This commentary is by Reese Kelly of St. Albans, founding member of Neighbors for a Safer St. Albans, founder and CEO of Embodied Values LLC, former assistant vice president of student affairs, equity and inclusion at Champlain College, and the loving partner of a 13th-generation Vermonter.
When I was a young white queer kid growing up, I faced daily harassment and bullying for my gender nonconformity from first grade through high school. It was horrible and most people didn’t want to risk being my friend for fear of being targeted by association, which left me with little to no support network or community.
In high school, it got worse and worse. I was the primary target of two white men who were relentless in their abuse. While I found support and kindness from some teachers, others treated me as a troublemaker when I stood up for myself. They often witnessed the name-calling and looked the other way or advised me on how to avoid it instead of holding my tormentors accountable.
I was utterly alone and had also internalized the belief that I was a monstrous freak. I was suicidal for most of my high school experience. Only now do I understand this to be a common outcome of transphobia. Our suicide attempt rates are at least 10 times the national average and at least half of adolescents assigned female who identify as male have attempted suicide at least once.
There is nothing intrinsic about being queer or trans that affects our mental health, but the bigotry, discrimination and gaslighting does.
In my senior year of high school, I went with my sister to her boyfriend’s house and at one point his mom said to me, “Why don’t you move to San Francisco?” If I’m generous, she wanted me to be happy and healthy and thought there was a place where that would be possible. But here’s the deal: She wanted me to be safe and happy while preserving her own sense of comfort, comfort that came from not rocking the boat, keeping the status quo, and retreating from any type of confrontation, even if that confrontation could save lives.
Instead of sitting with my pain, having compassion, and helping create a loving and affirming environment for me where I lived, she encouraged me to go somewhere else.
A few weeks ago, I observed an online exchange on a public page between Maple Run School Board candidates Katie Messier and Reier Erickson that brought me back to that moment in high school. Erickson had expressed his concern about the safety of students in schools with school resource officers. He cited the Messenger article “St. Albans City, Maple Run School District to pay $30,000 after officer uses the word ‘retarded,’” and referenced research highlighting the negative impact of school resource officers on students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, and students of color. In response to his concerns, Messier wrote to Erickson, “If you think it’s so unsafe here, then leave.”
Today I watched the Maple Run School District candidate forum on Northwest Access TV’s show “For the Record,” available on YouTube. Peter DesLaurier — St. Albans’ former mayor and another candidate for school board — began his introduction by saying, “First of all, I want to thank Reier. It’s nice to meet you. I built up in my mind that you were a monster and you’re a pretty decent guy.” Though I’m not sure what he meant by that, it made me think of the times I’ve been perceived as “a monster” or a troublemaker — those times when I confronted my peers, voiced my pain, and publicly named behaviors that are harmful.
It is reckless and irresponsible to think, “If an environment is safe for me, it doesn’t need to change. If it’s not for you, then you should leave.” It is dangerous to believe that someone advocating for an equitable environment for all students is “a monster.”
I believe that the success of our schools depends on leadership that grapples with contemporary issues in education and that seeks to implement practices that help all students thrive. In the many exchanges I’ve had with Reier Erickson and Jennifer Williamson, they have demonstrated their thoughtful leadership by urging our community to have important conversations about what makes an equitable learning environment and what constitutes safety in our schools. They are committed to helping our school district become the best it can be and I praise their character for asking tough questions and asking for change because I know that maintaining the status quo takes far less effort and energy. I know they’d do what’s right over doing what’s comfortable.
It’s the leadership I deserved as that young white queer kid growing up. It’s the leadership all of our students deserve. Whether you live in St. Albans or elsewhere in Vermont, I invite you to consider my perspective when casting your ballot for school leadership in your community.