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Klaudia Neufeld, dean at Five Star Online Academy, is working to implement guidelines within their district on inclusive practices for both students and staff members who identify as queer or trans. “If you're a district leader, or a building leader, and you don't take care of your adults and teachers — they can't take care of your kids. You can resist progress or you can ease into it,” Neufeld said. Neufeld has worked in the Adams 12 Five Star School District for about 15 years. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Klaudia Neufeld has had to dodge a truck trying to run them off the road, been physically assaulted, continually endured harassment and constantly felt the scrutiny and gaze of straight white men, including in the Adams 12 Five Star Schools building where Neufeld works.

The onslaught of violence and criticism has empowered Neufeld, who is transgender and nonbinary and uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, more than it has dampened their sense of self.

“I can either become invisible and let them be right or I can step into my own power and my own leadership,” they said, adding they can create more opportunities for transgender kids.

Neufeld, dean of students at Five Star Online Academy, has long been out to both students and colleagues, for the students’ sake as much as theirs. The online school has become a harbor for the administrator and many of their queer colleagues as well as queer and transgender students, who struggle to feel safe or like they have a place to belong at other district schools. 

Yet, many other educators who are part of the LGBTQ community across Colorado continue to shield their identity from their schools, with most educators not feeling safe or supported, according to a report released by the Colorado Education Association earlier this year. That State of Education report included results from a survey completed by 1,566 union members, almost 300 of whom identified as LGBTQ, according to CEA spokesperson Lauren Stephenson. Eighty-five percent of those respondents indicated that they are not “openly out” at school while 45% of members whose school has efforts aimed at equity stated that LGBTQ perspectives and issues are not part of that work or make up only a small portion.

The fact that many LGBTQ educators feel they lack safety and support in their school districts doesn’t surprise transgender and queer educators interviewed by The Colorado Sun, particularly at a time their communities have been under attack across the country and in pockets of the state. Shocking violence against LGBTQ people roiled Colorado in November, when five people were killed and 17 others were injured at Club Q, a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs.

Other acts of discrimination have also divided communities in recent years, including protests last year against Highlands Ranch’s first drag show — which an anti-LGBTQ group claimed was grooming and sexualizing children even as audience members had to be at least 21 years old — and Republican-backed legislation that sought to base participation in school sports teams solely on the biological sex of students, which ultimately failed in the Democratic-controlled legislature.

Klaudia Neufeld, dean at Five Star Online Academy, is working to implement guidelines within their district on inclusive practices for both students and staff members who identify as queer or trans. “If you’re a district leader, or a building leader, and you don’t take care of your adults and teachers — they can’t take care of your kids. You can resist progress or you can ease into it,” Neufeld said. Neufeld has worked in the Adams 12 Five Star School District for about 15 years. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Meanwhile, hundreds of pieces of legislation undermining the rights of transgender people have played out in other states this year, including bans on drag shows and gender-affirming care for youth.

When those kinds of policies are adopted in other states, “it still causes harm to kids here,” said Molly Creek, a queer high school counselor at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette. “Just because it might not be happening in Colorado, the harm is still being done and causing kids to feel unsafe, and that’s where I always empower kids to vote and use their voice and speak up and call representatives and just be activists because they are the ones that are going to have the power and the change here soon I hope.”

That harm also ignites fear among LGBTQ educators in Colorado, even as Gov. Jared Polis recently signed into law stronger protections for gender-affirming care, ensuring people who receive, provide or assist in legal gender-affirming care in the state are not subject to criminal prosecution or lawsuits filed in other states. 

“We are a safe state for trans and queer people, and also there’s still bills introduced to ban trans kids from sports,” said Neufeld, of Five Star Online Academy. “Just because we’re not Florida, and even though we have a queer governor, there are districts in our state that teachers don’t even feel like they can come out.”

The state teachers union’s survey findings alarm CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert, who said LGBTQ educators’ voices should drive conversations about the decisions that directly impact them.

“I think it’s something that we need to pay attention to,” Baca-Oehlert said. “We feel that all of our educators as well as our students should be able to attend school or enter their workplace feeling safe and able to be who they are.”

“We have to take the right side as educators”

Neufeld, who is a doctoral student at the University of Denver focused on the liberation and inclusion of trans kids in schools, long ago gave up chasing acceptance from other people, particularly those who weaponize religion or are intolerant. Their identity has shaped every aspect of their life.

“Because of my identity, I don’t have a family outside of my own son, and for me this work is really personal,” Neufeld said. “For me, I know what it’s like to create family from friends and to have my identity dictate what doors are opened for me.”

“Leadership opportunities aren’t accessible for many trans and queer educators because we’re a disruption to the norm,” they said. “Our varied bodies and our identities are being negotiated in board rooms, in legislation. People are … in many states saying that we don’t or trying to convince people that we don’t belong, and they’re using hate speech to fuel the fire.”

The firsthand pain of that hate speech sticks with Mike Keldsen, a gay high school Spanish teacher in Aurora. Keldsen, who remained closeted at school during the first several years of his 14-year teaching career, shut down during a class in 2019 after a kid anonymously wrote something like “kill the gays” on a classroom screen while students were playing a computer game.

“Violence against queer people is just something I’ve kind of had to live with,” Keldsen said.

He was honest with his students a few days later about how that incident stirred up a lot of trauma for him as a gay man, but that verbal attack remains “one of the worst moments” of his time in the classroom.

Keldsen gained the confidence to come out to students and coworkers about eight years ago when he began working under a queer high school principal who didn’t hesitate to talk about her wife. Before that, he taught middle schoolers at a school run by a straight male principal and didn’t feel safe to open up about his identity.

With his high school principal’s support, he said, “I took a big step, and I remember it being really anxious the first few times I talked to students.” 

It’s become easier over time. He no longer trembles with nerves when sharing his identity with students, and he leans more into his natural voice as he has steered away from masking it with a masculine tone. 

Mike Keldsen, a gay high school Spanish teacher in Aurora, spent the first several years of his teaching career hiding his identity as a gay man. He eventually came out to coworkers and students while working for a queer high school principal who supported him in sharing his identity at school. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

He has also become more forceful in speaking up to his students about equality for marginalized groups, including transgender and queer communities and people of color.

“You can’t be neutral when it comes to that type of violence and that type of erasure,” Keldsen said. “We have to take a side, and we have to take the right side as educators.”

Keldsen’s district, Aurora Public Schools, is taking a significant step in creating a more inclusive environment for transgender and queer staff by revising language in the master agreement between the district and local union. One draft version of that language reinforced the right for staff members to be out at school, talk about family composition, be open about gender identity and support LGBTQ students in seeking out school resources.

The new language reflects a districtwide commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, said Susan Billman, a school psychologist who is bisexual. But she has also become frustrated by the complacency the language has been met with, as some in the district have raised questions about the need for more detailed language spelling out protections for transgender and queer staff and students when the district already has a general policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, race and other identifiers.

“In a lot of other districts and states, that’s being chipped away and people who want to use school boards and school board meetings and things to chip away at protections for queer educators, they’re doing so without restraint,” Billman said. “They’re not waiting for any kind of higher court to decide what this language means. They’re trying to do this with reckless abandon.”

Colorado educators are safe for now, she said, “but who knows when that could change?”

“I am not just my pain”

A decade ago, queer graduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder knew they had to begin actively preparing teacher candidates to create school spaces that honor LGBTQ educators and students, a pioneering effort at a time when suicide rates among LGBTQ youth across the country jumped.

What emerged in 2014 was A Queer Endeavor, a center housed under the School of Education on the Boulder campus that teaches educators in training how to best support LGBTQ students and also supports schools and districts in changing classroom practices so that LGBTQ students are safe and seen.

“It’s changing climate and changing culture because what we know is that there’s nothing wrong with LGBTQ+ students,” said Bethy Leonardi, co-founder and co-director of A Queer Endeavor and an associate professor in the School of Education. “All the data about students suffering, that’s not because of who they are. It’s because of the context that they’re in. Our belief is that, yes, we need to support these individual students, but that doesn’t change the system. It doesn’t change anything. What needs to change is all the other students.”

A Queer Endeavor works to make schools more inclusive by holding professional development sessions for educators that incorporate self-reflection, discussion, action steps and what the center calls “a soft space of accountability,” said Leonardi, who is queer and nonbinary and whose pronouns “haven’t been invented yet.”

“We’re coming with love first,” Leonardi said. “We love teachers. We honor teachers. We have respect for them. We are educators first and foremost, and so we’re not going to shame people who are in particular places with this. We need more and more teachers to show up for kids, and we’ve decided to do this work and we’re going to do it in a way that I think humanizes the whole experience.”

Bethy Leonardi, co-founder and co-director of A Queer Endeavor and an associate professor in the the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education, presents at the center’s Educator Institute for Equity and Justice in 2021. A Queer Endeavor launched in 2014 and teaches educators in training how to create inclusive spaces for LGBTQ staff students. (Provided by Hannah Fletcher)

The work is “tender” and takes time, Leonardi added, noting there’s no special binder she has for educators that outlines all the ways they need to support queer kids. Schools can’t find any quick fixes by just hosting a special day for gay people or forming a Gay Straight Alliance. LGBTQ students need to feel safe and recognized in every part of their school, Leonardi said, noting that otherwise, “it’s not changing what counts as normal in school.” 

Rather, schools must examine the policies they implement, the language they use, traditions that carry racial and gender undertones, ways they engage parents, how they listen to and collaborate with LGBTQ students, and how they represent LGBTQ communities in classwork, Leonardi said. 

And school leaders must be unwavering in their support of LGBTQ staff and students, said Levi Arithson, program manager of LGBTQ+ equity for Denver Public Schools.

Arithson is transmasculine — meaning they express themselves as masculine but do not identify as male — and is also gender queer, using both he/him and they/them pronouns. They recall a DPS elementary school principal two years ago who sent a letter to families at the start of the year spelling out the school’s inclusion of LGBTQ topics in student learning.

“They can be really bold in their support,” Arithson said. “They can be proactive and assertive. They can make clear that they’re going to do this work.”

It’s equally critical for schools and educators to shift mindsets so they can still empathize with a queer person even if they don’t understand them, they said.

“We don’t have to have a depth of knowledge or completely get something in order to support it and empathize with it, right?” Arithson said. “There are experiences that I will never understand ever, and that doesn’t mean I can’t support and listen (to) and believe people when they say, I experience this thing and because of my identity and the way society functions, this is my experience.”

Despite the anti-trans legislative movements in other states and regular outbursts of hate that leave LGBTQ educators and students in Colorado reeling, many other moments of joy soften the anguish. Those moments deserve a much brighter spotlight, Arithson said, as so much of the attention placed on LGBTQ kids and adults only captures the discrimination and trauma they face and narrowly views them as “martyrs, targets or victims.”

In reality, their stories are much more complex, said Leonardi, who has listened to students explain, “I am not just my pain.”

Quoting famous Indigenous scholar Eve Tuck, Leonardi hit on the importance of telling a richer story of LGBTQ kids and adults by also elaborating on the ways they blossom.

Marginalized communities “have been under the illusion that if we just tell the story of the damage and if we just highlight how damaged we are, then the people in charge will change things for us,” Leonardi said, citing Tuck. “And that’s a lie. It doesn’t happen, and all it does is … just leave the damage in place. And we believe that about ourselves.”

Creek, who works at Peak to Peak Charter School, experiences a lot of joy in supporting queer kids, especially those exploring their gender, and normalizing that process. She’s helped a few students come out to their parents, nurturing them with a safe space along the way.

“Any time I can be an out adult for any young kid, that’s where I’m like, that reward is more than any risk,” said Creek, who did not have any queer teachers while growing up. “If that makes a difference for one kid, that’s way more worth it than 20 families being upset over my identity.”

Neufeld, from Five Star Online Academy, also finds reasons for optimism as she watches queer kids navigate systems that were designed to exclude them and even teach adults about self-acceptance with how “bold” and “audacious” they are.

“Knowing that I am a part of a movement, understanding that when I show up in my joy, students can also step into their freedom,” Neufeld said. “And I also like being that mirror for younger queer and trans educators, reminding them that they belong, reminding them that there’s a reason for everything that happens and that they’re important.”

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 9:35 a.m. on May 25, 2023 to clarify that Bethy Leonardi was citing famous Indigenous scholar Eve Tuck when talking about marginalized communities and the damage that’s caused by only focusing on the pain that gay and transgender kids and adults experience.

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Erica Breunlin

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