Twelve years ago, I was a high school student who had just come out as transgender,” Colorado teacher Sam Long told a Human Rights Campaign audience in 2020. “Without the support of my family or my school, everything became a struggle, even my favorite subject, which is science. People tried to tell me that trans identities are not compatible with biology, that men have XY chromosomes, women are XX, end of story.
“That oversimplified impression of biology has been taught in many schools, and it’s also been weaponized by lawmakers to justify harmful legislation,” Long continued. “But, today, I’m the one who is teaching biology.”
‘We need more trans educators’
As a high school science teacher in the Denver area, Long makes sure his students learn that gender identity is different from sex; that chromosomes are just one of many factors affecting people’s physical development; and that same-sex sexual behavior is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom. Furthermore, as co-founder of the Gender Inclusive Biology website, Long is helping other educators adapt their curricula and find resources for gender-sensitive learning.
“Even if my students don’t remember any of the science I taught them, I know they will remember this: Trans people can be happy, healthy, normal, extraordinary, complex individuals.
That’s what young people learn when they see adults like me, every day, in positive roles around them,” Long said. “That’s why we need more trans educators in schools, and we need to support their choice to be out,” added Long, who also runs a Colorado-based organization aimed at promoting and protecting the employment rights of trans educators.
For all of this work, and more, Long was honored in June with the Virginia Uribe Memorial Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights, an NEA Human and Civil Rights (HCR) Award. These awards are given annually to educators and other allied organizations that advance racial and social justice in our schools and communities.
Connecting the past to the present
Nebraska teacher Maira Mendez-Rodriguez also earned an HCR Award this year. Her organization, Children of Smithfield, united the children of workers at a Smithfield Foods processing plant, giving them a powerful voice during the COVID-19 pandemic. In partnership with state Sen. Tony Vargas, the organization successfully mandated that the plant disinfect work spaces and provide 6 feet of physical distance between employees. The company was also required to supply workers with face shields and offer medical leave to workers who tested positive for the virus.
Another award winner, Louisiana high school teacher Chris Dier, says he runs his history class like a “social laboratory,” empowering students to confront preconceived notions of race and identity. Dier incorporates litera- ture from overlooked voices, building empathy among students and en- abling underrepresented voices to be part of the historical record. He links the past to the present, from Jim Crow to modern policing; from Stonewall- era LGBTQ+ activism to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
For more about HCR winners, visit neahcrawards.org.