Among LGBTQ+ school leaders, Principal Tri Nguyen says he’s fortunate to live in a more tolerant part of the country—the San Francisco Bay Area. But he’s still troubled by new laws in other states that block educators from teaching about LGBTQ issues and the resurgence in campaigns to ban inclusive books from school libraries, Nguyen says.
“I feel blessed to live in a state that aligns with my values,” says Nguyen, principal of the Luther Burbank School, a one-school, PreK-8 district in San Jose. “But I do see us walking back in time, with the questioning of LGBTQ+ rights and governors making assertions on what schools should teach.”
Educators in his school prioritize culturally relevant teaching, a practice that has been mislabeled as critical race theory elsewhere in the country. They also work to create an inclusive climate in the district that is more than 90% Latinx and about 85% low-income. “Whenever we have students who want to be called by a different name or referred to by different pronouns, our staff does not question it—we just embrace it,” Nguyen says. “We don’t have to pull the ed code to verify this is a legal practice. It’s kids, and it’s their need.”
The school is a safe place to teach diverse and culturally relevant topics because teachers are experts on the subject matter. He and his team also support students who come out as gay or transgender at school before informing their parents. “We are confident the information we’re sharing will benefit students and not harm or discredit their family values,” he said.
LGBTQ+ school leaders create community
Nguyen is a member of the LGBTQ+ School Leaders Network, an affinity group that is part of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The network provides a space for LGBTQ+ school leaders to discuss leadership, wellness, and how they support LGBTQ+ students and teachers, among other topics, says one of its creators, Dustin W. Miller, a former high school principal who is now a director in Educational Administration and an assistant professor of Clinical Educational Studies at Ohio State University.
“I thought it would be nice to have a network of people with similar lived experiences to come together once a month and be in community with one another,” Miller says. “Because a straight educator may drive to school worrying about certain things, but it’s different for marginalized groups.”
The network, which now has about 250 members, has lately been discussing how leaders can attain a work-life balance. Members have been particularly cognizant of leaders who may be overworking themselves because they feel the need to spend as much time as possible at school or working on school issues. The group often talks about how it’s just as important to make time for spouses, partners and children, Miller says.
Advancement and professional growth, which has been a regular topic for the network, can present unique challenges to LGBTQ+ school leaders. As members of a marginalized group, a promotion may mean moving to a new community that is not as supportive or tolerant as their previous district, Miller says.
LGBTQ+ school leaders are also facing the challenge of finding the best ways to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ+ teachers and students. Now and in the past, for example, LGBTQ+ school leaders have actually been wary of being too supportive—particularly when it comes to students—for fear they will be accused of “recruiting” or “indoctrinating” children.
“History gives us reason to be fearful,” Miller points out. “We have to provide support in a unified way that is doing what is right for students or teachers—no different than we would for any group or student who is walking a certain walk.”
On the other hand, LGBTQ+ school leaders, no matter how supportive they want to be, have to remind themselves that they are not necessarily “experts” or trained counselors that know how to guide students who are just coming out as part of the LGBTQ+ community. And LGBTQ+ school leaders themselves need the support of their own supervisors and fellow administrators.
Miller recalls an uplifting moment when he was a principal and the superintendent thanked him for putting up photos of a vacation he took with his partner. “A lot of our members feel that school can be all good until suddenly it’s not—as long as I don’t make any waves or show up to a football game with my husband,” Miller explains. “Messages of inclusivity from the top down do a lot of good.”
Self-learning is essential
Nguyen says he doesn’t hide or publicize that he is a member of the LGBTQ+ community—just like people who identify as heterosexual don’t advertise that they’re straight. Administrators, regardless of how they identify, should remain open to understanding the diverse lived experiences of students, teachers, colleagues and families. “I do a lot of self-learning,” Nguyen says. “If there are gaps you want to explore more, check in with your friends, be open-minded, or attend a webinar or PD in supporting students with different challenges.”
His experiences as a person of color and a member of the LGBTQ+ community have opened up his sense of empathy; for example, he has more nuanced views of issues such as discipline and family engagement. “I inform families that their child coming out isn’t because they did anything wrong,” he explains. “If a child comes out, it means they did the right thing because that child feels safe.”
Book-banning campaigns targeting LGBTQ+ topics and laws that further marginalize already disenfranchised groups are likely to cause significant social-emotional harm to students in certain states. For one thing, these new restrictions are creating environments that are more conducive to bullying, he believes. “These are barriers that are intentionally blocking students from being open,” Nguyen concludes. “We all know that if you’re not well mentally, you can’t do well in school.”