Many schools have similar organizations to this. Why the need to start one in FIRST®?

The students in FIRST®  face unique challenges and a unified culture in comparison to other organizations. FIRST® also encompasses tens of thousands of students internationally, in areas where school organizations may not be available. LGBTQ+ of FIRST® allows FIRST® issues to be addressed, and for the spread of helpful materials to be facilitated by and for teens and mentors across the world.

How should students face opposition in less accepting school environments?

Unfortunately, in some school situations, the environment can be hard to combat. Students who enter an open and honest conversation with their schools about their own experiences and seek to understand the perspectives of their school community will have more success in fostering an accepting environment at their school. Seeking compromise, while disheartening at times, allows for a stronger foundation to be laid for students facing these issues in the future. Determine which issues are most important to you and focus on those, being willing to give ground on others. It’s necessary to recognize that communities take time for major cultural shifts, and LGBTQ+ issues are still controversial for many people. It’s easy to forget that school administrators, teachers, parents, and peers have not been working through LGBTQ+ issues at the same depth and intensity as members of the community. Tolerance, while they learn, can be the difference between them accepting or fighting back against you.

How should teams handle rooming situations with LGBTQ+ students?

Because teams are usually required to follow school policies, teams may find it hard to accommodate for all students, specifically trans students in this case. If possible, allowing students to be in a room with their correct gender identity is the best approach. Accommodation can be sending home waivers to parents of the transgender student’s roommates (taking away the school’s liability), securing a separate room for trans students, or changing school guidelines to accept transgender students. Teams can also work directly with their school administration and trans students to figure out a short-term solution to a rooming problem if there is not enough time for a change in administration policy.

For gay students, it can depend on a team-by-team basis. There will be straight students that are uncomfortable with sharing a bed or even just a room with a gay student. This is unfortunate, but we want to avoid making students uncomfortable, regardless of the reason. If it comes down to having only three people in a room with 2 beds, then so be it. On the other hand, students shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about rooming with an LGBTQ+ student. The purpose of robotics competitions is to compete with robots, not to be messing around with fellow students. If there is a concern that students may be engaging in sexual activities with other students at a competition, then that student shouldn’t be allowed to go regardless of orientation. It should have nothing to do with whether you’re LGBTQ+ or not.

Provided a gay student is not dating another student in their room, they should be held to the same standards as any other heterosexual student on the same trip, as noted by the team. The isolation of LGBTQ+ members from regular dorming can lead to their feeling ostracized, and not part of a team; thus, LGBTQ+ students should not be isolated from fellow students unless it is clearly a safety issue.

What advice would you provide to an LGBTQ+ student for this situation?

Talking directly to mentors can be a huge help no matter the issue. On a case-by-case basis, accommodations can be made to appease everyone involved, such as allowing an LGBTQ+ student to be in a bed by themselves or grouping LGBTQ+ students together in rooms. However, a school shouldn’t go to these measures without the approval of the student. Doing so can unnecessarily exclude a student from their peers.

If your team isn’t providing you enough support, you can always try talking to your school administration. Even if you don’t receive the answer you want, you have paved the way for other trans and gay students in the future. You can also try to find others in your school who are LGBTQ+ in order to find support.

How should teams handle PDA concerning LGBTQ+ students?

This issue should be handled on a team by team basis and should directly reflect their policies for all students. The team or school’s stance should remain for consistent whether the students involved are heterosexual or part of the LGBTQ+ community.

How should LGBTQ+ students and allies handle working with offensive and divisive language?

Offensive language is often a part of the teenage lexicon, but that doesn’t mean it should be tolerated. Team members should be taught about why their language is offensive and reprimand students accordingly if they continue to attack others. Mentors can guide students to more acceptable languages by talking to individual students when/if a problem arises.

What does the future look like for LBGTQ+ of FIRST?  What would you like to see get accomplished in the next few years?

We’re currently working on rebranding and expanding our outreach to a more professional platform. We would like to see more representation throughout the FIRST® community and see more honest, open conversation occurring about the issues that the LGBTQ+ community in FIRST® faces. We’ve already received unbelievable recognition by the FIRST® staff, and we seek to continue working alongside FIRST® to allow our efforts to reach more people. Strengthening our brand, expanding our outreach, and becoming an unincorporated nonprofit are our three main priorities as of right now.

How can those of us who are straight but want to help support an organization like yours get involved to help change our culture?

The best you can do is support the LGBTQ+ students and mentors you know, ensuring that their environment is safe for them. This includes making sure the students around them are treating them with respect (not using slurs, etc) and stepping in if issues arise with other students, mentors, or parents.Step up to defend LGBTQ+ students and step down to let them speak. Support is extremely important, and so is ensuring that both students and mentors on your team feel welcome and respected. If you’re looking to get involved or have any questions at all, you can contact us at lgbtplusfirst@gmail.com.

What advice do you have to either a student or mentor who identifies under LGBTQ+ that fears discrimination on their team?

Discretion is your best friend. Don’t hide yourself, but don’t flaunt yourself either. Staying calm and subtle about your identity is the best way to make sure others stay calm as well. After you first come out in an unaccepting environment, it’s best to stay under the radar for a while. If harassment or active discrimination is an issue, talk to a mentor whom you trust about any problems that arise. Be strong in your identity and understand that other people’s opinions of you in no way define who you are or what you can accomplish. While it can be difficult or even impossible to prevail against adversity within your team, having a mentor or another student on your side can help to diminish and make it easier to deal with people who are not accepting of your identity.  If you see your team becoming more accepting of you, you can stand being more open about your identity. Regardless of your team situation, remember that FIRST®  is committed to fostering, cultivating and preserving a culture of diversity and inclusion. We embrace and encourage differences in race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, disability, age, religion, income or any other characteristics that make our adult-force and students unique.” 

What can team leads and mentors do to encourage a positive environment?

Team leads and mentors can encourage a positive environment by talking directly to the LGBTQ+ students on their team and figuring out appropriate accommodations. Having clear lines of communication and a willingness to listen makes a huge impact.

This includes making sure the students around them are treating them with respect (not using slurs, etc) and stepping in if issues arise with other students, mentors, or parents.

By introducing themselves with their pronouns (ex: “I’m Sean and my pronouns are “he/him”), team leads and mentors are showing their support while being inclusive to the community. This way, trans and gender-nonconforming students don’t feel pressured to separately come out with their pronouns, but they can at the same time the rest of the team does. They can also research the community to learn its struggles and vocabulary to better understand their students. Team leads and mentors can hang up safe space posters to validate their support of students.

Education on LGBTQ+ and diversity issues for all team members can help prevent miscommunication, which could cause inter-team strife and minority students to feel alienated. Making resources available and clearly stating expectations regarding the equal treatment of all students is paramount to creating a safe and accepting team atmosphere. All students must know that slurs and offensive language/jokes are completely and utterly unacceptable. Here are some resources for starting the conversation within your team:

There are going to be students and mentors whose families religious or personal beliefs believe that identifying as LGBTQ+ is associated with a sickness or disorder and is a choice.  As someone who is public about their identity how do your handle interactions with people who believe this?  Do you try to tackle it head on or just ignore it?  What advice do you have for others?

The best way to combat this sort of thinking is through kindness. Showing that LGBTQ+ people are human beings who merely wish to live authentically can break down preconceived notions and stereotypes. Our community is not out to destroy family values or undermine religion. We do not wish to forcefully impose our identities on others; however, this is sometimes unavoidable because of the interconnectedness of society. The only way to deal with interaction like this is to remain calm and collected, accept that you probably won’t change their minds through a short conversation, and to remember that they deserve love and respect too.  

Those around you do not have to accept your identity for them to respect it. FIRST® is a professional environment, and as such, we should all be expected to treat others with respect. You can’t change someone’s mind about what they believe unless they’re willing to learn. Sometimes, you just have to let it go and realize that acceptance won’t come from that specific person. There’s a common misconception when people first come out that it’s necessary to fight every closed-minded person you encounter. Many people have already made up their minds and arguing with them is not worth your time, energy or mental power. Don’t drain yourself fighting battles you’ll never win. You are you, and your identity is not invalidated by one person’s perception of who you are. There will invariably be people who disagree, but there is nothing wrong with you. Remember that the most important thing is to stay safe.

How do you approach team members about being more understanding of censoring themselves? How do you enforce this without causing more drama?

Approaching individual problems calmly and respectfully is the easiest way. Specific rules can seem like a “buzzkill”,  students won’t follow them just to break rules, and they are hard to enforce. Instead, explain why someone shouldn’t use certain language and how it affects others. Oftentimes, a student or mentor doesn’t even realize they are being offensive. Simply saying something about it often fixes the issue, and they begin to watch their mouths. If the offensive language continues, talk to mentors on your team and explain the cause of discomfort. If neither of these approaches work, walk off every time they say something offensive. Turn heel and go work somewhere else.