths problems with lesbian mums etc., or to be out themselves – for fear of parent complaints. I know a lot of gay teachers, yet none of them are out to their students. In Australia you can also get fired for being gay in Catholic schools. I think until society wakes up to the fact that being queer isn’t something dirty that primary kids have to be shielded from, it makes it really tricky because you’re risking your chance of getting rehired cause schools tend to hate parent complaints.

  11. this totally hits home for me. luckily, my mom freaked out against my 2nd grade teacher when she sent home a homework assignment where i was supposed to match the jobs for men (ie. firefighter, doctor) to the picture of the boy and the jobs for women (ie. teacher, nurse) to the picture of the girl.
    i didn’t understand the significance of that until much later but i really do appreciate it now.

  12. Thank you Sebastian for inspiring me to change my ways. Your text made me do some soul searching and it made me realize that my teaching is disturbingly heteronormative. I in large part blame the über hetero society we live in, and my thus brainwashed unconscious for it. That doesn’t mean I can’t change though, so starting tomorrow I will increasingly queerify me teaching!

    • It starts with teacher training. When I was in a program to get an elementary teaching credential around 2003 (at a very progressive public university in an extremely progressive city) I was taking a ‘diversity’ course. At one point, the teacher (a middle-aged woman) made a joke about ‘what if a boy student wearing a dress came to class’ and the entire teaching cohort (which, aside from one lesbian, myself and one straight guy was made up of straight cis-women) started laughing their heads off. Myself and the lesbian student were the only ones not laughing and we just stared at one another in disbelief.

  13. I can Pretty much say you’re right on. I had one teacher, my English teacher, she couldn’t teach much queer stuff but she was friends with another English teacher who was queer and had a no bullying policy in her classroom, basically automatic referral. I loved that class so much and felt so safe, I was able to talk to her and such even through my writing. Her comments alone told me she knew what I meant and what I was writing in between the lines. Other than that, kids were assholes. I don’t fit the picture of “what a lesbian looks like,” so only my friends knew. It sucks, I graduated two years early just to get out of there. I figured out who I was and that was something that school wouldn’t let me elaborate on because I didn’t fit that society norm. I met a girl who was graduating a year early, discovered myself, had to move away, and got my diploma two years early so I could surround myself with people who understand and help me discover myself even more. High school sucks, being a teen sucks, adding that plus being LGBTQI really sucks. Hearing about kids being bullied and stuff disgusts me, I remember a friend of mine used to bully someone and let’s just say I took care of that and never spoke to them again. I swear my peers sometimes make me wonder what America will be like, but I blame society and their fixed opinions that are shoved dOwn our throats from day one, I’m just one of the few who discovered early on that I don’t have to be that and that I am allowed to be me:)

  14. This article makes me even more excited for the enactment of the LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in California public schools. It’s also making me meditate on how horrible middle and high school is for the vast majority of non-heteronormative kids (myself included-class of ’10 in an otherwise very queer-friendly Northern California city). And how much it would have possibly helped me if maybe older queer mentors had come to the school and talked a little. I feel like someone suggested the latter in one of the articles on AS recently.

  15. Thank you for writing this. It exemplifies my experience growing up, and it was something I couldn’t name/give form to until now. It makes me angry, and I like that, I have become complacent in my life and have needed a good shake or two.
    What you have said also applies to how I grew up as one of five Asian kids in the Midwest, lack of representation is hurtful, and I didn’t even realize it.

  16. thinking about how far away this inclusiveness is from my school is heartbreaking. we just got rid of our annual trip to see ‘a christmas carol’ after i kept stomping my feet that hello, not all of our kids are christian. (not that ‘a christmas carol’ is any kind of christian doctrine but still)

    anyway, i’m gonna go write some gender neutral word problems for math that have racial and ability diversity. excellent article!

    • It is really tough to find gender neutral, or inclusive content for any subject, and math is the worst!
      It might be too middle school, but there’s a book called Math That Matters that applies math concepts and problem solving to real problems, about real issues. Racial profiling, how to live on welfare when you pay market rent, is there room for a wheelchair ramp into your school, etc.

  17. Great article. I was recently doing an evaluation of a preschool classroom based on various standards – one was diversity. They had to have gender and race diversity, but nowhere said anything about different types of families. I looked around the room and this teacher had a lot of things that represented diverse populations, including families where the child was with a grandparent or one parent or adopted. The class was considered a “good example” of what we were looking for. But nowhere did I see any families with two moms or two dads. It bummed me out. Do they think there is not a single child who will come through that preschool who has gay parents? Everything was also very divided along gender lines, which bummed me out too. This is why I can’t wait til I’m in a real position to enact change.

  18. I’m in high school right now, and there is a definite lack of visibility and support. I am sure that it was much worse when you all were in school, because at least I have a Gay Straight Alliance, but gay kids still feel isolated and, well, different. It sucks.

  19. I love the blank mirror analogy. I’m in high school right now, and live in a hotbed of conservatism. I’ve heard gay men mentioned maybe twice in English class- a brief fleeting comment from a teacher “he was gay, you know.” But anyone else? Nope. It’s surreal sitting through “sex ed” (NOT EDUCATIONAL AT ALL) thinking “This will most likely never apply to me.” I wish I could see myself or my friends reflected in the curriculum, even the tiniest bit, but no. We’re invisible in the eyes of academia.

  20. My identity now at age 34 is the same as it was when I was in high school.

    Developing my identity came at the expense of education. I went from honor roll to barely passing. Instead of thinking about college, I could only think of the day I wasn’t required to go to school. I skipped classes because I was so stressed out I had panic attacks.

    It’s not so easy for me to forget the impact it had because I’m reminded every day. Every day I kick myself for not having gone to college directly out of high school, and then I remember why I didn’t.

  21. I only graduated in 2009 so not long ago at all. But I was thinking back to my Catholic girls high school days (in Australia) the other day. And only then did I realise how any acknowledgement of a non-heteronormative life in school were such important moments for me. I had anxiety in my school years about my sexuality and came out to my parents when I was eighteen though I had known for years by that point. Whether it be my Irish Catholic religious education teacher saying one day you’ll get your own man a white horse OR a woman on a white horse, or the time we were at a Christian retreat camp and the pastor said Would you die for your future husband? Raise your hand if you would” and the P.E. teacher piped up: What if she wants a woman?

    I realised just how comforting all these moments were. I was very confused in high school and I tried to make sense of things by making as many of my school projects LGBT-related. My parents picked up on it and were puzzled by it.

    I had it pretty easy though. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be bullied at school for your sexuality or to be financially cut off or made to move out for coming out. I am so grateful for the HECS college loan system that we have in Australia cause it means that we don’t need to rely on our parents for the payment of our fees,

  22. In tenth grade we had a lesson on sex education that didn’t stray at all from heterosexual sexual intercourse. At the end of the lesson a gay friend of mine and myself both put up our hands and asked about sex education for lesbian and gay students. The look of discomfort on that teacher’s face is something I’ll never forget.
    Still, it’s something for both of us to have been out at sixteen and to have felt safe enough to ask that question. I was very lucky in my choice of high schools- there was no explicit policy to be inclusive of lgbt students, but overall it was a tolerant environment. It helped that by the end of high school I was one of seven out queer kids in the cohort. There’s something to be said for strength in numbers.

  23. LOVE this article! visibility in schools is so important. it’s hard to measure how hurtful it can be to see everyone reflected in curriculum, traditions, and even those cheesy posters, except yourself.

    Thanks, Sebastian, for always giving me something to think about.

  24. Highlights in my K-12 educational career involving sexuality and gender:

    -The handouts with BLACKED OUT LINES on them in my public high school’s mandated abstinence-only sex ed class. They actually censored mentions of condoms and contraceptive use. This was circa 2003, in a Southern city.

    -Oh, and that was the first sex ed class I’d ever had, which lasted about four weeks. My middle school didn’t offer one, due to “parent complaints”.

    -The graduation from said public high school required female students to wear a white, ankle-length dress and white or off-white, close-toed shoes with a heel between 1/2 and two inches UNDERNEATH their gowns. Guys had to wear formal pants, dress shoes, and a collared shirt under their gowns (this was described as “church clothes” despite the presence of non-Christian students). If you didn’t follow the dress code, you didn’t walk.

  25. Thank you so much Sebastian! I am a queer 2nd grade teacher and have been searching for ways to integrate an LGBT friendly curriculum into the classroom. I never even realized gay people (other than me) really existed until high school, and want to do as much as I can to make all of my students feel included and supported. I feel like this article could not have come at a better time, and really hope that both educators and other adults (after all, every adult can be an educator-and often is) take some steps towards making LGBT students feel recognized and supported. Thanks again!

  26. Fantastic article, I so completely agree. Obviously everything being done is good and important, but it’s those more benign, those day-to-day inclusions, that tend to get forgotten. And they matter SO much. That Adrienne Rich quote (which also, yes, she is AMAZING, and I’m so jealous you got to see her) is so incredibly apt, and I’m really glad you brought my attention to that essay, which I now clearly need to read. Because that’s the thing, ultimately, what we want and need is not for queer history/stories/&c to become some strident focus, but to just coexist with all the other histories and stories. For education to reflect the great, complex blend of identities (in all senses) in our world.

  27. This is a great article. These changes are so desperately needed and it depresses the hell out of me that I really can’t see them being implemented on a wide scale anytime in the forseeable future. Maybe my pessimism just comes from having grown up a bisexual, feminist, environmentalist Pagan stuck in my tiny Wyoming school where any one of those things, had I not managed to keep them a secret, would have gotten me brutalized by students and teacher alike. I just don’t even know how to start having this kind of conversation with the kind of people who run a school like that, much less actually getting those changes implemented. And even if you could convince the school district, the parents would fight back. So depressing.

  28. Sebastian this is beautiful! Even in a very open and accepting college environment, I find it frustrating that representations of different gender identities and sexualities rarely venture beyond the confines of the Sociology/Anthropology/Gender Studies departments. There should be a way to make Gender Studies classes mandatory without, you know, making them mandatory. (Our school has an open curriculum with no distribution requirements which I fully support.)

  29. >>Five year olds, 6 year-olds, even 16 and 18 year olds don’t always have that kind of strength.>>

    I’m 29 and some days I don’t have that kind of strength.

  30. Pingback: QUOTE: LGBT Students Need More Than Purple And Anti-Bullying Campaigns To Feel Safe / Queerty

  31. Wonderful post, Sebastian. I think much of what you said also applies to children of LGBTQI parents, no matter what the children’s own identities/orientations are.

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