Published: June 25, 2021 By

 "What is normal?"

Bethy Leonardi gives a presentation at the 2019 Educator Institute for Equity and Justice. (Credit: School of Education at CU Boulder)

Brittni Laura Hernandez, a middle school language arts teacher in Greeley, has seen a change in her students over the last few years: Young people who identify as LGBTQ have become bolder, demanding that teachers and others call them by their correct pronouns and names.

“Students are definitely more confident, and they’re finding more community with each other,” Hernandez said. 

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She sees it as a positive shift, but Hernandez also believes that there’s still a lot more work to be done before classrooms across Colorado are truly welcoming for young people from all backgrounds.

The educator is one-third of the team behind A Queer Endeavor, launched in 2014 by Bethy Leonardi and Sara Staley, now assistant professors in the School of Education at CU Boulder. The organization seeks to help build schools that are safe and humanizing for all young people—providing teachers with resources around how they can support students who identify as LGBTQ and foster honest conversations about gender and sexuality in the classroom.

Next month, the trio, plus a talented group of graduate students and faculty from the School of Education, will host their third Educator Institute for Equity and Justice. The two-day event will bring together about 450 K-12 teachers to connect with and learn from each other.

Just before Denver’s Pride weekend, the AQE team sat down with CU Boulder Today to talk about their work and how teachers shape what kids consider “normal.”  

What is A Queer Endeavor?

STALEY: We work in partnership with districts and school communities to break the historical silence that has surrounded LGBTQ topics in schools. We focus on supporting educator learning so that educators can do right by LGBTQ youth and create learning environments that are safe and humanizing for all young people, with a particular emphasis on LGBTQ youth.

How has the landscape for your work changed, or not, since you launched A Queer Endeavor in 2014?

LEONARDI: What’s the expression?

From left to right, Brittni Laura Hernandez, Bethy Leonardi and Sara Staley at a graduation event on the CU Boulder campus

From left to right, Brittni Laura Hernandez, Bethy Leonardi and Sara Staley. (Credit: A Queer Endeavor)

STALEY: The more things change, the more things stay the same.

LEONARDI: When we first started doing this work, very few people in local schools were talking about pronouns. Transgender people weren’t in the media as much. Even how the word “queer” is being used has changed. It’s become more common.

STALEY: Colorado has more policies on the books. Today, the state has legislation that says whether or not you’re an effective teacher depends on creating a safe learning environment for a diverse population of students, and that includes LGBTQ students.

Have teachers also seen a shift in students?

LEONARDI: Youth have been more bold in their demands on the education system and educators, and so have parents. 

HERNANDEZ: I had students this year who were unapologetic. They would say, “This teacher didn’t call me by my correct pronouns. They didn’t call me by my name. Who can I talk to?”

I imagine that you hear from a lot of parents and others who say that teachers shouldn’t be talking about gender and sex in schools. Why do you think it’s important?

LEONARDI: We are teaching about gender and sexuality in schools all the time. We are teaching about race all the time. We’re just teaching it in a way that makes most people comfortable because it’s what is considered normal.

So schools help to define what’s normal or not? 

LEONARDI: Yes, and educators don’t even have to explicitly mention race, gender or sexuality to do that. It’s about who we learn is smart, whose stories we learn are worth reading, who thinkers and scientists are. We grew up learning that white people write books, and in those books, if there is a person of color, they’re downtrodden. The white person saves them.

If you think about what it means to be in love and be in a relationship, all the stories we read are about straight people.

HERNANDEZ: That’s why getting at those norms is so important. You have teachers who say, “Yes, diversity. I’m on board,” but you still see those norms and practices that are hurting students.

Sara Staley speaks to attendees at the first-ever Educator Institute for Equity and Justice in 2018

Sara Staley speaks to participants in the first-ever Educator Institute for Equity and Justice in 2018. (Credit: School of Education at CU Boulder)

There’s been significant pushback recently around teaching the histories and experiences of people who don’t fit into the “norm.” What do you think when you hear those criticisms?

LEONARDI: To be honest, this question makes me tired. I’m tired of justifying the work that we do. There’s no justification needed. I’m a human being, and LGBTQ youth are human beings. What if we flipped that question and asked people what they are so afraid of?

Can you tell me about your upcoming educator institute?

STALEY: We want it to be a connected space, for educators, by educators, where people can come together and learn together. Often what happens is that you’re the only person doing this work in your school, and it’s very isolating. So, we want to draw educators from around the state to build community.

LEONARDI: The theme of this year’s institute is about moving toward collaborative liberation. We don’t believe that’s possible unless we work together—across identities and across movements. We want to create an experience where we honor that this work is about people, not “issues” or “politics,” and we want to come together in solidarity to take action.