Alumni: LCPS Should do More for LGBTQ Students

Alumni: LCPS Should do More for LGBTQ Students

School Board Meets Tonight to Consider LGBTQ Protections.

The Loudoun County School Board will take up the controversial issue of whether to include LGBTQ protections in school discrimination and harassment policies — or to adopt a blanket statement that removes all identified classes from such policies.

The board will meet at 6:30 p.m. tonight at the Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) Administration Building in Ashburn, and proponents of each approach are gearing up for a contentious evening.

The issue first arose at the board’s Nov. 29 meeting following a motion by Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) seeking LGBTQ protections, and was punted to Dec. 13 for broader consideration.

This follows consideration by the Board of Supervisors of a resolution by Supv. Kristin Umstattd (D-Leesburg) recognizing LGBTQ awareness month. That effort failed, and the board instead adopted an innocuous Love Loudoun resolution in June, while also narrowing its policy on considering resolutions of any kind.

LGBTQ issues are arising more than ever in Loudoun, as they are in other parts of the nation. The issues themselves are not new, but they are getting significantly more attention — as are the individuals who identify themselves as members of this community.

School is supposed to be a place where students feel safe to be themselves and learn, but this is not the case for all students in Loudoun’s public schools. Interviews conducted by The Tribune with recent LCPS alumni offered insights into the LGBTQ community and local high schools.

“I didn’t come to school, I just didn’t feel like going because I felt like this alien, not only in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation, but just being a person of color as well.”

Virginia does not recognize sexual orientation or gender identify as protected classes against harassment or discrimination. While individual counties have adopted policies that protect LGBTQ individuals in school, Loudoun County has not, and LGBTQ students notice.

“I think that, up until my senior year I kind of kept myself in this bubble of people I felt safe around, so I wouldn’t participate in extracurriculars because I didn’t feel like I belonged,” said Camila Grez-Messina, who graduated from Loudoun County High School in 2012.

“I didn’t come to school, I just didn’t feel like going because I felt like this alien, not only in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation, but just being a person of color as well,” they said.

New terms abound in the lexicon of LGBTQ conversation. People who identify their gender as outside the binary of male or female typically use the pronouns “they” and “them” in place of he/him and she/her. They may also identify their gender as “non-binary.” Some individuals who are attracted to multiple genders identify as pansexual, as distinguished from bisexual, to more clearly express they are attracted to people regardless of gender.

Grez-Messina identifies as queer and non-binary. When they attended County, they remember very few LGBTQ individuals who were public about their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Those who were public faced harassment from other students.

They had a non-binary friend who was often misgendered and at one time even groped by upperclass bullies. Seeing and hearing experiences like that made Grez-Messina feel isolated and like they had no one in the school to talk to.

Although they didn’t come out as non-binary until after high school, eventually, Grez-Messina made the decision to publicly identify as queer while attending County. They made the purposeful decision to become more visible after making friends with other LGBTQ-identifying individuals and allies. By coming out, they hoped to help create a space where others felt comfortable doing the same.

“So it was an active decision to make it okay and normalizing the fact that there are gay students here, it’s just a thing, it’s real, there are queer and trans students at LCHS. Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there, just that maybe you’re creating an environment where they’re terrified to come out at all,” Grez-Messina said.

Like Grez-Messina, Tuscarora High School alum Jorge Haiek felt like they had to limit their experience. Haiek, who graduated in 2014, identifies as queer and does not define their gender. Students always assumed their sexuality, and they faced harassment throughout their years in high school.

“I tried to stay away from certain situations when I could, like the gym side of the school and the locker rooms. Anything that could possibly put me in danger, I stayed away from. I got called faggot countless times. I was told I would go to hell and I would burn,” Haiek said.

On top of the fear of verbal harassment and physical violence, the fear of losing friends and being ostracized by peers also keeps students quiet about their sexuality while in high school.

“I was constantly worried that friends would excommunicate me and I would face harassment and judgement from the people closest to me. I thrived on social interaction, so the fear of being isolated kept me firmly in the closet,” Heritage High School alum Sophie Tenaglia said. Tenaglia graduated in 2011 and identifies as pansexual.

Coming out wasn’t much of a choice for Haiek. Instead, they felt like they had to repress themselves in order to stay safe because they couldn’t defend themselves and they felt the school administration wouldn’t defend them either.

“I kept my boundaries with people. I definitely didn’t feel safe enough to wear what I wanted or express myself in ways that I wanted, and when I tried, I was limited, artistically especially. I tried to do some theater pieces as a female and I wasn’t really allowed to put on a performance or really express my artistic wishes,” Haiek said.

To be gay in high school is to be the punchline of a joke that often a teacher would tell, said one bisexual Heritage High School alum who graduated in 2012 and asked to be kept anonymous.

“I was on the lacrosse team and they would make fun of other sports teams for having gay team members, so that was another place I kept my mouth shut. A few kids in my grade were out, and one was teased mercilessly in class and the teacher did nothing to stop it, which I could tell really frustrated that kid,” she said.

For LGBTQ-identifying students, not knowing the school’s stance on gay rights made them feel unwelcome and unprotected. On top of fears of further isolation from peers, there’s also the fear of backlash from teachers or administrators.

Heritage High School alum Sammy Foxhall remembered being afraid that coming out would make teachers take a harder approach to his grades, be more critical of what he said in class and be combative of his ideas. This increased fear made him wait longer to come out and also increased his depression.

“When I came out, I don’t think any of this happened but I think there’s the tendency when there’s nothing to suggest your school is going to do anything to support you and you see the stories of schools not supporting students in similar positions, you’re more inclined to protect yourself from those possible outcomes than from the slim chance of having a positive outcome,” Foxhall said.

“I specifically remember teachers who expressed their discomfort with queer issues or openly expressed their disgust with the queer community, even when I was openly gay, that was really discouraging and hurtful,” he said. Foxhall is another 2012 graduate.

While Grez-Messina, Haiek and Foxhall all identified certain teachers as accepting and talked to them, they said most teachers did not step in. There was one instance where some male students in one of Foxhall’s classes would direct pointed comments at him and disparage anything he said. It was clear to Foxhall that he was being targeted because of his sexuality. Ultimately, other students had to step in on his behalf.

“I sincerely believe the teacher in that class knew what was happening. There’s no way that she couldn’t. And I think the fact that she didn’t (do anything) spoke more to the fact that this wasn’t a safe environment for me regardless of the student environment,” Foxhall said.

For these alumni, LCPS adding LGBTQ protections to Loudoun’s discrimination and harassment policies would be a start to making public schools a more inclusive space for everyone. Foxhall considers himself privileged to come from a home environment that is accepting of his sexuality, but that is not the case for all LGBTQ-identifying students.

“I think that one of the mandates of the school board is that it’s in place to protect the student as much as to set policy, and I think there’s an intersection in this point of time … where setting this policy is saying to the students, you’re safe here even when these students may not be safe at home,” Foxhall said. “I think that showing these students that there is a place where they can be safe, they can be who they are without threats of violence from the people who raised them, without the threat of homelessness, without the threat of persecution, I think is essential in making it so this queer population can survive.”

Policy change needs to come with definitive steps, Grez-Messina and Foxhall agreed. Changing the language is a good start to influencing the tolerance of harassment, but in itself isn’t enough.

“You can change the language as much as you want, you can dress up a turd as much as you want, but it’s at the end of the day, it is what it is,” Grez-Messina said.

“It depends on … how bullying is defined. Because bullying can be the overt (kind) that we’re used to, it can be the physical beating up, but does that also protect online cyber bullying … anonymous forms of bullying? Would the school take actions to hold the perpetrators accountable or would it just be in the confines of the school? Because I can assure you most of the harassment will not be within the confines of the school, so how much is it going to expand?”

“Punishment without actual understanding of why the action was wrong is not going to fix anything, it’s just going to make you figure out different ways to do the same behavior.”

One place to start would be informative training for teachers on how to handle oppressive language and behaviors, Grez-Messina said. Teachers ought to go beyond calling students out, Grez-Messina said. Students need to understand why the harassment is not acceptable. When students are just called out, all they learn is to not say things in front of teachers the next time. Haiek said when they were harassed in school, it was usually when teachers were not around.

“Punishment without actual understanding of why the action was wrong is not going to fix anything, it’s just going to make you figure out different ways to do the same behavior,” Grez-Messina said.

Grez-Messina would also like to see some sort of required, school-wide course for students on understanding oppressive behaviors and unpacking privilege.

“I don’t want to call it sensitivity training, because it’s not being sensitive, it’s just being a decent person,” Grez-Messina said. “So it’s just understanding that not everybody’s experience is the same because racism is real, sexism is real, homophobia is real, all these things are real. They’re not the boogeyman, they’re real things that are reproduced every single day in different ways.”

“At VCU you have to take an intro to Black Studies class or a Gender, Sexuality and Women Studies class, so those both work together, but there should be something that begins in high school. They’re supposed to be preparing us for the real world, well, that’s the real world,” they said.

Having other resources available like gay-straight alliances or having LGBTQ speakers or events are also helpful for LGBTQ-identifying students to feel they are accepted in school, Tenaglia said.

Foxhall remembers there being no cultural or sexual resources for LGBTQ-identifying students when he attended Heritage. Grez-Messina and Haiek also remember limited to no education on LGBTQ relationships or sexual health.

“When it came to resources within the school on a more social level, I had to create the resources myself. I founded the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), I reached out to other students who were struggling with their identities, struggling with issues at home, and I really had to advocate for that resource for myself and I shared that resource with my peers,” Foxhall said

Foxhall’s goal in creating the GSA was to build a sense of community and offer a beacon of hope to students who weren’t out, to find safe spaces and people who they could reach out to and speak to and “fight this fight” together. Notwithstanding support from Heritage High School’s administration, Foxhall said countywide administration took steps to keep the GSA from being effective and safe. He said the club developed a stigma, as well as disapproval from some peers and teachers, that kept it from meeting its goals.

“I had a lot of people come up to me privately saying, ‘this is a great idea,’ but then expressed they wouldn’t be comfortable going into that space. And I have to say, I think what contributed to that was the feeling of isolation and repercussions by having this identity within the public,” Foxhall said.

“It’s not that LGBT people want special treatment, I think we just want to know we won’t be treated badly for being ourselves.”

Foxhall also wants county residents to know this isn’t a new issue. LGBTQ-identifying individuals have been working toward being legally protected for years. He remembers writing a letter to past LCPS Superintendent Eric Hatrick asking him to make sexual orientation and gender identity a protected class under policies back in 2011.

Foxhall said the idea that this is a grab at special privileges for LGBTQ students is misguided. Haiek and the anonymous Heritage alum agreed.

“It’s not that LGBT people want special treatment, I think we just want to know we won’t be treated badly for being ourselves,” the Heritage alum said.

All those interviewed said adding sexual orientation and gender identity to LCPS’ discrimination and harassment policy would be a good start to making LCPS a safer learning environment for all students, but it must be accompanied with educational efforts for teachers and students.

Members of the board will be weighing this and more tonight.