Rodríguez column: Sense of belonging can save lives

Dr. Jesús Rodríguez
Superintendent's Corner

My name is Jesús Rodríguez, and my pronouns are él, he, him and his. I was named Jesús after my maternal grandfather, who went by Chuy his entire life, and because my mother, a devout Catholic woman, prayed for a son and committed to naming me Jesús if her prayer was answered.

However, growing up, I was known as Jesse, an anglicized version of Jesús. At school, this was never a problem: Staff and students alike honored that, and most never realized my name was not Jesse. It wasn’t until I went to college that I began going by Jesús. Still, when someone calls me Chuy, it makes me uncomfortable, and I let them know, “that was my grandfather” because I have never identified as Chuy. In my experience, this has always been honored as well.

I share this to point out something many of us take for granted: The positive affirmation of our preferred identities is not something all students experience.

During a recent Board of Education meeting, I became emotional as I was expressing my gratitude to a group of students I had met with a few days before who had shared some of their heartbreaking experiences at school. Some of our students deprive themselves of fluids during the entire school day because they are terrified of using the restrooms in our schools, and because often, the gender-neutral restroom is inconveniently located. Students shared that they are constantly subjected to homophobic and transphobic slurs, directly and indirectly, which are largely inconsequential for those who use them. I also learned that some students are regularly and intentionally misgendered and misnamed.

As superintendent of the Roaring Fork Schools, it was heartbreaking to learn that some of our students do not feel safe nor a sense of belonging.

As a candidate for the superintendency, the values and beliefs of the Roaring Fork Schools, as expressed in our strategic plan, attracted me to want to be a part of our community. Our district mission is to ensure that every student develops the enduring knowledge, skill and character to thrive in a changing world. Our strategic plan includes: drivers, strategies and results, which are expected to guide our work.

This month, I want to draw attention to just one of the five drivers that shape our strategy, which is belonging, and also highlight one of our 10 strategies identified to achieve our mission: create an intentional culture of character in which habits of a scholar flourish and all students feel a strong sense of safety and belonging. I love that our strategic plan calls out: Every student thrives, safety and belonging, and it is our responsibility to ensure that we make this a reality for all RFSD students. One way that we can create a sense of belonging for our students, staff and visitors to our schools is by honoring their names and full identities.

In 2021, The Trevor Project surveyed 35,000 LGBTQIA+ youth ages 13 to 24. Some of the findings of the survey include:

  • Affirming transgender and nonbinary youth by respecting their pronouns and allowing them to change legal documents is associated with lower rates of attempting suicide.
  • LGBTQ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide.
  • 42% of the LGBT-youth respondents seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
  • More than half of LGBTQ youth reported that they had experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the past year.

I identify as a cisgender, heterosexual male, which means that I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth, and I am straight; each of those three are important parts of my identity and they also come with some privileges.

It is important for me to leverage those privileges as an unapologetic ally and advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community. For example, I cannot recall a single time in my life when I was misgendered (referred to as she, for instance), which I appreciate because my gender is important to me as it tends to be for most human beings. I also have the privilege of holding hands with my wife in public without ever wondering if it is safe for me to do so. An example of one of my male privileges is that common vocabulary favors me; you guys, freshman and mankind to name just a few examples.

To be clear, cisgender, heterosexual and male are just three parts of my identity and not my full identity; I also identify as Latino, as a father and Catholic, among many others.

While I know not everyone will be personally comfortable with trans or non-binary gender identities in our schools, I do expect that, at a bare minimum, all of our students, staff and visitors respect and honor each other’s names, pronouns, genders and sexual orientations.

As cited above, the humane act of affirming gender identities, respecting pronouns and affirming sexual orientation can save lives and undoubtedly will create a stronger sense of belonging for all of our students, which will surely bring us closer to fulfilling our mission.

If at any time you need to talk to someone about your mental health or thoughts of suicide, please call The Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386.

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