Harvey Milk High School was the first high school in the world designed for LGBTQIA+ students when it opened in New York City in 1985. In a recent interview, I spoke with two Harvey Milk staff—clinical social worker Tanya Koifman and social studies teacher Natalie Velazquez—about some of the unique challenges facing LGBTQIA+ students today, the depth of resilience their students exhibit, and strategies educators can use to engage LGBTQIA+ students everywhere.
KS: My understanding is that Harvey Milk High School was initially founded to address unique threats and risk factors that undermine the retention of LGBTQIA+ youth across New York City Public Schools. Can you speak to what some of those specific challenges are and how you address them as a school?
TK: There are many challenges that our youth face in general and especially in schools where so many of our students and LGBTQ+ students everywhere are bullied, harassed, and not treated respectfully...both by peers and staff members…[including] not being called by their pronouns and the names that they would like to be called… People will sometimes say “things are so much better now, aren’t they?” and I wish they were but we’re just not there yet.
NV: ...I would add that kids face a lot of challenges at home, too. Parents know one gender for their child for 14 years and then suddenly learn, “wow, I’ve gotta call you ‘he’ now, this is new to me.” ...Families of our students have a place to come and they can sit with Tanya and their child and learn about what is happening...
TK: ...Some students are no longer able to live with their families for a variety of reasons and some of those reasons are about not accepting who their child is so some live in LGBTQ+ housing like shelters and we offer referrals to all of those places...I visit a lot of schools and I know that Natalie has relationships with other schools as well and in most other schools, the principal doesn’t quite have the same kind of relationship with students that our principal, Daphne Perrini, does. She has an open-door policy...she’s on the front lines with us supporting students holistically… You don’t need an appointment, she’s just there.
KS: Can you speak to any particular cultural norms or best practices within your school that equip you and your colleagues to serve your student population effectively?
TK: We have an intake process that is handled by our Parent Coordinator, and then I do a social-emotional intake and there is a question about the student’s legal name, the name they want to be called, the pronouns they go by… So the students know that right away when they come into our school...this is not just a place where I’m accepted but affirmed…
NV: ...What’s really helpful as a teacher is to receive these intakes and...also get their backstory… That they’ve had a hard home life or they’re not living at home…is important for me to know so I can be a little gentler...maybe that’s why they didn’t do the homework. And the kids kind of know that they don’t have to tell every last teacher what they’re going through. They know they can just say it once to one of us and all of the [teachers and administrators] will know… The staff is never gawking at the kids, like “you’re dressing like a girl but you look like a boy” and I think that happens at other schools. Our norm is to honor the student, to honor what they are saying, to see them, and to hear them and to be respectful of them regardless of what you may believe about their experience...
KS: Can you speak to how you integrate tools from Facing History into this work with students?
NV: ...I like to use Facing History for the first day of school—specifically the Little Rock Nine...and how it parallels the first day our school opened in 2003 and the crowd that was waiting for the kids... [including] picketers and the supporters… What was Elizabeth Eckford’s first day like versus the first day of the opening of our school? What does it feel like to be supported and have someone walk beside you when you’re in a crowd of people who are protesting your existence? We look at us vs. them, the bystander effect, the one-drop rule that is in the Reconstruction unit… Looking at the first day of school...lets them know what our school is about… You will be supported, there are no bystanders here, we’re all upstanders...
KS: What are some key areas of resilience that your students exhibit that you think educators should know about?
TK: One example of this is the Diversity Panels...we go into other school communities, middle schools, high schools, and colleges where we interface with counselors, staff members, and social workers. We educate about LGBTQ+ identity… and play an interactive game about stereotypes. We also have five or so students depending on the panel who share their stories about identity and we talk about the experiences that some of our students have had at other schools where they were bullied. So those same students who felt that they were silenced and couldn’t be themselves, or they were themselves and faced so many repercussions, are here on the stage telling their stories...it’s such an empowering experience for them and such a beautiful experience for those listening...
NV: To add to that, you can’t underestimate as an educator what you can learn from the kids. In having a kid saunter into class wearing four-inch platform boots and chains everywhere, a crop top, and it’s not gender-prescribed… I’m learning that if this kid can be brave and he’s facing violence...or being kicked out of his home, what could I be brave about? ...These kids have to think about who they are in isolation before they gain the courage to speak to someone else...so they’re so much more mature. You can have conversations with them and they have so much belief and courage in who they are… I just feel like they’re empowering me to be myself… If these guys are willing to take a risk, why can’t I, as an adult, take a risk? That’s strength that we, as adults in the building, can learn from. It takes courage to know that I will undoubtedly be rejected by certain aspects of society and yet I’m going to walk through this society.
KS: For educators who are eager to serve their LGBTQIA+ students more effectively, what resources or strategies would you recommend to them in your roles as educator and mental health professional?
TK: Get training around best practices. It just starts with do’s and don’ts about what to say, what not to say. When students tell you who they are, don’t question it… And there are certain words that well-intentioned people say that are just not affirming and can be very disrespectful… There are so many organizations that do great work including the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) and the Ackerman Institute for the Family. They do great workshops like LGBTQ 101 that I think everyone should do.
NV: ...Ask yourself: Where am I in this kid’s story? What themes are running through the kid’s life that I can identify with? Identify where in your life you have questioned something and have compassion for that. They’re being brave by taking a step forward. Is that something that you can respect and admire? ...Cling to that because they need someone to see them and hear them...We don’t know who is going to read this but we know that everywhere is not New York City and wherever you are, that kid needs you.
TK: In places where there are fewer resources and people, you can be that shining light, that one person who’s affirming. There’s research that shows that when you have affirming adults in your life, it’s one of the things that lowers your incidence of suicidal ideation. I don’t remember the exact numbers but for young trans people, when their parents are affirming of who they are, their risk of suicide is about 4% but when they’re not, it’s close to 50%... We’re with these young people all day long so you can imagine what an impact just being an affirming adult who’s there without judgment can have.