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August 15, 2020

The Back to School Issue

We know so many parents, students and teachers are struggling right now with what to make of the 2020 school year. We want to send all of you virtual hugs for the challenges ahead. There is so much stress equated with the opening of schools, the decisions to be virtual or in person, health and safety, masks or no masks. The list goes on and on for the things that can be anxiety producing in this unique school year.

But anxiety is not unique to the LGBTQIA+ student. The first day of school, in normal circumstances is filled with insecurity, trepidation, sleepless nights and upset stomachs. For students who are “out”, they know already who they will have to battle when they return. Fellow students they have been bullied from in the past, or online, will be around every corner, or in every zoom. They also know which teachers are supportive and safe, and which ones are not. They may be having to figure out which bathrooms they are allowed to use, or if its easier and safer to just hold it until they get home.

Parker Cunningham Remembers

Parker Cunningham Photo: WithUInMind Photography

The public school system, in the 1990s and early 2000s, was a unique environment for an LGBTQIA+ kid like me. In some ways, the system was progressing. Some schools were allowing GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance) groups to meet, where you could generally “exist” as a gay or lesbian student or teacher but the overall terrain was still very uncharted. Many of us experienced, and continue to experience, rejection, abuse and other forms of bullying from our families, our churches, our teachers and our peers. School was one of the few places I could just breathe. There were a few educators in my life who provided safe spaces for me to be me, to share my authentic self with the world, all sides of it. They accepted me when my own family was not yet ready to.


The terrain is still rocky for LGBTQIA+ students but I am hopeful because of the teachers I had who affirmed me, because of school staff that knows the power of a rainbow button or a sticker, because of my brother who is now an educator and an ally, because of my trans friend who keeps applying for teaching jobs so trans kids can see themselves in every facet of this world; We can teach each other to save each other. They have all taught me that. – Parker Cunningham

The Power of a Rainbow

LGBTQIA+ students are always looking for hints, clues, and pathways to safe spaces and safe people.  These hints are nuggets found on classroom doors, desks, and posters on walls. When a student sees a rainbow sticker on a classroom door as they enter, they breathe a little deeper when they walk in.

Rainbow pencils and pens in a coffee mug on a teacher’s desk will drop tense shoulders down an inch or so. Casual Fridays when staff can wear jeans and their favorite Pride, unicorn, or Free Mom Hug shirt will make a typically quiet student utter a few trembling words or may even deliver a crooked and reserved smile, but a smile nonetheless. The rainbow, for the LGBTQIA+ student can be a life-jacket, a security blanket, or the feeling of a hug without even receiving one.

Teachers are Superheroes

Jan Pezant and Parker Cunningham

Our very own board member, Jan Pezant is a superhero educator, and knows even in the youngest of students, the power of an understanding, non-judgmental adult.

Jan writes,

“Fifth grade can be a difficult time for a child to navigate changes in their bodies and feelings they are experiencing. Peer pressure and the desire to conform can be intense. I have had several students during my 19 years of teaching that I suspected would be in the LGBTQ+ community, but one particular student comes to mind. He was so confident in who he was at an early age. He was not afraid to be himself even if it was different than his fellow classmates. I told him often that he was awesome and I loved his fearless spirit.  I knew that it wouldn’t always be easy and he may be hurting and scared behind the brave face he put on for others. I would find ways to cheer him on without bringing attention to something he wasn’t r ready share with myself, others or maybe not even with himself yet. Giving him permission to be who he was, and to feel that me and my classroom were a safe place, was in my opinion, vital.”

Jan’s acceptance, love and even celebration was the example that other students and teachers followed. And we know not only changed that one student’s life, but the ripple effect of such love is immeasurable.

We Thank You

Sara Cunningham is grateful for affirming teachers.

Teachers, you are faced with what may likely be the most challenging year of your career. We, at Free Mom Hugs, value the role you play and the sacrifices you are making. We are aware that many of you may be the most affirming adult an LGBTQIA+ child may have in their life. Home may not be safe, affirming or remotely celebratory of their authentic selves. But you are.

So, in the midst of all that the world is asking of you right now, we thank you for your decisions to be aware of your students, and have that little rainbow flag next to the stapler on your desk. And the fact that you give a wink behind your rainbow face mask to that student that needs to know you know what they aren’t ready to tell anyone yet. We are grateful that you ask for and respect your students’ pronouns, and offer to share your own, or even wear a pronoun button with your name tag.

We thank you for talking about LGBTQIA+ icons and historical figures, and the impact they make on the world. Because you know, like we know, LGBTQIA+ kids need to know, they are loved, they belong, and that the world needs their contribution. We are striving to make the world a kinder, safer place for LGBTQIA+ kids. And we know you are in the fight with us. You are truly on the front lines. And we couldn’t do it without you.

Resources

Please let us know how we can support you better. Feel free to contact us if you need resources in your area for a student, or materials from our website to help understand and educate yourself or fellow educators. If your school has a GSA and you would like us to zoom in for a visit of support or sharing stories, we are ready and willing. We are in this together. Until we can hug again…

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