Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz, photo illustration by Kitron Neuschatz

What I Wish I Knew in High School as a Queer Person with Disabilities

Advice for navigating—and maybe even changing—institutional bias on your journey through high school and beyond.

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Oct 26 2018, 5:00pm

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz, photo illustration by Kitron Neuschatz

This story appears in VICE Magazine's Power and Privilege Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

I faced a maze of questions as a high schooler applying to colleges in 2010.

What universities were LGBTQ+ friendly, which one had the biggest queer community, and how could I know I would be safe going off campus, say for a Pride event, or while publicly holding another woman’s hand? Would I struggle getting accommodations for my disabilities (some undiagnosed at the time), primarily Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, endometriosis, and autism? As the child of a single father who worked extra hours at night as a cabdriver, with no trust fund or rainy-day money or penny jar labeled “college savings” to dip into, was college the right choice anyway? Would it really help me find a career that I could thrive in? Could I even afford to do-over the SAT without a fee waiver?

Maybe you’re asking similar questions today, or maybe these questions bring back your own memories. Navigating educational spaces, whether you’re a student, parent, teacher, or counselor, has its challenges. But being part of these spaces is worthwhile, and so is making them inclusive, accessible, and safe for the world around us. Throughout high school—and throughout my entire life to that point, really—I hid my true self because I was afraid I wouldn’t be accepted for who I am, a queer person with disabilities. And yet along the way I’ve formed lasting friendships, found mentors who encouraged and guided me to do anything and everything I wanted, and gained learning experiences that shaped who I’ve become.

Looking back, there are not only things I wish I’d known as a student, but that I wish the various adults in my life at the time had all known as well. Because if one thing is still certain, it’s that the education system is biased against folks like me. Here’s my advice for navigating that bias, and maybe even changing it, on your journey through high school and beyond.

If you're a student, the first thing you need to know is that you’re not alone.

I remember feeling isolated at the small high school I attended in southeastern Massachusetts, increasingly stressed over the thought of choosing a college and career path. Eventually I opened up about it to a supportive science teacher who went out of her way to help someone like me plot a course forward, even if she didn’t completely understand my situation. In my experience there are people out there who have gone, or are going, through many of the same things. They might work at or have graduated from your high school, attend your dream college, or work in a field you might want to pursue a career in. Look for people who are welcoming and supportive, who want to see you succeed. Reach out to them.

My second piece of advice: Form a community of your own, whether that’s locally in person or online. When I was in high school nine years ago, I joined the now defunct QueerAttitude.com, an international website for LGBTQ+ young adults, and eventually became a moderator, taking questions and welcoming new members. There wasn’t a large queer community at my high school, and although I had a few LGBTQ+ friends, I really needed a safe space dedicated to that piece of my identity to help get me through the rough parts. When my straight friends weren’t empathizing with the frustration I felt as I tried to help my then girlfriend come out to her family, for example, I knew there was a place where I could turn to be heard, validated, and loved. Finding that place, on the internet or IRL, can be incredibly helpful.

"Throughout high school—and throughout my entire life to that point, really—I hid my true self because I was afraid I wouldn’t be accepted for who I am, a queer person with disabilities."

As for instructors and others in a position to change Millennials’ lives nowadays, it’s important to remember everything you say and do deeply impacts the students in your life. Think about everything you’re saying to them, but just as importantly, think about everything you aren’t. If you’re not teaching LGBTQ+ stories in English literature class, why not? Are there non-American writers and authors of color in your required reading list, or Indigenous research in your lab plans? Whose version of history are you teaching? Are you introducing role models who aren’t like yourself, so that students have access to a broad range of experiences? Are you bringing these people into your classroom, or your students out into the world to meet them? And what biases affect the career options you’re recommending for students, especially based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, immigrant status, disability, or sexual orientation? Be honest about those things not just with yourself, but with your students as well.

Education goes both ways. Offer your students the means to contact you and offer feedback, with the option of doing so anonymously, not just at the end of the school year but throughout. This way, someone going through a mental health crisis, for instance, might have a safe way to seek help, or a student can let you know they took offense to a seemingly innocuous comment you made that was, in fact, a racist microaggression. Make it widely known, furthermore, that your classroom is a safe space, that students won’t be judged for coming to you and sharing issues outside of their assignments. When I spoke to one of my English professors my first year of college, I remember seeing the signs on her office door with rainbows indicating that she was LGBTQ+ friendly. She also included a space for pronouns on the get-to-know-you survey she distributed to find out more about her new students, and her own pronouns were listed on the syllabus. Even though I knew nothing about her personally, I remember feeling that I could be completely myself when I went in her office.

My last piece of advice is for students and educators alike: You both have the ability to change your school, community, and the lives of those around you. The smallest individual act can leave a lasting impression. When I was in sixth grade, one of my teachers gave me a secondhand computer when mine died. My family wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford a new one, which I needed to complete class assignments, and because of her, I didn’t have to take a bus to and from the library every week after school to type up projects and do research. Without that act of kindness I would have also never finished the first draft of a novel I was working on, which my teachers were able to read before encouraging me to keep writing.

In 2015, upon graduating from college and beginning my career in publishing and media, I faced a new set of questions. Should I write openly about being a queer person with disabilities, or would that make employers less likely to hire me? How should I address workplace accessibility and accommodations? Was it safe to tell co-workers that I live with my girlfriend, or would that open me up to discrimination in the office?

This time around, I felt far less alone in answering my questions compared with when I was in high school. I have a network of mentors and friends, many in the LGBTQ+ and disability communities, to turn to for advice. I’m now an assistant editor for Equally Wed, an LGBTQ+ wedding magazine, a position I could have only dreamed of while I was in high school. I’ve also written for publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Cosmopolitan.

A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook friend request from someone with a disability who is considering transferring to Emerson College, where I got my graduate degree. She asked for advice on the application process itself, as well as navigating the city of Boston and finding space in the publishing industry as a disabled person. I told her to come to me with questions at any time, and that I’d love to meet in person if our paths cross.

None of us are alone in creating the world we want to live in.

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