My sister, MITA Co-founder Melissa Bennett, and I spoke together at a Williamsville School District Board of Education Meeting, in October 2021, in support of two gender-inclusive policies that were being voted on by the district’s BOE at the time. One was Policy 7554: Student Gender Identity, a policy aimed at inaugurating and declaring publicly and in writing the Williamsville School District’s promise to “[foster] a safe and supporting learning environment for all students, free from discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex, gender, gender identity, gender non-conformity, and gender expression.” The policy also promises that the District “will assess and address the specific needs of individual students on a case-by-case basis.” The second policy, Policy 5634: Gender Neutral Single-Occupancy Bathrooms promises that the District is “committed to creating and maintaining an including education and work environment” and “will ensure that all single-occupancy bathroom facilities are designated as gender neutral.”
The Board voted in favor of passing the two gender-related policies after community members with vested interests in gender-education and gender-inclusive policies were invited to attend and speak. The event was open to the public, and both Melissa and I attended in order to speak out in support of LGBTQ+ students in the Williamsville School District, motivated by the difficulties I faced and way I was treated when I was an LGBTQ+ student in the district, by Melissa’s work as a middle school teacher in the district where her children/my nieces attend school, by Melissa’s work as leader of a school organization she started at the middle school at which she teaches – called “Social Justice Club,” by my doctoral work and work as an educator in the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Buffalo, and by our common concern for and dedication to working for human and civil rights, restorative and humane practices, and social justice. Melissa asked me to speak with her, after hearing that the policies were going to be voted on and that members of the community were allowed to speak, and I jumped at the chance, in the hopes that it might be a moment of restorative justice and healing for me to to be able to help a child not have to suffer in the ways I did. This is what advocacy is all about: learning about systems from experience, and trying to help others avoid bad things that have happened or been done to us, and that’s what this organization is about.
We were only given two minutes, total, to speak, and had to submit our statements for approval in advance. I was very nervous about speaking at the meeting for a number of reasons. One of them is that I was scared that I would be overwhelmed by the experience of being at my former school district, on the grounds, on the property, where I had not been in many years and had felt alienated and estranged from for many years, though it is so close to me, in proximity, that it is only steps away from my home, my doorstep, where I come and go every day. Not sure how to approach this opportunity to speak and advocate for children who, like me, have suffered from poor and unprofessional homo-/trans- and queer-phobic institutional practices within the public education system, I decided to ask my colleagues for some advice. At a facilitator staff meeting that I attend weekly with the organization I work for, the Herstory Writers Workshop, a non-profit organization aimed at changing hearts, minds, and policies through memoir, I told my colleagues about this sudden and unexpected opportunity to speak that I would have, and that I would have one minute to be listened to, after all these years, by my former school district. We considered the many directions in which this could go and how the platform might be used by me, to: for instance air grievances and demand accountability through the gender policy. But, ultimately, what I decided with the help of my supportive colleagues from Long Island Sound and across the United States was to be a loving and forgiving steward of the platform, and to use the platform for the best possible purpose: not to tell the facts of my story for the sake of justice, but to render part of my experience in the most loving way possible, in a way that would rhetorically achieve my goal of supporting, protecting, and helping LGBTQ+ children in my former district by persuading the board to vote to help support, protect, and help them.
With the help of a whole group of Herstory facilitators, I was put in touch with my inner and moral purpose, and I wrote a one-minute speech that would not only help to protect and uplift LGBTQ+ students of my former district but that would help to heal me by extending the generosity of my spirit in an act of loving mercy and gesture of peace-making with my former district. With my sister by my side, we did it: and by we, I mean my sister, my Herstory colleagues and family, myself, my children, and my heart. At the time this opportunity arose, I saw it as some kind of healing grace that the power that I call God was gently granting me as a way to help heal myself. I was teaching a course on sexuality and culture at the University at Buffalo that semester, and the event fit into the subject matter of the course, which was local LGBTQ+ histories: my students watched the video of us speaking and I was able to inform them that the policies had been passed, and, being especially invested in LGBTQ+ equality, they were able to fit our speeches into the many archival documents they had encountered in the course, and they clapped for us, genuinely moved and excited for change. I wanted to share this on our MITA page, to both archive the speeches and event, and to share them with our community here, as the struggle for social justice comes in many forms, and our hardships and successes, like our hearts, are interconnected.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Our speeches are included below, in their various forms, as is a link to the meeting, a few photos of us speaking for the archive, and a link to an article published in Buffalo News that followed the District’s decision to pass the policies.
~ Jessica (East) Mason
Thank you so much for the opportunity to speak here tonight. I am here because I was thrilled to read that the board will be voting on new proposed policies regarding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and specifically, policy #7554, Student Gender Identity. In actuality, these policies are not new, because at the very core, they are about respecting our students.
As a teacher at Casey Middle, a former coach, and the social justice club adviser, I have had many students who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Growing up as a student in this district, my sister who stands beside me today bravely came out to her school, her family, and her friends. She did not have many safe spaces at a time when safety was so desperately needed, but school was one place where she found refuge. Many other children walk similar paths. School is a place where all students have a right to feel safe and be respected for who they are, and we build this place through our practices and our policies.
This is not a matter of politics. This is not a matter of pushing a liberal agenda. This is not even a matter of changing people’s beliefs and values. This is a matter of safety for the people we are all here for, the people we care most about in the world, our children. Something that may make you uneasy or uncomfortable could save another child’s life. Having adults in a school who are affirming is not just a nicety for a child, it is a necessity. It can make or break that child. My number one goal as a teacher is for all of my students to feel loved, valued, respected, and cared for. I am grateful that our Board of Education is considering these policies and I implore you to vote yes because it will lead to more children feeling safe and cared for at school.
~ Melissa Bennett, Teacher at Casey Middle School and Former Student at Williamsville East, October 12, 2021
For a moment, I want you to imagine that you are sixteen years old and that you are walking home from school. You have a skip in your step because you love life and your heart is full of songs, your world is full of hope and endless possibilities. You are dreaming of your future, of all the things you might accomplish; you are making sense of today and imagining tomorrow through the pages of a book that you have just read in class, which you are replaying in your mind as you walk, no, dance, home from the place that has given you hopes and dreams and the tools to become who you want to be: school.
But then, as you enter through the door into your home, all that, that world of innocence, comes crashing down on you. Words of hate slam into your ear and heart. You’re no longer the kid with the bright future ahead; instead, you’re a monster, you’re nothing, you’re a mistake, you’re a deformity. You have it drilled into you that you’re bad, you’re wrong, that you have no future, that there is no place for you. You’re told there is something wrong in you; your baby brother can’t be around you because of who you are, because you might convert him, you might corrupt him, the evil in you might spread. Words, like hurling axes, are thrown at your head, but they don’t hit you, they don’t even scratch you, because, somehow, there is a shield defending you, a shield that you made at school, a shield made out of the groups you were able to join to help build a better world than the one at home, a shield made out of the kind words of your teacher, a shield made out of the rainbow flag hanging above the chalkboard in your classroom, a shield made out of the policies that the school created to protect you, a shield made of the opportunities to be you and be loved as you are at school, which come to your rescue and protect you from believing that you’re a monster just because you’re gay or lesbian or gender non-conforming.
The child in this story was me, when I was a student at East. But the child in this story could have been you. It will be one of our precious children. When you vote on Policy #7554, I am asking you to remember the child who might have a lifetime of axes thrown at them. You have the power to be a companion and a shield to that child, to give them the protection and the help they need to survive and thrive along the way. Thank you.
~ Jessica Lowell Mason, Ph.D. Candidate at the University at Buffalo and Former Williamsville East Student, October 12, 2021
Below is a PFD of the article about the passing of gender policies by the District that was published by the Buffalo News on November 9th, 2021, for anyone who cannot view it due to the paywall: https://buffalonews.com/news/local/williamsville-joins-school-districts-in-setting-gender-neutral-policies/article_35fb2a16-3e5d-11ec-8935-cbe6035d0ac5.html
Below is a video of the BOE meeting, published for the public by the Williamsville School District.