Students at an LGBTQ youth center. Credit: Mercedes Mejia/Michigan Radio
By B. Denise Hawkins
These days, even the socks his students wear to school confound Micah Gary-Fryer, a high school dance and performing arts teacher. Before donning their ballet shoes or gliding across the wooden dance floor in their bare feet, Gary-Fryer watches in amazement as colorful and “mix-matched” socks peel off.
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“In my day, a boy could get beaten up for wearing a pair of pink socks,” explains Gary-Fryer, who is gay. Not so much today, at least at New Jersey’s Essex County Vocational Education School where he’s taught for a decade. His observations tell him that a little accessory like socks can make a big statement among students about their sexual orientation and gender identity—who they are. “This is definitely a new generation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students,” says Gary-Fryer who also points to young people who decide to “come out earlier” as another sign of change.
“I know these issues,” laughs Gary-Fryer, a member of NEA’s Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. But he admits that there are times when even he stumbles at school. Like the time he mistakenly referred to a student in his dance class as “she.” Wrong. Classmates chimed in like a chorus to quickly correct their teacher. Although a bit embarrassed, the exchange taught Gary-Fryer an important lesson: “Ask students which pronouns they want to be called. Don’t assume anything.”
There is no handbook, or script, for understanding and supporting the unique needs of LGBTQ students of color, says Gary-Fryer. His students are struggling to understand not only what it means to be gay, but “the intersection of being both Black and gay and Hispanic and gay.” That duality is a complex point—and the “crux of a lot of problems when people don’t want to see, and accept, that overlap or intersectionality,” adds Gary-Fryer who has spent years pushing for such awareness among NEA’s ethnic caucuses.
Students of color make up about three quarters of those attending the lowest-performing high schools; add to this mix the experiences of LGBTQ students of color who are often harassed by their peers and feel marginalized by those who are White and gay. When it comes to home, community, and school, “Their support systems are strained or just not there,” suggests Gary-Fryer, a compassionate advocate for LGBTQ students—and a willing resource for his colleagues.
When Gary-Fryer was hired at the largely Black and Hispanic, inner-city high school in Newark, his first assignment was to develop a dance and arts curriculum where none existed. With degrees in both dance and sociology, he saw opportunities to infuse ethnic history along with “social justice messages” into nearly every course, from ballet to ballroom dancing, to theatre arts. “I wanted to show how dance and the arts could be a tool for advocacy, social justice, and cultural education.