Alysa Tomasa
Commentary, Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

As a former public school teacher, I can understand the importance of being a lifelong learner. To remain relevant, teachers have to get trained in the latest technologies and even social media platforms, including professional development courses, to improve teaching pedagogies and curriculum.

But there’s a critical element of student support that many seem to be unsure: How do we appropriately and adequately support our LGTBQIA+ students? First of all, those are a lot of letters and what do they all stand for?

Dr. Kathleen O’Dell, former DOE complex-area academic officer who advocated for LGTBQ+ students and offered training and resources to schools. Dr. O’Dell is currently a curriculum developer and instructor in human development and family studies at Windward Community College. (Photos courtesy of Alysa Tomasa)

L- Lesbian (women who are attracted to women, or non-males)

G- Gay (men who are attracted to men, or non-females, but could be a general term for same-gender sexual orientation)

T- Transgender (gender identity differs from what they’re assigned at birth)

B- Bisexual (someone who is attracted to both male and female persons)

Q- Queer (general term for non-cisgender, non-heterosexual persons)

I- Intersex (anatomy or chromosomes are different from what is “typically” male or female)

A- Asexual (someone who has little to no sexual attraction to anyone)

Plus- The “Plus” sign refers to the many other persons who may not quite identify as any of the above but are not cisgender or heterosexual (“straight”).

Most are familiar with the first four letters of this acronym; and news articles – such as this and others within this issue – often refer to use LGBTQ as an umbrella term. But for the purposes of focusing on education, let’s further discuss the last three letters. 

“Queer” is a term that was once used as a slur but has recently been reclaimed and used as a general term for anyone who does not identify as cisgender or heterosexual. 

“Intersex” people have existed since the beginning of humankind. If you imagine a male with only male genitalia and male chromosomes on one end of a spectrum and a female with only female genitalia and female chromosomes; on the other end, intersex people are somewhere in between. They have ambiguous reproductive organs or chromosomes or genitalia, and this can mean something different for each individual person. “Hermaphrodite” is an old slur word that used to be used to describe intersex people.

“Asexual” is used to describe a person who has little to no sexual attraction to another person. Or perhaps have no desire to sexually act upon their feelings toward another person. 

Words are powerful, and using the correct terms, pronouns and language contribute to a safer school environment, and can encourage LGTBQIA+ students to feel welcome, validated and seen. On the other hand, using derogatory terms or anti-LGTBQ remarks have just as powerful of an effect. According to the 2019 National School Climate Survey Executive Summary Report, “98.8% of LGTBQ students heard ‘gay’ used in a negative way … at school” and “95.2%” heard other homophobic remarks according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.

When conducting my own research, I realized it was difficult to find Hawai‘i Department of Education data on how safe our local LGTBQIA+ students feel in our schools. This was confirmed with Dr. Kathleen O’Dell, a former complex-area academic officer from 2017-2022. Dr. O’Dell is an advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion in education and is a member of the LGTBQIA+ community so she “knows firsthand how it feels to not be able to live your truth safely and with acceptance.” 

Dr. O’Dell was able to use her position as an opportunity to help inform the educators in her complex area how to offer more support to their LGTBQIA+ students. 

“I asked my complex superintendent permission to ask each secondary school to designate at least one secondary school ally to come to quarterly meetings to discuss the needs of our LGTBQIA+ students and share resources to assist serving those students and their families,” said Dr. O’Dell. “I bought small rainbow flags and gave them to those designees for their schools. The teachers who chose to put them in their classrooms had so many stories of LGTBQIA+ students coming to talk to them, knowing it was a safe space.” 

Dr. O’Dell also worked with a complex area social worker to develop an LGTBQIA+ resource website and a training that individual schools could request for their faculty and staff. “This work currently depends on individuals as champions who choose to educate themselves and advocate for our LGTBQIA+ students,” shared Dr. O’Dell. Since Dr. O’Dell’s time with the DOE, the Hawaii State Teachers Association has implemented more training needs for faculty and staff. 

At the 2021 Teacher Institute Day, a two-hour webinar called “Transgender 101 for Educators” was offered to teachers, counselors and support staff to help them create stronger communities for LGTBQIA+ students, particularly for those who identify as transgender. HSTA’s Human and Civil Rights Committee also created an interactive virtual classroom of LGTBQIA+ Pride resources. 

The HSTA Human and Civil Rights Committee created this interactive virtual classroom as a LGTBQ+ Pride resource for teachers.

In speaking with a few current high school students from Windward district high schools, LGTBQIA+ students are not blatantly harassed or bullied “like they used to be.” But it should be understood that there are variations to being “out.” 

“Vince” is a recent graduate from a Hawai‘i DOE high school. He was a high-achieving student and the first in his family to go to college. Vince has chosen to “come out” to only a close circle of people he trusts, which didn’t include his parents. And although he was a top student who was close to many of his teachers, this was not a topic he ever felt comfortable discussing with them. 

“My high school campus’s environment was definitely accepting to a certain extent,” said Vince. “There were students who made being LGTBQIA+ their entire personalities and were confident enough to display that. I was always envious of them because although I do not wish it to be my entire personality, I did wish I had the confidence to just let my friends know and feel my shoulders get a little lighter. I feel like this scenario is the same for a lot of other schools as well, having a few LGTBQIA+ kids still figuring things out, and then there are those LGTBQIA+ kids that are confident enough to live their lives without any interruptions.” 

Maui High teachers Surina Shankar and Ryan Monico show HSTA’s messages of LGBTQIA+ support. “HSTA for Equity: We love ALL our students.”

Acceptance, tolerance, awareness … we cannot just point the finger and say it is the schools’ responsibility to teach these traits. It starts at home. It comes from changing our hetero-normative culture and breaking generations of “taboo topics,” and religious persecution. As a mother, I feel that my primary responsibilities and goals as a parent is to teach my children acceptance of differences, to stand up for what they believe in and for those they love, including themselves.

While the DOE and individual schools have been making more of a concerted effort to get informed on how to be better allies and support systems for LGTBQIA+ students, there is much more to learn. Schools could incorporate more education on LGTBQIA+ history and the fight for civil rights, using correct terminology, and providing spaces and personnel who can offer support. But parents also need to educate themselves and most importantly teach and model acceptance and self-love. 

To end, Vince shared his advice for his younger peers who may be struggling with coming out. 

“Although growing up with the secret of being gay was a struggle for me, it did not hold me back from setting goals for myself and achieving them. After moving away for college I have realized that judgment is a test of my own mental strength and that the question I needed to answer next is whether I am going to let certain comments or situations bring me down or push me forward … However, as I slowly came to terms with my sexual identity, I slowly started to tell more people within my circle of trust and it really helped me break down my own barriers after all these years. None of it was easy, trust me, but it will take some time to find this acceptance within your own community and it starts with accepting yourself first.” 

Alysa Tomasa has been an educator in the Windward District for the past 10 years, as both a teacher and TRIO Upward Bound program director, and spent a year in Japan teaching English after graduate school. Tomasa recently became a freelance writer for The Hawai‘i Herald as she has always enjoyed writing in her free time. When not working, she is usually busy chasing after her kids and planning events for her family and friends.


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