Interview with Tim’m West – Teach for America

Recently, an admin from LGBTQ+ of FIRST interviewed Tim’m West about LGBTQ+ representation and education in schools. Here’s what he had to say:

 

 

Please give a short introduction for people who may not know you.

My name is Tim’m West; professionally and formally I lead Teach For America’s LGBTQ Community initiative. I am a longtime educator, youth advocate, and on the side I do some poetry and hip hop.

 

What brought you to LGBTQ+ activism?

I think namely my own personal experience. I grew up a queer kid in the 80’s in southwest Arkansas, and, for me, there weren’t positive queer role models. The only mentions of LGBTQ were negative. For me, the dearth of mirrors to see myself, the absence of LGBTQ people made a difference in how I saw myself. It made me want to teach. I felt that as a teacher I could contribute to making schools a space where students did see you and see that a black queer accomplished man existed and feel you are pretty awesome for that truth. Beyond teaching, that was really important work to do where representation is concerned.

I went to school to study philosophy. I thought I would be a college professor, but I ended up leaving my PhD program, and I had two Masters degrees in rather obscure humanities areas, if at good institutions (The New School, Stanford). I got a job running an English department in a high school, so I fell into teaching youth and supporting their academic and social emotional development. Being around youth and understanding their challenges encouraged me to be a better example for them by bringing myself more fully into educational spaces. I have done that in schools as a man who is queer, and I have done that in schools as a man who is HIV positive, which sometimes leads to pushback like, “ooh students don’t need to know that about your personal life”. Still,  I’ve taught in places that have high HIV incidence and prevalence. I’d be remiss not to share my own personal experience with them as a way of motivating sexual and emotional safety.

 

What do you see as being the value of LGBTQ+ representation in schools in terms of the teachers?

There’s been a lot of data [on the effects of representation], though not a lot of it has been done on the LGBTQ community. For example, in the African American community—and I can say this as an African American who had maybe one African American male teacher in all my schooling—it affected me to not seeing myself represented among the people who are teaching. There have been recent studies that show that students who see themselves represented do better. It’s connected to the reality that less than 2% of teachers in the US are African American men. Yet we know the representation of black boys in public schools is far higher. It actually just creates a situation where people who might be able to best connect and reach students aren’t present.

Ultimately, it’s not to say a student can’t learn from anybody, but I think identity and how people see themselves is shaped by those who teach them. So if you’re LGBTQ and you don’t see any teachers or administrators identify that way, it sends a message, an implicit message that you LGBTQ people don’t belong in the places entrusted with our learning; or that if they exist in that space, they’d better be quiet about it. I think connotes a problematic idea of shame; that being LGBTQ is not something that you should be proud of.

Being out as a queer teacher is not about the material being any different. What harm is there in knowing that a science or history teacher might be LGBTQ just as we know or assume our teachers are straight? One’s orientation might actually inform something unique about their approaches to teaching or world view. I think that’s important for students to see and experience.

 

How can LGBTQ+ lessons be integrated into the classroom?

I have an interesting belief in this, because I don’t believe that LGBTQ issues should be brought into the class independent of the need for rigorous content. By having an LGBTQ lesson, you’re tokenizing our identity as opposed to normalizing our identity. Why, if you’re talking about quantum physics, and let’s just say an important person in that field happens to be LGBTQ, is it a bad thing to mention that in the context of their innovation? It might be interesting for people to know that. If you’re looking at biology for example, why can’t there be discussions about gender or intersex people, or the myth that XX and XY pairings are the only and there isn’t biological and chromosomal diversity beyond that? It’s just bad science. There are ways to talk about LGBTQ issues and ideas that are not tokenistic. Content and culture can enable strong learning and aren’t oppositional. We don’t have to say: “let’s take a break from our real work and talk about LGBTQ people”. I’d say the same thing about exposure to different cultures; it’s not helpful to say: “let’s talk about black people for 10 minutes”.

 

What are the major roadblocks to LGBTQ+ education in schools?

I think you have different generations of people that haven’t had the exposure. Often, what I find in schools is that it’s not predominantly students who are creating difficult challenges for queer and transgender kids, it’s the teachers who have been there forever who refuse to divorce their personal biases from their teaching.

A good example of that is when I taught rhetoric at a conservative school in suburban Texas, and I had to help students write anti-gay marriage papers. Did I like to do that? No. But it was my job as a teacher to help them question their beliefs and, sometimes, help them craft as strong an argument as possible against something I felt strongly about. It’s not my job to convince my students to believe the way I do. It is my job to create a safe arena for the development and maturation of students’ opinions and thoughts. The role of a strong teacher in school is to create that setting and environment. Unfortunately, according to the data we see, LGBTQ students are not safe in high schools. They face a lot more harassment, they drop out at higher rates, truancy rates are higher, any number of indicators.

 

How can non-LGBTQ+ teachers be good allies?

I think one not to hypervisibilize LGBT students by treating them different that others, but to truly be committed to creating a classroom environment where ALL students feel like they have something to contribute to the class. Some of that is about intentionality and exposure. In your curriculum, is there something that can speak to the diverse background and experiences in class? Teachers who do that really well are really appreciated by students. It’s like, “oh wow — this is not just about the specific academic topic, but we’re also learning about ourselves and the people around us.” It’s important for student development.

Otherwise, teachers should be good allies to queer and trans kids because it’s their job (that’s the smart-ass answer). It’s not about whether or not you want to support LGBTQ students. As a teacher, should be fully committed to the education of your students. Truly being committed means that you advance a classroom culture where anti-LGBTQ microagressions aren’t tolerated; where all students feel safe in your class and not harassed, because that can ultimately impact their ability to learn well. Students feeling safe to learn, or not, is a reflection on you as a teacher.

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On the Word ‘Queer’

Few words carry as much power as the words we use to describe ourselves. Finding a label that fits your experiences lends a sense of completeness, of accomplishment; it allows you to join a community of others who describe themselves the same way. Many of these words, however, carry more meaning than just a definition.

The word “queer” and its use in the LGBTQ+ community have been a point of contention for much of our history. Today, though many agree that the efforts to publicize LGBTQ+ issues and the concurrent strive for equality has led to the reclamation of the word, it is still often seen – and used – as a slur. To understand this debate, and to informedly take a side, it is important to first understand its history.

The origins of the word “queer” have, to a degree, been lost to history. It may have come from a Scottish or German word meaning ‘oblique’ or ‘off-center’, but linguists are uncertain. In any case, by the early 1800s, it had garnered a strongly negative connotation in English – to queer meant to spoil or ruin a situation.

The first recorded use of “queer” as a homophobic slur was in 1894, by John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, who blamed the death of his son Francis on Francis’s suspected love interest, Lord Rosebery. Queensberry, in a letter to another son, speculated that “snob queers like Rosebery” had corrupted his son and led to his demise.

During the 1900s, people both inside and outside of the community tended to use “queer” pejoratively, with the slur gaining popularity in the 1950s and later. In 1970, linguist Julia Penelope wrote for the journal American Speech that, in her interviews with gays and lesbians, they all felt that the term “was only used by heterosexuals to express their disdain for homosexuals”. As it is today, bullying of LGBTQ+ students was a massively pervasive issue, and many older members of the community today dislike the word “queer” because they most often heard it as a targeted attack on their identity. Some LGBTQ+ activists did embrace the term as a self-identifier: Gertrude Stein, in her 1903 coming-out story Q.E.D., referred to two female love interests as queer. Still, the term remained hateful in mainstream culture until the latter half of the century.

The reclamation of the term “queer” trailed after the rise of the mainstream gay rights movement. The term “queercore” emerged in the 80s, sparked by punk zine J.D.s. The publication was launched in 1985 to give a voice to the unruly, anti-establishment wing of the gay rights movement. As cofounder Bruce LaBruce explained,  “Gay assimilation was already starting back then, accelerated by the AIDS crisis, so the gay movement was already distancing and disassociating itself from its more unruly, extreme and anti-establishment elements – queers who did not fit into the gay white bourgeois patriarchy.” Queercore music gave voice to LGBTQ+ artists who were tired of societal disapproval, and allowed them to express their outrage through the time-honored outlet of punk music.

More radical efforts to reclaim “queer” began in the 1990s. Queer Nation, founded in 1990, is a New York-based LGBTQ+ activist organization. Founded by members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) who were outraged about the escalation of violence against a community still grieving and suffering from the AIDS epidemic, Queer Nation strove to educate the public and protest for the promotion of gay rights. They popularized the chant “We’re here! We’re Queer! Get used to it!”, which became a rallying cry for the community. They also distributed leaflets with titles like “We’re here, we’re queer, and we’d like to say hello!” and “Queers read this – The Queer Nation Manifesto”, spreading information and safe-sex tips, as well as urging LGBTQ+ people to fight for their rights. Their manifesto actively pushed for use of the word “queer” to describe themselves: “Well, yes, ‘gay’ is great. It has its place. But when a lot of lesbians and gay men wake up in the morning we feel angry and disgusted, not gay. So we’ve chosen to call ourselves queer”.

Today, “queer” is often used as a catchall term for members of the LGBTQ+ community. For people whose sexuality or gender identity is uncertain or difficult to explain, “queer” is also valued as a concise way to explain how they identify. Still, the word’s history casts a shadow over its use today: on its website, PFLAG advises that, due to its history as a slur, the word “queer” “should only be used when self-identifying or quoting someone who self-identifies as queer”.

For many LGBTQ+ students, their FIRST team feels like a safe place to come out. The sense of camaraderie, of family, lets them comfortably be who they are and express their identity. Coming out is an extremely important event in the lives of many LGBTQ+ people, and finding a label that describes one’s identity carries just as much weight. On FIRST teams, surrounded by young people who have, for the most part, seen “queer” as a fairly mainstream identifier of sexuality, some may find solace in a label that cements their place in the LGBTQ+ community, but doesn’t hold them to strict standards or stereotypes, and accepts uncertainty or vagueness about the precise nature of their identity. Still, the word’s history cannot be ignored.  

When I was younger, my dad gave me one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received. “Words are just words,” he said, “until you give them meaning.”

Though the word “queer” has a controversial history, its meaning today is, simply put, what you make of it. For some, it’s a word we use to describe our identities. For others, it’s a curse spat with hatred and ignorance. Personally, I believe that my queer brothers and sisters have spent decades fighting for our right to describe ourselves however we like, to truly embrace what makes us unique, to take our places in a community that understands not only our struggles, but also our joy, our passion, and our love. I am queer, and I’m proud to say it.  

But it’s up to you.

-Tess M.

The Crossroads of FIRST and LGBT – Tom’s Testimony

So, first, an introduction.  My name’s Tom – I’m an FRC alum of team 487, the Robo Spartans out of Erdenheim, PA.  The team hasn’t existed in that form in many years.  I’m Bi, and use he/him pronouns.  I currently mentor FTC team 9618, the CyberSpartans out of the same town.  I’m 31, and started as a FIRST student in 2000.  I’ve served in many roles – Volunteer Coordinator, Referee, Judge, and most recently I’ve had the honor of serving as one of the Masters of Ceremony at the St. Louis World Championship for FIRST Tech Challenge. This is my weird, fabulous story of the crossroads of FIRST and LGBT. When I was in high school, I came out to one person, and one person only.  I was so scared of myself, of who I’d be, that it wasn’t until after college that I truly accepted my sexuality.  In a somewhat cliche passage, I was in a community theater production of RENT, where I came out to my friends.  It would still be another few years until I came out to my parents, at the ripe age of 28.  I count myself lucky – I live in a very welcoming community, with great parents.  But what trapped me most, was myself.  The only resolve to that was therapy, and time. One of the things that has kept me involved with FIRST so long is the people, the community.  I have long felt that you can truly be yourself at a competition – your weird, quirky, unique self.  The self you want to be, but are otherwise afraid to embrace outside the sanctity of a Robotics event.  We embrace safety as part of our culture.  Who is to say that the safety stops at mechanical tools and protective eyewear? Many fraternal societies operate on the principle of having a sacred, shared space where everyone is safe to reveal their secrets.  Our shared space just has a shorter perimeter.
Why do I feel so passionate about this movement? For one, anything that gives students an opportunity to take a leadership position is fantastic.  That’s the whole point of this program – learn skills that you can apply to ANYTHING.  Secondly, I have seen far too many people think that they are alone, that nobody in this world can feel the way they do, that there is no place for them past high school.  I hope that I can serve as a role model to someone – even just one person, to say that you don’t have to be perfect.  You don’t have to get everything right, or even fully know who you are or what you want to be when you grow up.  As long as you’re kind to others, celebrate their strengths, and help them through their weaknesses, then this world we share will be a better place.  And it’s okay to be open about who you are in our community.  I am – and in most of the things I do in FIRST, it doesn’t matter one but.  Which is the greatest feeling in the world.
-Tom

LGBTQ+ of FIRST Student Survey

Check out our LGBTQ+ of FIRST Student Survey!

We are looking for LGBTQ+ students participating in FIRST to fill out a quick survey to help us better understand our community. We just want to know more about your experience in STEM and in FIRST. The survey is completely anonymous and is a huge help. Please share it with any other members of the LGBTQ+ and FIRST communities!

Pros and Cons of Being Open With Your Sexuality

The notion of “coming out” is one that can be intimidating to a lot of people. Formally telling the people in your life about your sexuality seems a daunting task. This, among other reasons, is why I personally choose to be extremely open about my sexuality, with people in my regular life and on my robotics team. I openly discuss/mention my sexuality with people in my life and on my team, but I don’t make a point of specifically coming out. I am unapologetically bisexual.

 

But it wasn’t always that way. In order to live this way, being able to feel comfortable and secure is absolutely essential. When everyone around you knows that you’re bi (or any other orientation/identity), you will face some judgement and questions. You cannot let those things put doubt in your mind, you know who you are better than anyone else does. Reaching this point of stability in your identity can take a long time. For me it took several months, but for some people it could take years. That is okay. Once you reach this point, you may make the choice to be extremely open with your identity, or you may wish to be more private or reserved. The decision of how open to be with your sexuality/identity is entirely yours. But I’d like to share some pros and cons of being as open as I am and how they affected my decision to be who I am so publicly.

 

Pros

 

  • Less confusion

 

      • This is not to say that everyone will understand your identity, but there will be significantly less confusion as to how you identify. Everyone on my team may not understand bisexuality or what it means to me, but they do understand that I am bisexual and open to discuss the topic with anyone.

 

  • Sense of freedom

 

      • For me, coming out to people always created this type of weight on my chest, and for every person I came out to individually, only a small amount of this weight was lifted. Nowadays, I rarely feel this weight at all. There isn’t a weight on my chest because I don’t pressure myself to formally come out to every single person on my team. I don’t have to watch what I say to avoid outing myself

 

  • Spotting toxic people

 

    • Perhaps the biggest advantage to me of my openness, is the ability to identify people who are not going to be supportive of me. I’ve learned from personal experience that nothing is worse than coming out to a long-time friend to have them treat you poorly or start to distance themselves from you. One way I’ve been able to avoid this sort of drama and heartbreak is by being open and upfront about my sexuality. It gives others the chance to never become my friend if my sexuality makes them so uncomfortable. For me, this works, it might not work for everyone. Personally, if someone doesn’t want to be my friend because they know I’m bi, then so be it – I will be better off without those people in my life.

Cons

 

  • Others will out you

 

      • For me, this wasn’t a very big issue, but part of making this decision meant that, yes, people would know I was bi, sometimes without me ever mentioning it to them. However, this was still something I had to consider. When you don’t treat your sexuality as a secret, others won’t treat it as such either. You have to be okay with this because ultimately, it is going to happen in some capacity.

 

  • Keeping it from specific people

 

      • When you become incredibly open with your sexuality, you learn not to think twice about mentioning it, referencing it, and making jokes about it. This can be tough to switch off for certain people/atmospheres. For example, I’m extremely open on my team and  with other friends, but as of right now, I haven’t come out to my parents as bisexual. Oftentimes I have to catch myself when I’m around my family, to keep me from outing myself to them with a lousy pun. The other concern, much like with the previous con, is that someone will accidentally out me to my parents. For me, this wouldn’t be a dangerous situation, but an awkward one. Being even slightly selective with your openness (around family or a certain selection of people) can be difficult when everyone else in your life knows both about your sexuality and how open you are with it

 

  • General Bigotry

 

    • As I’m sure you could guess, when you choose not to hide your sexuality, you also put a target on your back for discrimination. Unfortunately, even though we have made great progress towards acceptance, bigotry still exists and can be very prevalent in some areas. You may experience discrimination or mistreatment in varying degrees if you decide to be very public with your sexuality. This may or may not be something you think you can handle. It can take a toll on some people more than it might for others.

How I Made My Decision

    Here I listed a few of the major pros and cons I considered when I decided I wanted to be extremely open. These can differ from person to person and their impact and importance can vary as well.Deciding whether you want to be more reserved or extremely open with your sexuality/identity is entirely up to you. You have to be comfortable in your own skin and be sure of who you are. You also have to evaluate the safety of being open about your sexuality in your current situation. It also has to be something you want, it simply isn’t for anyone. But for me, it has worked out very well and made me quite happy. Hopefully you find what’s comfortable for you and it makes you happy.

-Hailee 1747

Learning to be inclusive in FIRST

When you think of FIRST, what is the first thing pops into your head? For many people it’s robots, outreach, or helping your community. For some it is the inclusivity of FIRST and, hopefully, how welcome they feel on their team. FIRST is supposed to be an all-inclusive organization, welcoming people from every race, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and background. FIRST is an organization that wants to bring together everyone and anyone as one big family. But for some people they may not have been exposed to members of the LGBTQ+ community and may been misinformed/uninformed of non-heterosexual and cis (identifying with the gender assigned at birth) identities; it may be difficult for these people to relate to members of the LGBTQ+  community that are on their team. If you’re one of those people, there are ways to become informed and make your teammates who are in the LGBTQ+ community feel safe and welcomed on your team.

When I first joined my team two years ago, I met two of my best friends. One was transgender and gay. The other was gender fluid. At the time, I had a no idea what gender fluid even was. I was incredibly uninformed and would be embarrassed when I would misgender either of them or use the wrong pronouns. And for much too long of a time, I did use the wrong pronouns. It took time for me to continuously call them by the correct pronouns, but I tried relentlessly to get it right, often times thinking about what I was going say a few times just to make sure the pronouns were right. If you’re on a team with someone who’s transgender or completely non-binary, you must try your absolute hardest to call them by their correct pronouns. Now I was lucky enough that my friends wouldn’t visibly get too upset when I would accidentally let the wrong pronoun slip out, but every time I did it I knew that inside I was hurting my friends. People I cared about. People that were a part of my team. That was why I urge all people in FIRST who are cisgender to use always remember to use correct pronouns. This a way you can avoid hurting people.

Another issue I often see on my team is a lack of understanding towards LGBTQ+ members. There are certain needs that these students have that must be met. Each student is different and that is a good thing, so they must all be helped in a different way. An example of this may be a student making another student feel uncomfortable through hate-filled remarks about another person’s gender or sexuality. This is completely unacceptable, doesn’t follow FIRST’s message, and must be dealt with by the mentors of that team. FIRST is meant to be an all-inclusive organization where everyone can feel safe, so it stands that the teams in FIRST must be the same. It is the responsibility of all members of FIRST, especially the mentors, to make sure that LGBTQ+ students and all others feel safe on their team. If that means disciplinary action must be taken on a student or mentor, then it is the responsibility of the head mentor or whoever runs the team to make sure that action is taken.

FIRST Teams in general should be a welcoming environment for everyone. That’s one of the main goals of FIRST. So it should be the goal of everyone in FIRST to welcome in members of the LGBTQ+ community and make sure they feel safe and like a valued member of the team. You never know, your team may just be the only place they feel that way.

Room Situation – Pride Month Testimonial

During the 2017 build season I came out to my team as transgender. The team was fine with it, extremely supportive even. The mentors, not so much. They didn’t say much about it, or acknowledge it even. I suppose worse could have happened. All was well until time came for an away regional. They were intending to put me in a boys room, and I of course was very very uncomfortable and unhappy about this. Luckily, I have fantastic friends that stood up for me and got them to change their minds about it. They ended up putting me in my own room alone and away from everyone else. This was preferable to a guys room, though I was still pretty unhappy with my situation because I was away from my friends. At this point, however, I was willing to take anything that wasn’t a boys room.

When the time came for competition, they again asked me if I wanted a boys room, it seemed as if they were pushing me towards going in to one. I refused of course, and the mentor who asked me seemed grumpy about it. At that moment I asked if there was absolutely no way I could stay in the girls room(my gender is female), and to this question, his response was :”No, of course not. Out of the question”. I was again upset by this, but I was grateful they didn’t force me into a boys room. What got me really pissed off was that the ‘girls’ room was comprised of one girl, one nonbinary person, and a trans guy. They put a boy in the girls room over me.  The guy in question didn’t want to fight them, and was more uncomfortable being in a guys room for understandable reasons, so he just decided to stay in the girls room.

The whole point of this story wasn’t just to share a negative experience, but I would not have gotten any accommodation had it not been for my friends who stood up for me and did what I was too timid to do for myself. Eventually, I was able to stand up for myself, but this was after my friends had supported me. I guess what I am saying is, if your mentors are refusing to yield, don’t back down from them. The only way you can get what you want is by fighting for your rights.

– Julia