Tag Archives: Queer

The Queer Liberation of Schools

Guest Blogger- Doug Hecklinger*

Happy Pride? It’s a journey.

Schools should be safe a space for all children; where they can feel pride for who they are while learning about and celebrating those who are not like them. As a Queer 4th grade teacher in Brooklyn, NY who spearheads the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives at our school, this has become such an important part of why I still love to teach even after 22 years. .

I grew up in Connecticut in the 1970s and 80s, very much in a culture of fear, misinformation, and bias with regards to the Queer community. I never read a single book with a queer character, never learned about Queer people or events in history, music, art, the sciences, etc., and never had an “out” teacher. My health classes were heteronormative, as were all of the social norms among my peers. The only time being Queer came up was as a way to bully or with regards to AIDS (with an undertone of how the community deserved to suffer due to their sinful ways). No pride whatsoever, only shame.

This was addressed to some degree in the decades that followed with an “It gets better” campaign where (mostly Queer) celebrities were filmed telling Queer kids that it gets better when they become adults. As an adult, I was moved by this, particularly when a sitting President, Barrack Obama, participated. Since Queer oppression has similarities to all forms of oppression, his message, with a dual focus on anti-black racism, was powerful. And it was worlds away from one of the Presidents of my youth, Ronald Reagan, who famously never once mentioned the Queer community despite the AIDS crisis at the time. “It gets better” assured youth that pride would come, if they could just hold on through the culture of shame in school.

I wonder if you can imagine how moved I was this year when my elementary school marched in the 28th Brooklyn Pride parade for the very first time. Though we are a small school with only 200 students, over 50 people marched – students, families, teachers, the guidance counselor, and the school secretary. Most of the people who marched identify as allies, who, as mentioned above, wish to celebrate those not like them. The DEI resources shared in K-5 classes during Pride Month, had fostered a sense of love and respect for Queer culture, and they wanted to join in the celebration.

While marching down a very crowded 5th Ave in the neighborhood of Park Slope I looked into the 5-people-deep spectators and saw people roughly my age or older weeping. Like me, they could not believe that, at least in our school, there was no need for an “It gets better” campaign. It is “better” now. The journey of Queer liberation at our school turned the corner from being a topic only addressed if we witnessed bullying to something we intentionally integrated into our academic day. These efforts serve as both a window into (for allies) and a mirror of (for those who are Queer) the Queer identity. Pride had arrived.

As I continue to reflect on all of this, I am aware that this journey of liberation has a long way to go to affect the current statistic from the Trevor Project – that a member of the Queer community in the United States attempts suicide once every 45 seconds. I know that our school is not the norm, even here in Brooklyn, and that our own journey is far from complete. The degree to which we keep making progress is also the degree to which we stop causing harm. Pride must win to defeat shame.

My scars from being raised in a toxic culture continue to heal, and this year’s Pride Parade was one of the best medicines. Never has my calling to be a teacher been as compelling as it is now. Proud Queer educators like myself obviously have a lot of interest in leading this work, though I hope allies can see their role too. Safe schools require all of us to march together on this journey.

Please say it with me. Happy pride!

*Doug Hecklinger has been teaching in New York City for 22 years, first at P.S. 159 in East New York, and for the last 10 years at P.S. 295 in Park Slope. He has taught 3rd, 4th and 5th grades. He is a member of the Proud Educators group promoting inclusive schools, and is “out” as Queer in his school community, including to his students. He and his husband also live in Park Slope with their nearly 12 years old daughter and dog, Lawrence.