Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) hosted the annual summit for LGBTQ students and their supporters in the beautiful neighborhood named after the oldest high school in greater Fresno. It marked the first official collaboration between the 5th largest school district in California and the statewide advocacy organization dedicated to parity in the LGBTQ student experience--GSA Network. I volunteered for several hours.
Many readers don’t need statistics to understand queer students’ reality; their personal histories are enough. In college, I co-chaired the Southern Nevada chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), to advance safer schools in the Las Vegas region. GLSEN’s innovative research, The National School Climate Survey, has consistently found public schools to often be unsafe or harmful environments for queer students, yet in recent years markable improvements are found coast to coast. As of 2015, “most LGBTQ students in California had been victimized at school,” but our state is also leading the way for affirming schools. FUSD acted with good intention, perhaps overzealously, in securitizing an already secure, gated campus with community resource officers--or school police--the day of the conference. That decision was twofold, as told to me by Erica Hasenbeck, Manager of Restorative Practices: in response to the arrest of a male teacher for sexual harassment of a male student the day before, and the reality that Fresno is no stranger to homophobic protests.
The conference, previously hosted in Fresno at affirming churches for some years, included useful and timely workshops and discussions between a morning keynote address by local drag queen Leilani Price, meals, a resource fair of local allied organizations, and a talent show/dance party in the courtyard to close out the long day. Simultaneous tracks provided youth-and-adult-specific spaces and topics along with open sessions led by valley experts, like “Racism in Our Schools” (Fresno resident and Californians for Justice staff, Grisanti Valencia): For instance, youth discussed “Political Activism in the Digital Age” (The kNOw Youth Media) and “Fight for Your Rights” (GSA Network); adults discussed advising/supporting Gay-Straight Alliance and other similar school clubs (Peggy Nemeth, Riverdale High), and “Fighting for Youth Rights” (Deion Jackson, GSA Network alumni).
District officials were on-site the entirety of the conference as helpful and intentional collaborators. Hasenbeck secured the partnership for the district and chose Fresno High as host in recognition of the school’s efforts at inclusion and the appeal of the neighborhood, she shared. School support staff were a very supportive presence as well, picking up a Saturday shift to welcome attending and visiting students from throughout the valley. While a great first partnership, future renditions provide ample opportunity for improvement.
Increased student and community attendance and involvement of regional GSA (gay-straight alliance) club advisors are two primary opportunities. Advisors criticized that the conference was not better communicated throughout FUSD, particularly to the very clubs for whom it was intended; Fresno High’s advisor told her club colleagues, frustratingly, of not being directly contacted by the district to be involved pre-conference which suggests a disconnect between central administrators and staff in schools. The security for the conference also compels reflection. It could be an unfortunate message inferred to queer students that for their congregating the presence of armed police officers or escorts are required--though the day concluded incident-free on campus. Unfortunately, the charm of the neighborhood that Hasenbeck referenced was dimmed by an occurrence that morning, Nemeth disclosed in conversation. Her club members were made uncomfortable when snubbed by staff at Kuppa Joy Coffee House, a Christian-owned and themed venue adjacent to campus:
“I feel so bad that despite coming to an event designed for them they had a negative experience just across the street getting coffee. However it happened, they felt slighted for being who they are, and that shouldn’t be happening, anywhere.”
In future summits, more volunteers could be recruited to monitor safety and deter potential homophobes, instead of police vehicles out front. Many LGBTQ people, especially folks of color, might feel uncomfortable with armed cops present due in part to historical and contemporary tensions between law enforcement and marginalized communities.
Expression, Not Suppression 2018 convened out-and-proud youngsters on April 21st, 2018. It was primarily coordinated by Marcus Navarro, Lead Fresno GSA Organizer of the Genders and Sexualities Alliance Network. A round of applause for a tremendous success!