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Trust is Earned, Not Owed
A threatening email to an Eau Claire, WI school board president shows why some information is not safe to share, no matter who feels entitled to know it.
Image description: An eastern box turtle in its shell. Photo credit: carlidinsmore via Pixabay
What if, during a professional development presentation, your teachers were advised not to share information about a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity with their parents or guardians without that student’s consent, in the interest of preventing real or potential harm, neglect, or abuse from unsupportive household members?
What if three of the school board candidates for your district prioritized your parents’ right to know everything about you over your right to be safe? What if they demanded that your teachers share this information anyway, even though it is not part of your state’s mandated reporter requirements?
What if there was an adult in your hometown who signed their correspondence “Kill All Marxist Teachers”? What if that person sent an email threatening to “shoot up” the next school board meeting, and to kill the school board president and his entire family “for promoting the horrific, radical transgender agenda”?
Would YOU feel safe telling anyone you’re queer or transgender?
Maybe. It all depends. What have your parents, family members, or friends said in your presence about LGBTQ+ people when they assumed they weren’t talking about you, or that you agreed with them?
Did they tell you they love you unconditionally and would support you no matter who are? Or did they tell you, either straight up or indirectly, that no child of theirs would be accepted or supported if they were queer or transgender, or dressed a certain way, or liked certain things, or had friends who did?
What if they said they’d cut you off from your friends and hobbies if you disobeyed them? What if they said they’d send you somewhere to “fix” you? What if they made you think they’d hurt you, kick you out of the house, or not love you anymore if you didn’t comply? What if they’ve already done some of those things for this or other reasons?
Who could you talk to? Who could you trust? Where would you turn for support?
What would you do if you felt like you had nobody? How much shame and fear would you carry around? Does it fit in your pocket, your backpack, or your locker? Can you cram it under your bed? Can you hide it with good grades and touchdowns? Do you dig a hole in the backyard of your heart, bury it as deep as you can, and hope it doesn’t start ticking loud enough for anyone else to hear?
Do you drown it in alcohol, sniff it up your nose, or inject it into your veins? Do you go looking for whatever you can find that might pass for affection in dangerous, manipulative places? Do you try to run away? Or do you start thinking there’s nowhere you could go that would be far enough, so maybe you should just…stop?
Do you think I’m exaggerating?
According to the Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health:
40% of respondents considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months, with more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth having seriously considered suicide.
48% of LGBTQ youth reported engaging in self-harm in the past twelve months, including over 60% of transgender and nonbinary youth.
29% of LGBTQ youth have experienced homelessness, been kicked out, or run away.
10% of LGBTQ youth reported undergoing conversion therapy, with 78% reporting it occurred when they were under age 18.
What if you could have just one place in your life where you didn’t feel like that, just for a few hours? What if that safe place was your school, or even just one teacher?
As GLSEN’s 2019 State Snapshot shows, that one teacher is all that some LGBTQ+ students in Wisconsin may have:
At least three quarters of LGBTQ students in Wisconsin regularly hear negative remarks about transgender people at school. At least 80% have heard slurs and other homophobic remarks, and 92% have heard “gay” used in a negative context.
Only 47% of LGBTQ students in Wisconsin reported that their school administration was somewhat or very supportive of LGBTQ students.
Only 18% attended a school with a comprehensive anti-bullying/harassment policy that included specific protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Only 13% had a policy or official guidelines to support transgender and nonbinary students.
50% of transgender students were unable to use the school bathroom aligned with their gender.
32% of transgender or nonbinary students were prevented from using their chosen name or pronouns in school.
On the positive side, the vast majority (98%) could identify at least one school staff member supportive of LGBTQ students, and 69% could identify six or more.
The importance of having a place or a person to go to when you’re scared or in need of advice, support, or to be seen positively as your full, true self cannot be overstated. Those places are built, not out of brick and mortar, but out of trust. Trust is built with patience, good faith, and time. It cannot be demanded in a public records request, in a threatening email, or by pounding on the podium during a public comment session. Trust has to be earned.
You don’t get a turtle to come out of its shell by picking it up and shaking it, or by poking it with a stick. It will either bite you or retreat even farther in. If you try to pry it out by force, you can kill it.
I can’t speak for those school board candidates or email writers in Eau Claire, but I want that turtle and that student not just to live, but to thrive, with as few scars on their shells as possible.