Roundtable: Safe, Accepted, and Free
There is often discussion among principals about how to create an inclusive culture within their schools for LGBTQ+ students. However, creating an inclusive school also means creating an inclusive workplace where all employees—including principals—are safe, accepted, and free from discrimination or harassment. In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in Bostock v. Clayton County that LGBTQ+ employees, including educators and school staff, are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from discrimination at work based on sexual orientation or gender identity. While the court’s decision helped cement a legal protection basis for LGBTQ+ employees and educators, the reality is that discrimination and harassment still exist.
To find out how to help principals and administrators who identify as LGBTQ+, we contacted Rae Garrison, principal of West Jordan Middle School in West Jordan, UT; Dustin Miller, PhD, a clinical assistant professor at The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH, (both of whom are organizers of NASSP’s LGBTQ+ School Leaders Network); and Vincent Pompei, EdD, director of the Youth Well-Being Program for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation based in Washington, D.C., who is also a national speaker on LGBTQ+ rights. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Christine Savicky moderated the conversation.
What are some of the greatest obstacles that assistant principals, principals, and superintendents who identify as LGBTQ+ face in their leadership roles?
Miller: One obstacle for our community is not knowing if people know or not. That may not make sense, but it’s a unique factor that members of the LGBTQ+ community face. We have stereotypes, which are generally negative, but you’re really left to wonder, “Am I the only person in the room who is gay?” In talking about marginalized groups, if you’re the only female in the room, you’re fully aware you’re the only female in the room. And so it’s a unique challenge for school leaders, because they’re never really sure who knows and who doesn’t. And then there’s the weight of that. If people find out and they don’t approve, will my job be on the line or will my professionalism be questioned? In my mind, that continues to be the biggest stressor—or the unique stressor—that members of this community face. Being out’s not the problem; it’s who’s going to accept it.
Pompei: Building on that for LGBTQ+ school leaders who may be out, the thought or the fear of being discriminated against or mistreated or perhaps evaluated negatively because of the biases and stigma that still exist about LGBTQ+ people. These fears are often worse for trans and nonbinary educators who may not be provided access to restrooms that align with their gender identity because of anti-trans legislation or district policies. Anti-LGBTQ+ activists have demonized trans and nonbinary people so much that some feel that providing restroom access poses a danger to others.
Actually, data says the reverse is true: Trans and nonbinary individuals are the ones who are often harassed and violently attacked in spaces like restrooms. Additionally, LGBTQ+ educators and school leaders are often accused of pushing an agenda if they advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusion. For example, let’s imagine that there’s a principal who’s bisexual and they’re advocating for an LGBTQ+ inclusive anti-bullying policy or required staff training on LGBTQ+ students or staff. They are accused, “You’re only doing that because you’re LGBTQ+; you’re trying to push an agenda.” Those who care about overall well-being of students and staff should advocate for all to feel safe and affirmed. Students can focus on learning and staff can focus on educating students, not being mistreated or discriminated against because of who they are and who they love.
Garrison: There is an intersectionality between being an LGBTQ+ school leader and advocating for things that any good leader should in their schools. That’s definitely a challenge. But something else that I’ve seen happening with openly identifying as LGBTQ+ administrators is they end up getting marginalized in their organization. For example, a vice principal at a very large high school has positive job performance evaluations. Then, that vice principal comes out as gay. All of a sudden that person is the vice principal at the alternative school. I have seen that happen to people, and it has been a real fear of mine. I wonder, when are they going to stick me in a corner?
When I started my principalship, I was married to a man. I was of the predominant religion and had children. My family looked like just the picture-perfect family that is held up in our community. And then my whole life changed, and I came out. I was advised against it, but I did it. But … I’ve been in fear ever since. My fear may be just my own perception that I have to overcome, but when I see things happen to people where they’re taken out of their high-visibility role and put in a less visible role, or put in a situation where they’re not the center of a community as a principal, that’s definitely a fear and an obstacle for all parties.
From the LGBTQ+ administrator’s point of view, what are some of the best ways to respond to those obstacles?
Pompei: One way to respond is to remain data-informed. For students, we administer and analyze school climate data—seeing how students, based on different demographics and identities, are feeling at school, evaluating their overall well-being. We have to make sure that we’re asking students their various identities so that we can disaggregate the data and compare students—students of color, students who are immigrant populations, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students—and then compare. We then need to do the same for educators and administrators.
Sadly, years of data continue to report stark disparities when comparing LGBTQ+ students with their non-LGBTQ+ peers with regard to feeling safe and connected in school. Data confirms that when LGBTQ+ students feel unsafe and disconnected at school, attendance, achievement, and graduation rates decline. We can also survey staff about their comfort level, about their knowledge, attitude, and skills as they relate to addressing these student concerns based on these various populations. My guess is that the staff survey results will indicate a high sense of discomfort with regard to advocating for and supporting LGBTQ+ inclusion.
This is where data will guide the decision making around LGBTQ+ inclusion and a team of school leaders and other educators can work together to review evidence-based practices that directly address the survey data. One of the research-based actions that schools can take to improve school climate for LGBTQ+ students is to ensure that LGBTQ+ staff feel safe and comfortable to be out at work. Data confirms that when there are openly LGBTQ+ staff working in a school, LGBTQ+ students feel safer and more connected. Therefore, if anyone were to make an accusation of “pushing an agenda,” the school leader has a data-informed response to ensure that each student feels safe and included at school.
Garrison: I tackle these things head-on. I don’t really give credence to any biases or fears. The more you back down—“I need to be careful, and I probably should just be quiet about the students in my school who want to form a GSA, because if I take this up the chain, it’s going to be seen as my thing”—if you, as an administrator, buy into those perceived biases, then you become part of the problem. As difficult as it is to put yourself out there, the worst thing you can do is concede and fear retaliation. The more confident you are and have data to back yourself up, you can take that up the chain and do advocacy work. There is no reason to show shame. I was advised to stay quiet and stay closeted, but I think that would have been the worst thing I could do. By being confident and unapologetic, you garner more respect.
Miller: Vinnie always holds us accountable for data, which is great because we can easily get caught in the emotion and lose that sense. However, we don’t really have good data sources right now for our LGBTQ+ school administrators. Much of my talking point is that school administrators are charged with taking care of everyone else in the building except for themselves. So, when we give culture and climate surveys, when districts engage with large surveys, like Panorama, they look at students first—which is absolutely why we’re here—and then, luckily, teachers have come online, too. So, one of the charges—one Rae and I’ve already started talking about with NASSP—is putting an instrument together to have those data sources that a superintendent could sit down with their board of education and say, “Look, our school administrators do not feel safe.”
It’s important and makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately, we don’t have those data sources right now for our leaders. It won’t be easy, but it’s a relatively easy thing to add to the pot. We’re moving in the right direction with more school leaders being out, but it hasn’t been looked at as something that was necessary to investigate. Or, to Rae’s point, all of us can tell stories of suppression: “It’s great if you’re gay, but don’t rock the boat.” Or, “If you’re gay that’s OK, because we know you like basketball.” Because of that marginalization, there really hasn’t been a push. But also there’s a constant tension in our field that it’s all about the students—which is absolutely true—but if you don’t put the oxygen mask on yourself first, you can’t take care of kids. We must take care of our teachers and our leaders. So, what can we do to make sure they feel safe and secure in their environment as well?
What resources are available to LGBTQ+ administrators? Where can they go to find help?
Garrison: We, along with NASSP, have formed the [LGBTQ+] School Leaders Network because, as Dustin stated, there really aren’t a whole lot of resources available for the principals, for the building leaders. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. That’s definitely why we formed the network. Dustin reached out. He was the one who spearheaded it. Just like Dustin said, there are tons of resources for helping the kids but not for building leaders, at least that I’m aware of. That’s what we’re trying to put together.
Miller: To Rae’s point, we’re working in the direction of creating more resources. One starting point for us was the videos we released last June during Pride Month. You can watch the videos on the NASSP website. Once we started to advertise those, our attendance numbers in the network jumped drastically. Our initial numbers jumped when we started a year ago, but in May and June they jumped again significantly. I think this is because of social media exposure. As we get this collective group of 100-plus individuals, we can really start talking about what resources school leaders need and how we can develop them.
Pompei: I love NASSP’s new position statement on LGBTQ+ students and staff [see sidebar below]. It can be used as a tool in addition to data. School leaders can use the many professional associations’ position statements, resolutions, and recommendations as they guide our profession in creating LGBTQ+ inclusive schools. NASSP has made space for Dustin, Rae, and me over the last couple of years to present at the National Principals Conference so that folks can learn and ask questions and feel connected and know that NASSP stands with them in solidarity. NASSP also partners with the Human Rights Campaign and our annual Time to THRIVE conference.
This is a conference that gathers K–12 educators and other youth-serving professionals primarily to focus on supporting LGBTQ+ youth, but we also have workshops presented for K–12 educators who are LGBTQ+. When LGBTQ+ educators are closeted or fear coming out because of the potential for discrimination, that doesn’t allow them to be their best self at work. I am so excited about NASSP’s LBGTQ+ School Leaders Network and being able to produce resources specifically for that network’s members based on real, actual information about what LGBTQ+ school leaders are experiencing and what they need to feel safe and affirmed.
What can allies do to help or show support for LGBTQ+ administrators and other educators?
Miller: We do have a lot of allies, and we’re seeing more and more recently because people of note have been coming out. We’re seeing a response level now that looks much different than it did five years ago or 10 years ago, and I think more allies will continue to push this forward in good ways. I believe that some of the implicit bias training that is surfacing because of the tragic issues with racism will spill over, in good ways, to our corner of the world. People are a little bit more wise when a school administrator shows up and says, “WE went hiking over the weekend.” But we have to learn how to go about having that conversation in a way that a colleague feels safe to say, “Oh, my partner and I went hiking over the weekend,” or “This is my husband.” I think implicit bias training is a good step forward for allies.
Allies must be willing to take steps, even if it’s uncomfortable for them, to shut down inappropriate conversation or to call out colleagues when something inappropriate is said behind closed doors, because when you’re not out, unfortunately, you hear everything. They are probably well-intentioned people that would never say certain things if they knew you were gay. But just because they don’t know doesn’t make it right. That’s when the allies need to step up and say, “You know, it doesn’t really matter if there’s a gay person in the group right now or not, that’s not appropriate,” which is a hard spot to be in for students and adults. You don’t want to make waves, so you just stop. So, I think allies need to have the courage to speak up in ways that are OK. We don’t expect anybody to change attitudes overnight, but just little steps forward go a long way.
I also think demonstrating safe spaces is important. School leaders take care of everybody. That’s our role, and we do it proudly. A teacher with a safe space sticker on their window sends a positive message as an ally. Pronouns in email signatures have evolved in wonderful ways because it sends a message to others that you are an open and affirming person.
Pompei: Allies can use LGBTQ+ inclusive language, meaning they use gender-inclusive or neutral language and avoid heteronormativity. For example, if someone says, “Do you have a sibling?” instead of “brothers and sisters,” or says, “Good morning, staff,” or “parents and guardians,” instead of “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” I pick that up as a possible cue to that person being an ally, and I then feel safer around them. I also encourage allies to educate themselves. As queer people, we often get asked questions about LGBTQ+ terminology or to explain the importance of pronouns. What would be awesome is if that person said, “Hey, I had a student come out using an unfamiliar term, so I went online and I found a free webinar and now feel much more prepared to ensure my classroom is safe and inclusive.” Although having an LBGTQ+ poster up in your office or classroom is helpful, allyship requires consistent advocacy and action to change the status quo.
Garrison: Affirming language is a big one. I had a professor 20 years ago that kept referring to his partner, and then his partner came, and it was a woman. I was so shocked, because at that time, I thought, “OK, this guy must be gay, he keeps saying his ‘partner,’” but then she came to do a presentation. I remember thinking at that time, “Wow, this guy is really sensitive.” So, the affirming language is important. Then, as Dustin said, stepping up and being an ally even when you’re not in the presence of somebody who’s LGBTQ+, sticking up for what’s right in conversations, is important for allies to do. But allies can also just show support: hang a sign, wear a pin, put up a flag. There’s all kinds of things that allies can do.
In my district, the teachers, because I’m their principal, have been able to go hog-wild with their safe space and messaging to students. Everybody has an ally pin on their lanyard, and their flags are up. They have felt safe doing that themselves. I agree with Dustin that many times people put their neck out when they stand up for the LGBTQ+ community even if they’re worried about any kind of retaliation toward them, but that’s leadership, right? Somebody who steps up and says something. So, those little gestures send a very loud message. The kids see it, the adults see it, and everybody feels affirmed and safe.
What can LGBTQ+ administrators do to support a culture of inclusion for their LGBTQ+ faculty, staff, and students for the entire school?
Pompei: In addition to what has already been said, you can share NASSP’s position statement on LGBTQ+ students and staff. It provides wonderful recommendations that administrators, school leaders, and policymakers can take to foster an LGBTQ+ inclusive and safe environment. I also think it’s important to reiterate the essential need to take action. This work doesn’t happen by itself. It requires a concerted effort to create needed change. I always think of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s words: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” So, I challenge folks to consult with other allies in your school community to seek support from the LGBTQ+ School Leaders Network and leverage resources from organizations like HRC, attending conferences like NASSP and HRC’s Time to THRIVE, so that they have the knowledge to transform the school culture and climate where all students and staff can thrive.
Garrison: Professional development is huge. We all know that education is the key to overcoming anything. I find that people are more comfortable once they have a little education. There are people who want to help, and they acknowledge that they’re ignorant. Professional development helps break down some of the stereotypes and would help people understand all the terminology that has to do with the LGBTQ+ community. I was sitting in a meeting, and one of my colleagues was really abhorred about the “Q” in LGBTQ+. They said, “That is a bad word. Why are we talking about ‘queer’ people? That’s so horrible.” But we need to bring people up to speed. I have only been in this community for seven years. I had to find out a lot more myself about biases, stigmas, language.
Another thing that school leaders can do is really look at your school programs, your activities, and have those be inclusive or nonbinary. Instead of having a boy–girl president of your student body officers, you can just have co-presidents. It doesn’t matter who they are as far as their sex or their gender identity. Look at everything that is binary and break them down. I was fortunate to get a new school facility in the last two years, and you better believe I went into those architect meetings saying, “OK, we’ve got to plan the bathrooms in the school.” It still didn’t get to where I wanted it be, but at least I got some unisex bathrooms in every pod.
In my last school, kids were offered, as a gesture of good faith or protection for the kids who were transgender, to use the bathroom in the counseling office. They weren’t forced. But that was the tradition. That was what was done as a gesture of “let’s help this student.” But I have had students who go through the entire day without going to the bathroom. They didn’t want to come down to the counseling center, or they didn’t know where to go, so look at your school facilities, your school activities, all of the structural things that can be barriers and a chilling factor to the LGBTQ+ students or staff.
Miller: I want to underscore Rae’s point about professional development. Again, this is professional development for school leaders, not the gay school leaders. It’s kind of a backhanded compliment: “Hey, we need you to help us with this.” I think anybody that is part of the LGBTQ+ school leader community would be more than willing to help, but are policies being enacted that are helping ALL school leaders be more aware of what they’re doing—or not doing—to support their students and their teachers?
Rae gave some excellent examples. Getting rid of a homecoming king and queen sends a powerful message to the community. But with the influx of hiring DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] directors in districts, that conversation also needs to include the LGBTQ+ community. There are pressing needs across the board, but I don’t know if school superintendents or boards of education are thinking about the LGBTQ+ community when they’re hiring diversity, equity, and inclusion directors. Those are the little inroads that we can make through professional development to show that we’re all at the same table. Now, we need to make sure we all feel comfortable in equal parts at that table.
Sidebar: NASSP Position Statement on LGBTQ+ Students and Educators
Purpose: To affirm support for the rights, safety, and identity of all LGBTQ+ students, educators, and school leaders; acknowledge historic marginalization and institutional bias associated with LGBTQ+ individuals; state the association’s opposition to legislation and policies that discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals; and provide recommendations for federal, state, and local policymakers and school leaders on how to better support LGBTQ+ students and educators in the K–12 education system.
Find the full position statement—including recommendations for federal and state policymakers, district leaders, and school leaders—at www.nassp.org/position-statements.
Only 26% of principals “strongly agree” that their school meets the needs of non-native English speakers, according to a national school survey from NASSP.