Magazine Feature

Dear Young Person, You Are Valued

Activists Nikole Parker and Brandon Wolf from Equality Florida emphasize the need for each of us to advocate for safer schools where all young people are valued.
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Photographs by Octavio Jones

Decades of activism and research established a foundation for educators to build safer, more inclusive school communities—but this hard-won progress is far from secure. Politically motivated efforts, especially in the South, to erase LGBTQ+ representation and censor Black history have gained momentum in recent years, threatening young people’s well-being and creating hostile school environments for students and educators.

Equality Florida activists Brandon Wolf and Nikole Parker (above) took time for a conversation with Learning for Justice to share their insights about the surge of attacks on LGBTQ+ rights in Florida and across the country. Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, is a nationally recognized advocate for LGBTQ+ civil rights and gun safety reform, as well as Equality Florida’s press secretary. And Parker, director of Transgender Equality, is a leading advocate for transgender rights in Florida.

Photograph of Brandon Wolf.
Brandon Wolf pledged to fight for a just world after surviving the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub.

Lawmakers, political leaders and public figures around the nation are attempting to limit honest teaching about race and to erase LGBTQ+ representation in education. Disinformation campaigns have accompanied these efforts. What are the dangers and harms in such censorship and the accompanying rhetoric?

Nikole: It’s truly dangerous to change history for political reasons. We have an obligation to tell history exactly how it happened to learn from and prevent certain things from happening again. Young people deserve to learn accurate history that includes the stories of people and communities who have long been excluded. We are seeing censorship, book banning and discriminatory policies that are undoing affirming policies and the accomplishments of decades of work toward honest history and representation. Every kid deserves a safe environment in school to learn and thrive.

Brandon: Power-hungry leaders wielding censorship of education and information as weapons is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, governments have banned books and replaced curriculum with propaganda. Politicians have trafficked in disinformation to propel their own careers. Right now, we are witnessing a resurgence of anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry being fueled by those age-old censorship and disinformation tactics. Last year the Florida governor’s office smeared LGBTQ+ people online, and similar hate-filled messages spiked by over 400% online.

That anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric has cascaded across the country, leading to dozens of bills aimed at censorship and erasing LGBTQ+ people from classrooms and a surge in hate crimes targeting the community. Books with LGBTQ+ characters are being ripped from shelves across our state. Rainbow “safe space” stickers are being peeled from classroom windows. School districts are refusing to acknowledge LGBTQ+ History Month and warning teachers to leave family photos in desk drawers to avoid running afoul of new laws. All of that weighs most heavily on educators, families and students. Florida has seen a spike in teacher vacancies. Families are worried about sending their children to school. And LGBTQ+ young people nationwide are telling us that debates over their very humanity are making life harder for them. Young people today are paying the high costs of censorship and disinformation that target people and communities who have been marginalized for political gain.

What motivates you in this work, and what message would you give right now to young people?

Nikole: Growing up, I always thought I would have to hide my identity forever. I knew this journey to living authentically would be difficult, but I didn’t know the loneliness, trauma and overt discrimination I would experience. I choose to advocate and use my voice for those who have been silenced, those who feel they have no power, because I’ve been there. In a world where we are constantly told we are everything but human, I want to be someone who will always unapologetically remind people that transgender individuals are human beings who deserve dignity and respect like everyone else.

My message to young people is this: However you express yourself is valid; your experience is valid. You are loved regardless of what you hear in the news and media. There are people fighting for our community every day, and though some days may feel hopeless, please know that you bring a beautiful uniqueness to the world that nobody else does.

Brandon: I am in awe of and motivated by people like Nikole. She and the powerful advocates I have the privilege of working alongside each day are bold, unapologetic and unafraid. They stare down the hottest flames of bigotry and refuse to waver, because they know what is at stake. In 2016, I survived the shooting at Pulse nightclub. My best friends, Drew and Juan, were not so lucky. A few days after the shooting, we held a funeral service for Drew. It was there that I made a quiet promise never to stop fighting for a world that he would be proud of. That promise fuels my fight and keeps me grounded.

To young people right now: That world is possible. It’s a world that values everyone’s human rights. It’s a world that treats all of us with dignity and respect. It’s a world that sees our diversity and uniqueness as worth celebrating. And it’s a world we can all be proud of. Your perspective is necessary. Your existence is valued. And we will never stop fighting for the better future you deserve.

Research demonstrates the positive effects of inclusive and affirming learning spaces for all children. In what ways can teachers and schools be more responsive in supporting LGBTQ+ young people, especially Black, Indigenous and other LGBTQ+ students of color?

Nikole: I think one thing is to always remember that everyone has a different experience. Our differences are what make the world a beautiful place, and teaching about those differences only helps us educate one another. We all remember being kids and trying to navigate finding out who we are, what we like and where we fit on this earth. Celebrating diversity and always reinforcing that they are OK helps to alleviate the stress of growing up.

Brandon: Affirming young people creates paths to their success. When we support educational environments that empower young people and provide tools that are responsive to their lived experiences, we are investing in the futures of those young people. There are lots of best practices for creating those inclusive environments in schools. Visible displays of allyship, including “safe space” stickers and lanyards, tell students that they belong. Access to mental health care services ensures students at higher risk of bullying and discrimination have a trusted adult on campus to talk to. Investment in training to better understand the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ students—especially Black and Brown LGBTQ+ young people—ensures that educational staff are culturally competent. And books and resources that are representative of the broad diversity of our communities send a signal to all students that they are valued members of society and are deserving of respect and dignity.

What are some of the ways all community members—parents, caregivers, young people and educators—can work to counter the disinformation and censorship policies in education and support one another?

Nikole: It’s imperative for community members to attend school board meetings. Make your perspective known, and discuss inclusive policies with your school board members. Connect with the advocacy agency in your area to help you facilitate that. Disinformation can be sneaky and disguise itself as correct. Make sure to check your sources so you are putting out accurate information as much as possible.

Equality Florida’s Safe & Healthy Schools Project was launched as a way of providing key tools, resources and support for schools working to create more inclusive, safer environments for young people. For nearly seven years, our team has helped create guidance for creating affirming educational environments and worked alongside school districts so that they have what they need to make those environments sustainable. Education professionals should plug into that program and others like it to ensure we are doing all we can to provide for all students. And parents, family members, allies in the community: plug into these programs as well. Creating better, safer schools is a community effort.

Brandon: The first step to combating censorship and disinformation is to get educated ourselves. So much of the effort to dehumanize LGBTQ+ people—with the transgender community being disproportionately targeted—is grounded in mischaracterizing and demonizing this community. We break free of that by learning about one another. Challenge yourself to be courageously curious. Get to know a transgender person. Understand your neighbors. When we actively choose to see the humanity in all people, we become less susceptible to efforts to paint them as “other.”

And once we’ve taken the path of courageous curiosity, we are obligated to show up and challenge others to do the same. As Nikole said, go to school board meetings. Know who your legislators are. Volunteer with organizations like Equality Florida. Rattle the status quo in your circle of friends. Each of us is tasked with opening our minds to the possibility of a country that values and respects everyone—and then showing up relentlessly to make it a reality.

To learn more about Equality Florida’s Safe & Healthy Schools Project, please visit their website.

Selected Resources from Learning for Justice on Supporting LGBTQ+ Youth

Inclusive Education Benefits All Children
By Melanie Willingham-Jaggers and the GLSEN Team

Queer America podcast series

Gender-Affirming Care: What It Is and Why It’s Necessary
By Dorothee Benz, Ph.D.

Being There for Nonbinary Youth
By Jey Ehrenhalt

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