By Michelle Hernandez (she/they/her/them), teacher, Coquitlam
As teachers we strive to foster safe, supportive, and inclusive learning environments that encourage our students to embrace their true selves, while they navigate the waters of their own personal journeys. We want authenticity in terms of self-expression for our students. Unfortunately, the same authenticity we seek for our students is something that many teachers from the LGBTQ2S+ community are not afforded, because they fear professional repercussions if their sexual orientation or gender identity are made public to their employer.
When reflecting on the first 20 years of my professional career, I acknowledge that I wore a “mask” of what society expected from an elementary school teacher and played the role of a straight, cisgendered woman. Out of fears of negative repercussions, I became adept at denying parts of myself by burying my truth deep within. My fears of being judged and marginalized were not irrational, as many teachers who are out as members of the LGBTQ2S+ community report feelings of isolation and marginalization in their place of work, while other teachers from the queer community decide to remain closeted because they do not feel safe.
This year I decided to take the risk of authentically expressing myself in my professional life by applying to be a member of the BCTF Committee for Action on Social Justice (LGBTQ2S+ Action Group). This decision was not taken lightly. I knew that being appointed to the action group would require a degree of outing myself. Being open about my own identity would not only affect both my professional career, but also my personal life, as my family dynamics would be open to public scrutiny. However, after much introspection and discussion with my family, we collectively decided that this was a great opportunity to become a part of a community that is committed to addressing the barriers of discrimination, isolation, and marginalization faced daily by people who identify as queer.
In the spring of 2021, the BCTF hosted its very first LGBTQ2S+ issue session. It was an opportunity for teachers who self-identified as being a part of the LGBTQ2S+ community to collaborate with one another. Given the sensitive nature of the sessions, the teachers were assured their anonymity outside of the group, allowing for freedom to express their truths. Because of COVID-19, sessions were held virtually over the course of two days. It was an incredible opportunity to make connections with fellow educators from across the province as we shared a common passion for acknowledging, questioning, and challenging the barriers that we face as LGBTQ2S+ people in our professional lives.
On the first day of the issue session, we had the fortunate opportunity to have Cicely Belle Blain as a facilitator. Cicely is a highly regarded diversity and inclusion consultant who applies an intersectional lens when it comes to LGBTQ2S+ activism. Throughout the course of exploring our narratives it became abundantly clear that even though we all identified as LGBTQ2S+, the community itself is incredibly diverse. Some members of the community experience a higher degree of acceptance from mainstream society, while others are challenged with the daily onslaught of glares from strangers, misgendering, and transphobia. Our unique experiences as queer teachers are also affected by many other intersecting factors, such as our race, the region where we teach (urban/rural), our age, as well as our employment status (TTOC/temporary contract/continuing contract).
A hot topic that arose out of the LGBTQ2S+ issue session was for us to consider the necessity of our community members to be visible, vocal, and proud by coming out. This sparked much debate. On the one hand, visibility is key to any social justice movement; on the other hand, personal choice and safety must be made a priority. I agree that increasing the visibility of the LGBTQ2S+ community is incredibly important as so many of us are not out. However, the consequences of being out may harm our relationships with family members and friends, as well as potentially limit our workplace opportunities.
The final day of the issue session was highly productive. LGBTQ2S+ participants collaborated on recommendations focusing on equity and inclusion within the BCTF, as well as recommendations that addressed trials in the workplace. In the end, there was an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and a rising hope that our continued efforts through the BCTF can make a difference in the professional lives of queer educators. I am forever grateful to be a part of the BCTF where LGBTQ2S+ collective voices and narratives matter.