Language matters when it comes to making people feel seen, heard, and safe.
“Let’s go! It’s LinC Day! Let’s see some hype!” came the enthusiastic shouting from the steps of Memorial Hall one morning in early November. There, nearly two dozen Living in Community (LinC) leaders whooped and cheered as the School community filed in by house for the day’s programming dedicated to gender identity and expression, sexuality, queer history, the importance of LGBTQIA+ activism, and how to be an ally. The night before, they had watched the documentary “Changing the Game,” which shares the stories of three high school athletes at different stages of their athletic seasons, personal lives, and journeys as transgender teens.
The residential life LinC curriculum is designed to help students become knowledgeable, responsible, caring, and contributing members of society. Three student-initiated, student-led LinC Days held each year are important facets of the curriculum, which also includes classes for Third and Fourth Formers and the Fifth and Sixth Form Seminar. The Fall Term’s LinC Day was a collaboration between LinC leaders and the student leaders of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) and LGBTQIA+ affinity group.
A booming bass rocked the room as the LinC leaders took to the stage to welcome their peers, introduce themselves by name and preferred pronouns, and set the ground rules for the day (and beyond): Be open-minded, be respectful, don’t be defensive or deflective, and be aware of your position in the conversation.
Leaders started the discussion-based program by introducing and explaining terminology related to the day’s topics. Very quickly, a theme emerged: While the programming was about gender and sexuality, it also was very much about language, how it changes, and how it impacts a person. Not using someone’s preferred pronouns, said one Sixth Form LinC leader, “is just about the most disrespectful thing you can do with your vocal cords” because it makes them feel unseen, unheard, and unsafe. “You never have the right to attack someone for how they wish to be seen or heard in the world,” he emphasized. “In a perfect world, this would all be common knowledge.”
But it isn’t, as evidenced by the piece another Sixth Former shared from an anonymous student who noted the discomfort and distress that came with realizing they had not done “a good job of hiding their queerness” and that their sexuality had been discussed without them knowing.
Shane Z. Diamond, a human rights advocate and the impact campaign manager for “Changing the Game,” was the day’s only adult speaker. He was quick to praise the LinC leaders for their research and presentation, and he urged all the students to keep the discussion going long after the day ended. He also noted the School’s efforts to be less heteronormative by offering a gender inclusive housing option and gender-neutral bathrooms. A transgender man who grew up playing ice hockey in New Mexico and was captain of Bowdoin College’s women’s ice hockey team, Diamond shared his story of becoming the role model he wishes he’d had when he was younger.
“I always knew who I was, but I didn’t have the language,” he said. “Kids know who they are. Believe them.”
In addition to sharing his own experience, Diamond provided data around the challenges faced by LGBTQIA+ youth, including legislation that has been introduced in more than half of U.S. states to prevent transgender teens from participating in sports and sobering numbers around suicidal thinking in LGBTQ teens. In discussion groups after Diamond’s presentation, many students focused on the fact that these statistics represent real people, including their formmates, teammates, and housemates. According to an October survey of the SPS community, 18% of SPS students identify as LGBTQIA+ and 4.4 identify as trans, mirroring a 2021 U.S. Gallup poll indicating that 17% of Gen Z adults (born between 1997 and 2002) identify as LGBTQIA+.
After the afternoon’s presentation on queer history, some students shared that they had been unaware of the extent of the AIDS crisis, the legal battles the LGBTQ community has waged in the U.S., or that 69 countries still criminalize homosexuality.
At the end of the day, students gathered in the Stovell Tennis Courts, where Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” filled the dance floor.
“This day is not about checking a box,” said one Sixth Former. “We need to keep educating ourselves to create a positive and open atmosphere. We need to keep talking, informally, and we have to speak up when we see or hear something that’s not right.”