The Safe Schools Program of PFLAG NYC marked a milestone on October 19, 2016. We organized our largest school event in the history of the program when we simultaneously spoke to all 830 students in the 9th grade class at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. All together, 15 members of the Safe Schools Program took time to share their family stories with groups of Stuyvesant freshmen.
PFLAG NYC was invited to Stuyvesant by Assistant Principal Casey Pedrick who, along with her colleagues in counseling and guidance, shared with us how many students had trouble understanding and helping classmates who are LGBT, or dealing with questions of sexual orientation and gender identity themselves. Many students are scared at the thought of having to tell parents the truth that they are learning about themselves.
A Mom Pays It Forward by Helping Today’s Students
For that reason, it was so important that one member of our team of speakers was the mother of a “Stuy” alum. Clara Yoon enthused that she was glad for the chance to speak to all the freshmen assembled in the auditorium because she thought about how different her child’s school experience might have been if a group like PFLAG NYC had led an open and constructive conversation with students about LGBT topics. She talked about her child and their relationship in ways that every student in the school could understand. The audience of students laughed when Clara, a Korean-American mom, referred to stereotypes of Asian parents and said her first sign that something was going on in her child’s life was when he got less than straight A’s. Then she got serious.
Clara admitted to the students that even though she thought she knew her child, she was unaware of challenges her child was facing outside of academics. “While my child was at school here, he came out to me as LGBT and only then did I start to understand how much he struggled. I was not prepared for his coming out, and I did not understand it,” she told the students. She went on to talk with students about how to handle conversations about things students find unfamiliar or uncomfortable to deal with, and how to be supportive of friends who may come out to you.
Sharing Personal Coming-Out Stories
Two more speakers took the stage to share their experiences about coming to terms with their own identities. Kalima McKenzie-Simms spoke about her experience coming out to her friend in high school. She emphasized how much she needed an ally during one of the darkest moments she can remember, and how her friend’s acceptance was a defining moment in her life; she was changed for the better, and returned to school with more confidence and courage. Her story resonated strongly with the Stuyvesant students.
One of the Safe Schools Program’s newest speakers spoke last. I-nan Chen told the audience about growing up in Taiwan, where his parents still live. This helped I-nan make a connection with many Stuy students, three quarters of whom are first or second generation immigrants, many of Asian background. I-nan talked about what it was like when he realized how different he felt from his cousins while they were growing up. At first he didn’t even know what it meant to be “gay,” but even after he knew what it meant, he struggled with it. Among the issues he thought about were his responsibility as oldest child to carry on the family line. He never thought his parents could accept his being gay. When he reached the point in his story when he actually comes out to them, the entire auditorium was pin-drop silent. Want to know more? You’ll have to find a way to come to a PFLAG NYC program and hear directly from I-nan!
After these three presenters spoke with the full 9th grade class in, the students broke into small groups to talk with individual Safe Schools Program members and have in-depth discussion.
Stuyvesant Enthusiastic to Bring Safe Schools Back Every Year
The feedback from the Stuyvesant hosts was resoundingly positive: “The whole thing was really amazing… I so much hope it is possible to have [PFLAG] back to speak to next year’s freshmen.” From the PFLAG NYC side, we can certainly say, “Absolutely!” We’re ready to go to any school that needs the Safe Schools Program for its students.
Help the Safe Schools Program Grow
The Stuyvesant H.S. team from PFLAG NYC’s Safe Schools Program (right to left): Samuel Nathanson, Shannon Sass, Drew Tagliabue, Joe Hastick, Lee Schwartz, Florence Shuster, Kalima McKenzie-Simms, Susan Goodman, Anthony Kratunis, Judy Sennesh, Johanna Antar, I-nan Chen, and Aya Yabe; not pictured: Stan Wright and Clara Yoon.