Karen Graci has a mantra she lives by: “I grow in my own allyship everyday.” It’s those words that led Graci to PFLAG Charlotte, where she now serves as the executive director.
“Our mission is to create a caring and affirming world for LGBTQ+ people and those who love them,” Graci explains. “We do that through peer support, education, and advocacy.”
PFLAG hosts workshops and peer support groups to educate loved ones of LGBTQ+ identifying people to help them learn about the community and what allyship looks like. PFLAG Charlotte uses four locations in its surrounding communities to reach out to families, queer folks and anyone interested in learning how to be a supportive ally to LGBTQ+ people.
“What that peer support looks like is we meet people right where they are in their journey, so for the most part, people who are showing up in our peer support spaces are parents or caregivers or grandparents, and they come from a variety of perspectives,” Graci shares. “What we find is after that educational program, a lot of parents, caregivers, grandparents, whoever was there might end up actually showing up again in a peer support space just to learn more, or because they appreciated the sense of community that they started feeling in there.”
Their work, however, may have to shift in its approach after the passage of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in North Carolina. One of the new laws, which has been dubbed the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” prohibits the instruction of LGBTQ+ history and issues in grades Kindergarten through four and forces teachers to “out ” students who divulge their sexuality or gender identity.
With PFLAG Charlotte and other advocacy groups’ initiatives tied closely to supporting queer students within their local school systems, it’s important to understand the work these organizations do for LGBTQ+ youth.
<BOLD>Resources these organizations provide<BOLD>
PFLAG Charlotte offers various resources for caregivers of LGBTQ+ youth and they offer workshops for schools across Mecklenburg County and its surrounding communities. Graci said a letter is sent to all of the schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, offering to come and teach teachers and school staff about how to support their queer students.
“What the data shows is for LGBTQ+ youth, support has a direct impact on life outcomes,” she explains. “That can look like support from the family, from school and support from other community organizations. We have worked with a number of area schools on programs for faculty and staff … with the whole goal being to take a deeper dive into why this matters and how you respond in school to your LGBTQ+ youth does directly impact their outcomes.”
PFLAG’s training allows for teachers to learn about the LGBTQ+ community and what life as a queer student can look like. Some of the topics include, but aren’t limited to:
- Learning about the various identities under the LGBTQ+ umbrella
- Understanding the challenges queer people face
- Establishing a set of “tools” to better support LGBTQ+ students
“I think educators by nature, they’re drawn to learning and so we know whenever we walk into any room, we have allies, we have LGBTQ+ community members, and we have a few that are like ‘I’m not having this conversation. Why am I here,’ and it’s all okay,” Graci says. “The goal always is to heighten education, heighten awareness and heighten visibility.”
PFLAG isn’t the only organization in Charlotte working to support queer students in the community — Time Out Youth Center gears its programming to LGBTQ+ youth with the goal of providing “support, advocacy, and opportunities for personal development and social interaction to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth ages 13-24.”
Time Out Youth provides a wide array of resources for teachers and students alike, from Gay-Straight Alliance and Genders & Sexuality Alliance support to workshops for teachers and school staff.
Three different workshops and training sessions are offered by Time Out Youth, including:
- Safe Zone Training — “participants will be able to identify issues facing LGBTQ students, articulate appropriate terminology, locate additional resources for their schools or classrooms, and increase their skill levels in supporting LGBTQ students.”
- Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Students Training — “Participants will be able to identify unique issues facing transgender and gender expansive students, articulate appropriate terminology, locate additional resources for their schools or classrooms, and increase their skill levels in supporting transgender and gender expansive students.”
- Speakers Bureau — “Trained LGBTQ youth tell their personal stories of coming out and community/family acceptance, then answer questions from the audience about their experiences. Presentations can be scheduled as a stand-alone engagement of one hour for students or faculty, or they can be scheduled as a component of the above trainings/workshops.”
Time Out Youth also provides workshops for students, including:
- GSA Workshops — discusses “topics such as growing and sustaining club membership, structuring and leading meetings, organizing for the calendar year, supporting transgender and gender nonconforming students, healthy relationships, local LGBTQ resources and advocating for safe schools.”
- Speakers Bureau
- How to be an Ally — “This workshop includes a discussion of important terms and concepts related to LGBTQ identities, obstacles this youth population faces at home and school, and how to be an ally and support LGBTQ classmates in their school.”
<BOLD>Moving forward in a SB 49 world<BOLD>
Despite the helpfulness of these resources and workshops, the way they’re integrated into schools could change after the North Carolina General Assembly voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto on SB 49, aka the Parents’ Bill of Rights. The bill prohibits instruction related to gender identity and sexuality in grades K through 4 and will notify parents when students want to change their names or pronouns.
Graci said with the change in policy, PFLAG will most likely look at using their workshops to take a much closer inspection into the importance of supporting queer youth in schools.
“Last year … we made our workshop into two sessions with a pretty intense case study base with lots of facts and lots of case studies,” she explains. “Most of our programs are led by an LGBTQ+ community member and an ally so we have both perspectives represented. I believe with all my heart that the goal for each one of these workshops is that somebody walks away with a better understanding so that when they have the next conversation, maybe they’ll learn a little bit more.”
Graci said after SB 49 and other anti-LGBTQ+ legislation became law in North Carolina, several LGBTQ+ community members have come to her and have expressed their interest in volunteering with PFLAG or coming to workshops.
“It’s heartbreaking what has triggered it, but honestly, we are seeing more volunteers, more people showing up in all kinds of different ways,” she offers. “Our work now is more important than ever because families need support more than ever.”
The fear within North Carolina’s queer community is evident through the conversations Graci has had with caregivers and teachers, some who have said they are thinking about moving from their homes to find a place where they can feel safe and supported.
“It’s unbelievable that this is happening, but we can let them know how much they are loved and supported by people in their communities,” Graci says. “Let’s talk about how you assert your LGBTQ+ students. If you’ve been thinking about coming to a peer support meeting, now it’s more important than ever. If you’ve been thinking about wanting to learn more, please come, to navigate your journey.”