By Ollie Kalthoff, Young Women’s Cabinet member
I only went to high school for two years. After those two years, I went to a community college through PSEO (post-secondary enrollment options program), which enables me to earn college credit now while still in high school. It wasn’t until after I left high school that I realized how much I needed to get out.
At my college, everyone is open and kind towards LGBT+ students and all marginalized groups. I was addressed by my correct name and pronouns, no one harassed me for who I was or how I presented, and there was even a LGBT+ center on campus. As an LGBT+ student in high school, however, every day was a struggle to balance learning and staying safe both mentally and physically. Our peers threatened to burn down the only gender-neutral bathroom at school.
At lunch and in the hallways, between classes, and even sometimes in the classroom, students expressed their hatred toward “fags,” “trannies,” and “queers.” After I left the school, I heard reports of LGBT+ students beaten up in the hallways. The worst part for me is knowing that our school was one of the better ones. We had a principal who listened to our concerns, we had a GSA (Gender Sexuality Alliance) that was able to get two gender-neutral bathrooms, and our teachers even used our correct names if we were brave enough to ask. When I talk to some of my LGBT+ friends, they report no support of any kind from the staff at their schools, and if they did have a GSA, it consisted of only a few people.
This is why I’ve started Pride In Our Peers, an initiative to teach educators how to help their LGBT+ students by creating and ensuring a safe environment.
Across the country, thousands of LGBT+ students struggle to find that balance of learning and staying safe. They cannot focus as much of their energy on learning as their straight, cisgender peers. Instead, they have to worry about getting to their next class unharmed or how they should dress or wear their hair to avoid the danger of looking “too gay.” For a lot of those LGBT+ students, they may not have a safe home to go back to at the end of the day. They have nowhere to be calm, safe, and themselves. This constant stress of trying to be someone else or trying to prove your identity takes away from an education and an opportunity to unlock your potential.
Pride In Our Peers started in my high school. Our GSA put together a list of complaints and suggestions that the LGBT+ students had for their teachers. The GSA leaders and I put together a presentation that represented what the LGBT+ student body was thinking and offered support to the staff. I was the only one available to give the presentation, and when I stood in front of all the high school staff, I was shaking. I didn’t know how they would react or if they would even care. Halfway through the presentation, a teacher raised his hand and asked about pronouns. While this may seem insignificant, it made me feel much more relaxed. By raising his hand, he showed that at least some of these teachers were listening, engaged, and curious as to how they could help their LGBT+ students grow. At the end, I offered time to ask questions, and we had about 10 minutes of constructive, thoughtful discussion. His interest showed me there is something we can all do to help.
It starts with parents and adults. It isn’t enough to sit kids down and say, “It’s okay to be different.” It takes teaching by example. This can be done by diversifying one’s language, i.e. not referring only to examples of heterosexuality, avoiding language that addresses only two genders, and allowing children to choose their own identity, among other practices.
I founded Pride In Our Peers to coach teachers to create a safe and welcoming environment for their LGBT+ students. I created three presentations that I will share with school staff on teacher workshop days. Pride In Our Peers focuses on educating teachers how to create a safe and welcoming environment in which their LGBT+ students can learn.
The workshops were based around the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota’s Blueprint For Action’s recommendations to advance opportunities and eliminate barriers for young women, in particular, recommendation #3: Reframing Harmful Narratives and recommendation #10: Create Accurate/Representative Curriculum. I hope to convey the importance of respecting and acknowledging LGBT+ students and their daily struggles. I work with teachers to help them create a safe space for their LGBT+ students, and teachers who can create a safe space bring that space into the hallways and give the LGBT+ students a place where they can feel safe, calm, and respected for who they are.
When LGBT+ students feel unsafe, they are robbed of their full potential and education. We can create a safe environment for learning. Every child, no matter their identity, deserves an opportunity to learn and shine. Pride In Our Peers is just one organization helping to spark a movement and understanding of what LGBT+ students need to feel safe and to thrive. We know that doing this work in communities across Minnesota and around the country will improve the lives of thousands of LGBT+ students across the states. And when that happens, we, as a society, are inspiring and uplifting LGBT+ students to grow up to be inventors and creators and explorers and anything else they want to be, because they will know that LGBT+ people are just as capable and important as straight, cisgender people.
Ollie Kalthoff is a student at Century College, a member of the Young Women’s Cabinet, and a founder of Pride In Our Peers.