It is critical that educators and youth feel safe in their school communities, and the Chicago Teachers Union has been integral in the fight for their future. As a queer teacher in Chicago Public Schools, I have worked in schools where anti-gay slurs were shrugged off by school administrators, and in schools where LGBTQIA+ safe space stickers were in every classroom. There are critical conversations that need to happen in the community to stop bullying and protect LGBTQIA+ students regardless of their zip code. Many of these conversations, however, remain difficult to prioritize when teachers have to do the job of librarians, nurses, social workers and counselors, on top of their required teaching duties.
As a middle school science, special education and English as a Second Language teacher at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy on Chicago’s Northwest Side, I have known educators struggle with their queer identities at school—both as victims and as protectors. It is the courage of these LGBTQIA+ teachers, staff and students that inspires me as one of the 30,000 brave Chicago teachers and staff who went on strike. We were fighting to implement contract language that adds equity to LGBTQIA+ health care concerns, makes bilingual education a priority, increases funding for homeless students, demands sanctuary schools and increases special education funding. People often ask why we were fighting for things such as affordable housing and wraparound services for schools, especially when all the talk we heard from Mayor Lori Lightfoot was about “real dough,” and “fulsome” and “robust” compensation packages. But I am proud to answer it is because we care about our students and their families.
In an education system where LGBTQIA+-identified teachers are more likely to be fired for speaking up, I see our diversity as our strength. LGBTQIA+ teachers are more likely to have empathy, understand disadvantage and appreciate advocacy. That is why I strongly advocate for creating more pathways for LGBTQIA+ people to go into education. It is my hope is that LGBTQIA+ students see us and see real life examples of how speaking up really does make a difference— and it really does get better.
While we marched in the streets, however, we LGBTQIA+ teachers faced a surprising opponent that many of us, including me, helped usher in. Mayor Lightfoot was elected on a platform promising full school staffing of nurses, counselors and librarians, in addition to other issues that directly corresponded to Chicago Teachers Union contract demands. But in a stark departure from these campaign promises, Lightfoot said in the early days of the strike, “There is not some unlimited pool of money that we can [use to] fund everything in the CTU wish list,” and suggested that teachers abandon the strike and return to work without a contract.
This disconnect broke the hearts of many of her LGBTQIA+ allies in the school district. Yet, when we looked closer, it seemed to be part of a larger pattern of unfulfilled campaign promises that disproportionately affected the city’s LGBTQIA+ population. Earlier this year in the report, “When the Rainbow is Not Enough: LGB+ Voices in the 2019 Black Census,” more than 90 percent of respondents identified wages as the biggest problem in their community. Many studies have discussed how more than 16,000 CPS students are homeless, with the majority of them being LGBTQIA+-identified. On the campaign trail Lightfoot promised to support affordable housing and expand homeless services, but since August, the mayor has been at odds with the Bring Chicago Home Coalition that advocated for homeless solutions by using funds from a high-end real estate tax.
Where does that leave LGBTQIA+ students and the broader LGBTQIA+ community? Statistically, for working class LGBTQIA+ people, it leaves them struggling to make ends meet and achieve social mobility when we should be protecting and engaging them.
Lori Lightfoot is part of our family as a member of the queer community. And as family, we have to support each other, but we also have to call out family we love and hold them accountable. My call is to Lori Lightfoot to remember her campaign promises going forward. We settled our strike in spite of the mayor’s efforts, not because of them. Our union’s work created contract language that will make Chicago neighborhoods stronger and more equitably resourced. For LGBTQIA+ workers and families, I certainly hope the mayor does the same.