In 2016, Ethan Walker Smith was a public affairs assistant with GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), working hard (and successfully) to update Massachusetts’ non-discrimination law to fully protect transgender people from discrimination. The work was personal for Ethan, since he himself is transgender.
But Ethan has another, creative passion—poetry. When Ethan left work for the day at GLAD, he’d trek from their downtown offices to Roxbury, where he taught spoken word poetry as part of an after school program for local middle and high schoolers.
Ethan didn’t think he would be bringing his day job into the classroom, but he soon discovered that national and statewide debates over transgender rights had already penetrated his students’ world. A few of them identified as queer or transgender.
“They were talking about some big issues, so I wanted to be able to address those national public issues,” he says. “I was really inspired by them, how quickly they took to national debates and things like that. But I was also frustrated that it seemed like their voices were not being heard.”
“I was really inspired by [my students], how quickly they took to national debates and things like that. But I was also frustrated that it seemed like their voices were not being heard.” —Ethan Smith, Ed.M. Candidate ‘17, Harvard Graduate School of Education
So he opened up that line of inquiry with his students. If they had questions about gender pronouns, he’d start the class off with a discussion of names and gender pronouns. Ethan always encouraged his students to be open and ask questions. It was especially transformative for his gender nonconforming students to have an adult in their lives who was like them.
Though his students were less interested in the specifics of updating Massachusetts’ law to protect transgender people from discrimination—and more concerned about relationships with parents, or whether they’d be accepted by their friends—he knows that having that law on the books actually sends a really powerful message to them.
“While we do have really good guidance for students in schools, it doesn’t mitigate every issue that happens,” he says, noting that more than half of a student’s time is spent outside the school—where, before the law’s passage, they weren’t protected from discrimination.
“Now, (transgender) students can go out in public and have as many opportunities as their classmates. It’s a really powerful thing.”
If the law were repealed when voters go to the polls in 2018, it would send a very different—and very devastating—message.
“Repealing the law sends a message that maybe it’s a choice, temporary, we should hide it. That maybe we should have to accommodate discrimination at the risk of our safety—and that’s not the message we want to send to the public and definitely not the message we want to send to students.”
“Repealing the law sends a message that maybe it’s a choice, temporary, we should hide it. That maybe we should have to accommodate discrimination at the risk of our safety—and that’s not the message we want to send to public and definitely not the message we want to send to students.”
Spending two years with his poetry students, seeing them learn, grow and come to a better understanding of themselves, eventually drove him to go back to school to study education formally. Now, he’s a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
He hopes to combine the work he was doing with GLAD and teaching by working in education policy and advocacy spaces—and he’ll also be keeping an eye on the statewide ballot initiative, and doing everything he can to ensure that non-discrimination protections for transgender Bay Staters are upheld.
“This is a really important time to be involved. Not just for LGBTQ people, but for other teachers and other people in the school system, even if they don’t feel political,” he says. “It’s about protecting LGBTQ students in the classroom, and helping every student learn.”
If you’re an educator, parent or anyone concerned about preserving non-discrimination protections for our transgender friends and neighbors, click here to sign our pledge to uphold them at the ballot box.