Blue Star Experience

I went to the most amazing workshop today.

A colleague from work stopped me on the way into the building on Tuesday to let me know that the Coordinator of the LGBTQ Center at Montclair State University would be at the Boys and Girls Club in our town to give a seminar on sensitivity and awareness of LGBTQ youth in our schools. I wanted in immediately. It was very last-minute to put in for a Professional Day and get myself signed up for the workshop, but I am so glad I was able to quickly put all of the paperwork through because today was the best eight hours of professional development I have ever completed in the 8+ years I have been a teacher.

Even though I consider myself very educated on gender pronouns, gender and sexual preference spectrums, and trans-related issues, I was very excited to learn as much as I possibly could to be a better educator and role-model for my students that may identify as LGBTQ. When we first got to the workshop, the instructor, Brian, had us write our names followed by our used gender pronouns on a name tag. Mine said, “Cali – She/Her/Hers”. I understood right away what Brian was trying to do – open up a conversation about how not everyone identifies with the perceived gender pronouns. For example, some people who are outwardly female may use the pronouns “they/them/their”. But what was interesting was that some of the other professionals there didn’t get it right away. I noticed some of them even omitted the gender pronouns  from their name tags – perhaps confused or maybe unsure of the point. It gave me a bit of a chuckle that so many people at the workshop had no idea that traditional gender pronouns are not utilized by everyone. For once, I felt the privilege in being gay. I felt more “normal” in today’s conversations than many of them appeared to feel. I loved that feeling.

We went around the room and introduced ourselves with three prompts: Say your name, Give your used gender pronouns, and Explain why you signed up for this seminar. There were about 30 others there today from all over North Jersey. Most were administrators or guidance counselors – I think I was only one of two classroom teachers. Four of us identified as LGBT or Q – everyone else would have identified themselves as “straight”. We did quite a few exercises and activities throughout the day that were incredible, but one of them hit me so hard that I can’t get it out of my head.

Brian handed out stars to each of us. Some were yellow, some were purple, orange or blue. Mine was blue. First we were instructed to write our name in the middle of the star. Then, Brian told us to write a different thing on each “arm” of the star: On the top, we put our best friend’s name. The next arm we were told to write the name of a family member(s) in which we usually confide. Next we wrote a community to which we belong (for example “Church” or “School” or “Soccer Team”). On the fourth we wrote our dream job. And on the last arm of the star Brian said to write our hopes and dreams. My star had Jamie as my best friend and my father as my confidant. I wrote “LGBTQ” as my community and “positively influence kids” as my dream job. My hopes and dreams said, “Get pregnant and have babies.”

Brian had us all get up and form a circle. Like I said, there were about 30 of us. I began to glance around at the different colored stars and spotted 2 other blue stars like mine. I saw about 8 orange stars and about the same number of purple stars. There were a lot of yellow.

Brian told us that for this exercise he was going to ask that nobody leave, and nobody talk. He asked us to remain completely silent and just focus on the importance of his words. I can’t remember each word exactly, but it’s burned well enough into my head to recount the following.

Brian started to read from a piece of paper. “You are now all members of the LGBTQ community. You identity in some way as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning. This is now your ‘coming out’. You start by confiding in your best friend. If you have a blue star, your best friend is supportive and understanding. They tell you that they will be there to support you and that they do not consider you as any different than before. If you have an orange or purple star, your best friend tells you that this changes things for them. They don’t understand this part of you. They need time to deal with it and cannot be emotionally or physically available right now. If you have an orange or purple star, fold back that point of the star to symbolize this. If you have a yellow star, you have lost your best friend. They do not understand and never will. If you have a yellow star, tear off that point of the star and drop it to the ground.

“You continue by coming out to your closest family member. If you have a blue or orange star, your family has accepted you. They have told your that they will support you no matter what and have followed through with that promise. If you have a purple star your family is struggling with your announcement. They have mixed feelings and are not fully supportive. Some of your family members have not shown support at all. Others claim they need more time to process this. If you have a purple star, fold back that point of the star. If you have a yellow star, your family is not at all supportive. They have told you that you are no longer accepted as part of the family. Tear off that point of the star and drop it to the ground. ”

The exercise, something that started as just a colorful star visual, got really real for me. We all could see where this was going. As Brian read more and more, our fates began to fall into place. My blue star remained untouched. My best friend, father, community and profession stayed intact. Meanwhile, pieces of the orange and purple stars were being folded away or dropped completely. And piece by piece of the yellow stars were piling up on the ground like confetti. They were supposed to be symbolic of our support groups – friends, family, work, dreams. But the yellow stars were turning into empty, pointless shapes. I felt my eyes well up with tears as Brian got to the last one.

“Your hopes and dreams are deeply rooted. They are in your soul. If you have a blue star you have the confidence and support to push for those hopes and dreams – to achieve your inner-most desires. If you have an orange or purple star you work as hard and you can to mend relationships and control your life, but you have to put your dreams on hold. They are not as important to you as they once were. If you have an orange or purple star, fold back that point of the star. If you have a yellow star, you have disregarded your dreams completely. You have turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with your life. You fall into a deep depression and let go of all hopes, dreams, and desires. You become one of the 40% of people in the LGBTQ community to commit suicide. Tear up the remaining part of your star and drop it to the ground.”

And as all 12 people with yellow stars tore up their paper, I lost it. It hit me full force how many in my community have that yellow star experience. Friends of mine popped into my head – friends that I had to see struggle with coming out, fighting constantly to stay afloat in a situation that so desperately wanted to drown them. And as I looked down at my hands, clutching a perfect, 5-point star, I was grateful. I was overwhelmingly grateful to have had the Blue Star Experience for real. I have friends and family and a community that support me. I have an administration that backs me up. And I have hopes and dreams that are still very much alive for me. But those broken pieces of orange, purple, and yellow stars are still so fresh in my mind.

The man next to me had an orange star and after all was said and done he had one point remaining. When we regrouped to reflect on the exercise he held it up and said, “What if, for many of our students, we are the only point on the star they have left.” And that is what I will remember every single day that I get to work with these kids.

I will never, ever forget that.

Ludovic Bertron

Ludovic Bertron

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All The Things She Said

Today I saw 146 students take a seat in my classroom throughout the day. As each class excitedly sat down, looking nervously around the room for some clue as to what lay ahead, I found myself preparing my words carefully. I had thought long and hard about how I wanted to conduct my classes today, but now that it was actually time to go through with it, I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous. At one point, I even thought I was going to chicken out. Today was the day I came out to my students.

A few months ago, I wrote a post entitled “My Fear Landscape” – a kind of flash-forward to today. What’s interesting is that today went very similar to how I had predicted in that post. When I wrote it, it seemed like a lifetime away. It felt like I had all the time in the world to prepare for today – and now it’s already gone. As I said in that initial post, I didn’t want my coming out to feel like an announcement. Basically, I started every introduction today the same way I always do: “Welcome to the 7th Grade! I am Mrs. Chappell and I will be your Homeroom Teacher for the entire year!” But this time I didn’t move on. For all 6 of my classes I walked over to the board where I had written my name: Mrs. Chappell. I referenced the “Mrs.” in my name and continued, “I am a ‘Mrs.’ because I got married last year. But my last name ‘Chappell’ is the one I was given at birth. My marriage is a little different than most because I married a woman, not a man. I may end up changing my name someday to match my Wife’s last name, but for now I’m ‘Mrs. Chappell’.” When I said this for the first time, I felt myself get a little red in the face and my heart started to race. But as the day went on, it got easier and easier.

As I said, I saw 146 students take a seat in my classroom today and out of those, 5 were in the wrong room. I made my little announcement to 141 students altogether. 4 of them never looked up from their desk. 2 made some sort of snickering noise. 14 smiled at me. 3 of them clapped  (I’m not kidding – they literally clapped). 11 of them turned to look at a friend. 1 raised her hand. And 106 didn’t react at all. I guess you could say it went well!

The student that raised her hand was in first period. I got a little nervous when I saw it – this could go very wrong. “My Fear Landscape” popped into my head again. I called on her and she said, “Could I ask a question that I hope won’t offend you?” I laughed a little and said, “Let’s hear it.” She asked, “What does that tattoo on your arm mean?”

Isn’t it funny the things we fear?

Today was just day one and I do anticipate some bumps in the road ahead. But with all I have learned about myself and the world around me, I wouldn’t trade today for anything.

9th Time’s a Charm

Today was the first day of my ninth year of teaching. For the ninth time, I walked into a newly painted school. For the ninth time, I got a fresh class list and all the possibilities that came with it. Nine times I’ve set up a classroom. Nine times I’ve sat through orientation, cracked open a new grade-book, put inspiring posters on the walls. Even after all these years, it all doesn’t seem to change much. But tomorrow, when the kids show up for the first time, I will do something I have never before done.

Over the course of these last eight years I have learned a lot…from the kids, from other teachers, and from my experiences. But I never could have guessed how much I learned from myself while writing this blog. When I first started writing, almost one year ago, I set a goal for myself – come out to my students. I have to admit, I didn’t really think I’d be able to do it. It’s not that I didn’t really want to – I just believed deep down that I would never find a comfortable enough place in my own heart to make it a reality. Well, it’s been a whole year of self-discovery and I couldn’t be more ready!

Wish me luck. Tomorrow, I come out of the closet….yet again.

I’m Tired of Living in a PC World

I’m tired of living in Politically Correct World.

There I said it.

I know I’ll get some backlash from people in my community for this post, but I have sat on this piece for too long.

Tensions have been high in recent LGBT news following the Great T-Word Scandal of 2014 and despite my strong opinions on the matter, I stayed away from Social Media battles relating to the issue. Because as much as I hate personal freedoms and individual rights being slammed, I hate even more the division it all causes in our very own community.

However, last week I stumbled across an article, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and realized then that this post was long overdue.

The article title caught my attention right away: “‘Cards Against Humanity’ Co-Creator Publicly Apologizes for Transphobic Card”. I own the game and know well that it is intentionally rude and politically incorrect, with a tagline on the game that reads “A party game for horrible people”. The game is similar to the clean, politically correct game of Apples to Apples, where players play red cards (e.g. Lobster) in their hand to best fit a green card category (e.g. Expensive). In Cards Against Humanity, a black card is drawn and revealed that has a fill-in-blank sentence on it. Players choose a white card from their hand, cards that only have words or phrases on them, to complete the sentence. Of course the goal is to be the player to make the funniest combination – like in MadLibs. The game is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea – the kind of game some never admit to enjoy. To further prove this point, I drew one black card and one white card at random: “This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with: Throwing a virgin into a volcano.” Let the laughter ensue.

So, when I saw the title of the article, my first thought was, “What could possibly be so terrible in a game like that to coax an apology from one of its creators?” I mean, isn’t that the point of the game? To gather with close friends and safely laugh at horribly disgusting terms and pairings that are not well-accepted in public? Isn’t that like going to Dick’s Last Resort and complaining that the waiter was rude?

And if the article title wasn’t enough to spark my curiosity, there was this accompanying picture:

fusion.net

fusion.net

The card read “Passable transvestites.” No way could this be the card that made such a fuss. NO WAY could people be so incredibly self-involved to expect that even in a “game for horrible people” all must bend so as not to hurt feelings and stir up politically correct social anxiety. And yet, that was exactly the case.

In the article, I found out that Tumbler user “horriblewarning” (strange irony there) is the owner of the original picture. He says he and his friends were playing the game and collectively felt that this card was wrong and transphobic so they had a little fun with it. They burned it, took a few photos and posted it to Tumbler with the caption “DEATH TO TRANSPHOBIA”.

Now, to be clear, I have no real issue with horriblewarning (Jonah, 19) and his friends not liking the card. To me, everyone has a right to an opinion, and if that was there’s, fine. I even have just a mild annoyance at the dramatic post online, but this is the Age of Social Media after all.

My problem is with the insane angry-mob-like reaction the post received. All of a sudden, the post was spreading like wildfire as users screamed for justice and apologies for the “transphobic card”. Are these people serious? Do you honestly expect to sweep the world and remove any politically incorrect humor in existence? Should I call up Joan Rivers and let her know that her comedy will no longer be allowed on this planet? Should we gather up every “A priest and rabbi walk into a bar” joke and ensure that they never again see the light of day?

And let’s focus on the card, once more, shall we? “Passable Transvestites”. If the LGBT community (or whomever) is really all that pissed about this card, how about a vocabulary lesson: Transvestite means any person who is dressing like a member of the opposite sex or gender, typically for emotional or sexual satisfaction. The terms Transgender or Transsexual are not interchangeable with Transvestite.

And this is my point – because of all of the uproar about transphobic slurs and the use of the word “Tranny” and the “She-Male” game on RuPaul’s Drag Race, we are too sensitive. We can’t even see a play on words as funny anymore (“Ooh, Girl. You’ve got She-Mail”). Is it really true that after all of these years fighting for LGBT rights, we want to pick a fight over words? This weekend marks the 45th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City. Every year, we celebrate the progress we’ve made and look to further that progress. In the last few months, that progress has felt slow to me, as more and more members of my community turn on each other, on allies, on artists, and on the future. How is it that we have decided that policing others’ individual rights is more important than fighting for our own?

The truth is, there will always be things that offend us – some more than others. If we are able to deal with those offenses on a small, one-on-one basis, there will be no need for massive public slayings of people who seem to have mis-stepped. Being the community that needs a red carpet laid out across a politically correct universe seems a little silly coming from a group of people that started as outcasts and rebels, don’t you think?

Q is for Questioning

-In the leather-bound diary of a thirteen-year old girl-

Thursday April 3, 2014

5:12  PM

Dear Diary,

Omigod. Omigod. Omigod. I couldn’t even WAIT to get home to write about what just happened! Today after school there was this meeting for this new club at school, Unity Link. They posted all week that the meeting was to discuss LGBT and that is sooooo what I need right now. But I was, like, super nervous to just show up and spill my beanz. I mean, I tell YOU everything, Diary, but I can’t just talk about that kind of stuff out loud, ya know?

Anyway, I went and there were, like, 20 other people there and everything seemed cool. I was thinking, how are we going to talk with these teachers here? But then this other girl named Jahira was telling about how she likes this girl but her parents say it’s a phase and I was thinking, this sounds like me. But then the CRAZIEST thing happened.

One of the teachers started talking about how it’s sometimes hard to be open about yourself when so many people around you don’t get it. And I was starting to think, how would she know. But then she totally said she was gay! She was just like, I want to tell you guys that I don’t want to hide who I am and stuff, but, like, it’s hard at school and stuff. And then she was like, I’m married to a girl. OMG. I was going crazy.

So many people were telling their stories and this one boy Ray was even saying how his sister is gay – that would be cool because then you’d always have someone to talk to about it. And this girl Ash that I have in my science class was talking about transgender and I learned what “cis” means.

OMG it was the coolest meeting ever. We all said how we want to do it again so the teachers said they’d hold another meeting on MONDAY! Finally something that makes Mondays good! I can’t wait!

Mom is calling me to dinner –  taco night! PEACE.

Leap of Faith

Wow, it has been one crazy whirlwind these last few months! I took the task of Unity Link head on and I have been dedicating every extra minute at work to the cause. I am very pleased with how everything is coming together, but it is definitely exhausting!

Since the club (and concept in our school) is brand new, I wanted to build interest fast. What better way than with food? For the first meeting, I asked the teachers that volunteered as Advisors to donate snacks like chips, cookies, pretzels, water and soda. I worked with some of my Honors students to create colorful posters to hang around the school during the month of February. I also put a flyer in the mailbox of all of our Homeroom Teachers explaining the new club and asking them to read it aloud to their 1st Period Class. Finally, an announcement went into the daily announcements around the middle of February stating that the first Unity Link meeting would be March 4th (with a little play on words to “March forth in Unity”) after school in the Cafeteria – and that refreshments would be served.

Snack donations poured into my classroom from teachers for the next few weeks and finally March 4th rolled around. We were pretty much flying blind the day of the meeting, unsure of how many kids would show up. A few of us gathered in the Cafeteria and pulled down a few tables – enough for about 30. Since we announced that the meeting wouldn’t begin until 3:30 (30 minutes after school ended) we sat and waited for a bit. Through the cafeteria door windows we saw students starting to gather….and gather….and gather. By the time 3:30 rolled around, we actually had to Black-Friday-Style manage the doors, to be sure no one ended up trampled!

One-hundred-and-twenty-two.

That’s right – 122 students! I could not believe it. Sure, many of these kids were just there because they heard the word “food”, but it was a genuine testament to the fact that these kids need something like this. After letting them socialize for a bit, while enjoying free snacks, I took the mic and explained what the club was about. I answered a few questions and ended by asking anyone that was interested in attended future meetings to sign up by grade. Out of the 122 there, 106 signed up. It was incredible.

Since then, we’ve had a handful of meetings and have even started planning a video project, using Hunter Hayes’ “Invisible” as our inspiration. We’ve been keeping the meetings separated by grade since 100 students in one meeting would be too counter-productive. We have a “Topic Box” where students can anonymously suggest future discussion topics and each week, we’ve picked a new topic. It’s been a slow start, but successful nonetheless!

This week we’re trying something new. Instead of having the meetings divided by grade, all with the same topic, we decided to conduct 3 meetings after school in different rooms with different Advisors and 3 different topics. That way, the kids get to choose which is most relevant to their lives.

So here is where my Leap of Faith comes in because the topics for this week are:

1. Trust

2. High School and the Future

3. LGBT – Oh here it goes.

I am both incredibly excited and slightly scared to lead this LBGT discussion on Thursday. But, this could be the beginning of something amazing at my school and I am so happy to be a part of it. If this discussion helps a few of these kids, who’ve already expressed their insecurities with being gay, realize that they aren’t alone, then that is all I have been hoping for!

Wish me luck. 🙂

From greatleadersserve.org

From greatleadersserve.org

My Religion Was Written By Stephen Trask

I was raised on the teachings of the Christian Bible – I attended Youth Group and went away to Bible Study Camp and memorized scripture – but it has been a long time since I felt like a Christian. It’s not that I’ve disowned the faith, but I consider myself more of a multi-cultural sponge – a tie-dyed shirt soaking up the color. I do teach Culture, after all. I enjoy picking through ancient legends and myths to piece together my perfect Faith. And as a Lesbian, I find myself grasping at any culture or artistic creation that paints me as just a normal member of a working society – not an outcast, sinner, or disease.

And that’s how I found the words that make the most sense to me – The Origin of Love.

Stephen Trask wrote the music and lyrics to a musical entitled “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” in 1998. That show was made into a movie in 2001 by the original writer and star John Cameron Mitchell. Together, these two men made magic. The show is a beautifully designed piece of self-discovery and internal dialogue that seems to speak to my soul. Hedwig, a transgender rock-star from East Berlin, sings a song early in the show called “The Origin of Love” and steals the audience’s heart from that point forward.

When the earth was still flat,
And the clouds made of fire,
And mountains stretched up to the sky
Sometimes higher,
Folks roamed the earth
Like big rolling kegs.
They had two sets of arms.
They had two sets of legs.
They had two faces peering
Out of one giant head,
So they could watch all around them
As they talked, while they read.
And they never knew nothing of Love.
It was before the Origin of Love.
The Origin of Love.

Big Rolling Kegs

And there was three sexes then:
One that looked like two men
Glued up back to back,
They called the Children of the Sun.
And similar in shape and girth
Was the Children of the Earth.
They looked like two girls
Rolled up in one.
And the Children of the Moon
Was like a fork stuck on a spoon.
They was part Sun, part Earth,
Part Daughter, part Son.
The Origin of Love

Zeus Said No

Now the gods grew quite scared
Of our strength and defiance.
And Thor said,
‘I’m gonna kill ’em all
With my hammer,
Like I killed the giants.’
But Zeus said, ‘No.
You better let me
Use my lightening, like scissors,
Like I cut the legs off the whales,
Dinosaurs into lizards.’
And then he grabbed up some bolts
He let out a laugh,
Said, ‘I’ll split them right down the middle,
Gonna cut ’em right up in half.’
And the storm clouds gathered above
Into great balls of fire.

And then fire
Shot down from the sky in bolts,
Like shining blades of a knife.
And it ripped
Right through the flesh
Of the Children of the Sun
And the Moon
And the Earth.

Scatter Us Away

And some Indian god
Sewed the wound up to a hole,
Pulled it around to our belly
To remind us the price we paid.
And Osiris and the gods of the Nile
Gathered up a big storm,
To blow a hurricane.
To scatter us away.
The flood of wind and rain.
The sea of tidal waves.
To wash us all away.
And if we don’t behave,
They’ll cut us down again.
We’ll be hoppin’ round on one foot,
And looking through one eye.

Deny Me and Be Doomed

Last time I saw you,
We’d just split in two.
You was looking at me,
I was looking at you.
You had a way so familiar
I could not recognize,
Cause you had blood on your face,
I had blood in my eyes.
But I could swear by your expression
That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine.

That’s the pain
That cuts a straight line
Down through the heart,
We called it Love.

We wrapped our arms around each other,
Trying to shove ourselves back together.
We was making Love,
Making Love.
It was a cold dark evening
Such a long time ago,
When by the mighty hand of Jove,
It was the sad story
How we became
Lonely two-legged creatures.
It’s the story of
The Origin of Love.

That’s the Origin of Love.

Origin of Love

Hedwig then says, “It is clear that I must find my other half. But is it a he or a she? What would this person look like? And were we really separated forcibly? Or did he just run off with the good stuff?”

Beautiful.