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by Ashley Zhao and Ashley An
With several recent efforts across the nation to support and accept the LGBT community, New York City is taking steps towards protecting transgender and gender nonconforming individuals from discrimination.
This March, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an Executive Order requiring city facilities to provide people access to bathrooms that are consistent with their own gender identities. This ensures NYC’s approximately 25,000 transgender and gender nonconforming individuals access to single-sex facilities that align with their gender identity, without being required to show identification or proof of gender.
Although the order does not apply to public schools, a policy has already been set in place for students to use locker rooms or restrooms consistent with their gender identity.
Many expressed a general support for de Blasio’s course of action, noting the aid it provides in creating a safe space. “I think it would definitely make [transgender and gender nonconforming individuals] feel more comfortable and having a law to back up their right to choose would leave less room for people to feel entitled to harass them,” voiced junior Michelle Illescas, a member of GSA.
Additionally, the NYC Department of Education formed a new LGBT department. Jared Fox, founder of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s New York chapter, as well as the city’s first gay-straight alliance (GSA), is the first to take up this position of LGBT liaison. Fox recalled his teenage years, when his peers bullied him for being openly gay, and now works to change that in order to improve the lives of young teens in the public education system.
“Sixty-five percent of students heard homophobic remarks like ‘fag’ or ‘dyke’ frequently. Unsafe environments have a dramatic impact on young people, lowering their GPAs and causing them to miss more school,” Fox stated, citing this as one reason why he believes his new role is vital to the wellbeing of many students.
“You have the right to be you. When another person is putting you down directly or indirectly, there are rules and protections for you,” Fox continued. Within this past month, Fox has already trained hundreds of parent coordinators across the city on LGBT matters and is now pushing for changes in school curriculum.
“Curriculum should be a mirror for LGBT students and a window for students who aren’t LGBT to see a world outside of themselves,” he described.
Junior and GSA President Sarah Gafur agreed with the emphasis on discussing LGBT matters within education, saying, “Schools are a breeding ground for conscious social thought and, so, if we embrace LGBT students, we will be doing good for them and society as a whole.”
Despite his focus on improving the lives of LGBT students, Fox has made it clear that he stands for the care of all students, regardless of sexuality. Pointing out the widespread issues of overgeneralization and stereotyping, Fox remarked, “LGBT people come in all forms, so some of these stereotypes [such as] all gay men like fashion or all lesbians are into mechanical, fix-it stuff are not only hurtful to LGBT people, but to straight people…we’re stalling our progress because of [these stereotypes].”
Students and faculty members have expressed a variety of hopes concerning what Fox will achieve with his new position. Principal Anthony Barbetta believes “it would be nice if he’s able to provide schools with resources that we could use to help students and parents directly.” In the spring, Fox hopes to implement the Lambda Literary Foundation, which will bring literature by LGBT authors of color to classrooms.
Sarah brought up the serious issues of physical and verbal abuse against LGBT students in many schools, as well as the lack of communication between well-intentioned faculty members and students, stating that “there has to be a partnership between the DOE and teachers, and a willingness with teachers to pass the training and knowledge to their students.”
Fox is confident there will be a positive gradual change within the education system, from one school to another. “I think already my appointment has made an impact,” he stated. “Somewhere in Jackson Heights or Washington Heights or Bed Stuy there’s a student who has read an article about my job and said, ‘There’s someone who cares about me.’” He further believes that as long as one school is willing to make changes to support the LGBT community, other schools will soon follow suit. “Change throughout our system will ultimately impact other school systems around the country, too,” he added.
However, there are doubts over whether Fox’s new position will be effective enough to make a substantial difference in the treatment of LGBT students. Sophomore GSA member Mikayla Nelson stated, “While adults believe that children’s opinions are moldable, some people are just too set in their ways. You can punish them for their actions, but you can’t wipe out their opinions.” Principal Barbetta agreed with this sentiment, stating, “You can never fully eliminate any kind of discrimination, but you can hold people accountable for discrimination and educate people about it.”
Even so, Fox’s new appointment as the DOE’s first ever LGBT liaison symbolizes a groundbreaking effort to not only show support to the LGBT community, but also to create a system of education where the identity of a student does not affect the way they are treated.
Principal Barbetta praised the DOE on this point, saying, “By having Mr. Fox out there, it shows that the DOE is addressing the issue and trying to make people more aware of it.”
Fox fully understands the significance of his new position as both an educator and a role model to young LGBT teens everywhere. “I am motivated to do this work because our students’ lives matter,” he stated.
Fox encourages young people to learn and discover who they are. If there are any questions, he can be reached at [email protected]