Katya Mazon had never been heavily involved with the LGBTQ community, until two and a half years ago, when she attended her first Illinois Safe Schools Alliance meeting. One of her friends, who self-identified as “queer,” invited her and said there would be food.

“They were looking for newer members and my friend told me about it,” said Mazon, who graduated from Walter Payton High School in June and plans to attend the University of Illinois-Chicago. “He was like, ‘You’ve always been really supportive of me and you should just come. And there’s pizza.’”

Mazon, a straight ally, will be honored at the Alliance’s annual brunch at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center Yates Gallery (a one-person brunch ticket is $150) as Activist of the Year – it’s the first time a high school graduate has received the award – for her work with Chicago Public Schools and her leadership in the Alliance’s Youth Committee.

Fifty-six of more than 100 Chicago public high schools have registered Gay-Straight Alliances, but the Alliance’s program director David Fischer said there should be more. According to one national school climate survey, 98 percent of lesbian/gay/bi-sexual/transgender/queer students in Illinois hear anti-LGBTQ comments in school. Across the country, only 22 percent of LGBTQ students report having a gay-straight alliance in their high school.

Studies estimate that between 4 and 10% of the general population is gay; in CPS, that translates to between 16,000 and 40,000 students.

“Schools are still struggling to not ‘out’ young people to other school personnel or their parents,” Fischer said. “Schools are not in a place where they’re truly working to accommodate transgender youth.”

Mazon has been working with CPS to set up guidelines to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students, because schools often don’t know guidelines when it comes to bathrooms, preferred gender pronouns, or recreational sports teams.

“The Alliance is youth-driven, so youth are really the decision makers,” Mazon said. “I love that because they’re the stakeholders, they’re the ones who are experiencing it, and so they’re the ones who should have a say in it.”

A lack of dialogue about diverse identities in school curricula is another challenge for LGBTQ youth. Mazon was never taught about gender identity at school, and many students can go through a decade of schooling without learning about significant historical or literary figures who identified as LGBTQ.

“That complete silence can have a serious negative impact,” Fischer said. “It’s very hard to perceive your own identity in any sort of positive light if it’s never shown to you.”

These issues are prevalent throughout Illinois, and across the nation, but young people in Chicago face unique difficulties, Fischer said, because “a lot of time and energy and effort and resources are put in a small percentage of schools”  that address the issue.

 “When we talk about equality, it’s not giving [students] the same things,” Mazon said. “It’s giving them the things to reach the same steps.”

According to research done by UIC College of Education, youth and their families want to have intergenerational conversations about sexuality and gender identity. Spaces for facilitated dialogue, where youth can ask authentic questions without feeling like they’re going to get in trouble, is not just for the people who identify as LGBTQ, said researcher Stacey Horn.

“Creating a safe environment is good for everyone in the schools,” she said. “It allows for a broader expression of identity for anybody.”

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