Illustrated by Steph Liu (She/Her)
This article was originally published in our Spring 2022 print issue “Reflections of Radiance.“
In the fall, I discussed how internalized homophobia produced complicated feelings about my old middle school’s increasingly progressive attitudes towards queer identities and rising numbers of “out” queer students. I unpacked my slight resentment toward those queer students, who seem to have an easier time exploring their queer identities out in the open since they exist in a less oppressive environment.
Since writing my fall zine article, I have reexamined my assumptions about how the setting of a progressive school contributes to experiences of queer joy in young students.
As a middle and high schooler, my queer joy had little to do with school at first — I didn’t feel like I had any opportunities to express my queerness at school, so a lot of my queer experience was rooted in the Internet. I met my first girlfriend outside of school at a Shakespeare summer camp, and our relationship mostly lived and died over texts and calls.
“[T]he mere existence of a queer-friendly high school does not produce queer joy.”
Eventually, as I became more confident that I could express my queer identity at school without facing major repercussions from my peers and teachers, there were moments of queer joy that were inextricably intertwined with the setting of school: building a small but growing community of queer kids as co-president of the Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) club, discussing queer interpretations of books I read in English with other queer friends, and blasting Hayley Kiyoko as I officiated ring-pop marriages in the front quad for my club.
My personal experience, as well as my preexisting biases, led me to the conclusion that a more progressive, queer-friendly school environment creates more opportunities for queer joy at school. However, there is more nuance than that assumption allows; the mere existence of a queer-friendly high school does not produce queer joy.
I interviewed two seniors from my old high school to get a better sense of how they, as current queer high schoolers, see the intersection between queer joy and their progressive school.
Senior and QSA president Emerson Brown (they/them) characterized the high school as “generally accepting of queer students.” They point to QSA and its yearly educational LGBTQ+ workshops for freshmen English classes as markers of the school’s queer-friendly environment.
Beyond school-approved workshops and clubs, queer students have also organized protests about queer issues that the student body has engaged positively with.
“Some recent moments where I’ve felt proud to be queer include organizing a walkout to protest the recent ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and other discriminatory bills against transgender youth. While what we are protesting is horrible, there was immense turnout for the protest and productive discussions afterwards, and I felt proud to organize it,” Brown said.
Senior Molly Ransdell (they/them) also noted that the students they interact with at school contribute to both an accepting environment and their happiness as a queer person.
“When I look around at the community of people I’ve surrounded myself with, I find myself very lucky. Some of my friends are also in the LGBTQ+ community, and some aren’t but are very accepting… [Being] able to share my experiences with them, whether or not they have similar experiences of their own, allows me to feel understood and heard,” Ransdell said.
Both students recognized that the relatively queer-friendly environment of the school at least in some part facilitated their openness about their queer identities.
“I can definitely imagine that living where I do currently has left open doors that I would otherwise have to open myself,” Ransdell said.
However, an accepting school environment does not negate the need for further improvement, nor does it erase other problems queer youth may face.
“Even though queer identities are more visible, that does not necessarily mean they are respected,” Brown said.
Brown expressed frustration with people using incorrect pronouns for them when there is “no pressure to respect,” or even purposefully misgendering Brown to anger their boyfriend.
“I think there is an expectation that people feel more comfortable to be queer in my community. While I recognize there is rare outright discrimination and I have much more privilege than high schoolers in other areas, the reality is not the expectation,” Brown said.
“[A]n accepting school environment does not negate the need for further improvement, nor does it erase other problems queer youth may face.”
Another detail that complicates the relationship between school environment and queer joy is that the school administration did not play an active role in shaping a queer-friendly campus. Rather, students spearhead certain initiatives such as advocating for queer education workshops and gender-neutral bathrooms, and the administration will provide approval as it sees fit.
“Generally, the school is accepting, but I have to be a big self-advocate,” Brown said.
In other words, the school administration is not actively searching for ways to support queer students, and the current environment is more a reflection of queer students’ efforts and an overall culture shift than the school’s commitment to helping queer students feel comfortable.
Still, some support is better than no support at all. With laws like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida and similar bills starting to circulate in other states, it would be dangerous to dismiss the critical role schools play in affirming the identities of their queer students.
“As a student, you spend a lot of your time at school. The people that you meet and hang out with mostly come from school. The majority of the relationships you make are through classes you’re in or the people you hang out with during breaks,” Ransdell said. “It is not the only place where kids… have the opportunity to be exposed to topics or representation that they wouldn’t get at home, but the [anti-queer] attitude can easily be picked up by students and carried into other areas of their lives.”
In the end, I can’t hold up my old high school as being the best place to be queer. Maybe queer kids are more visible, but visibility does not necessarily translate into joy. However, I cannot take my high school’s accepting environment for granted either. The only thing I can definitively say is that there is a continuous need to push forward and create a better place for the queer kids to come.
Author: Steph Liu (She/Her)
Artist: Steph Liu (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Brooke Borders (She/Her), Emma Blakely (They/She/He)