SF school students walk out in protest of anti-trans laws

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday May 17, 2022
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About 250 students from San Francisco's James Denman Middle School walked out of their classes May 17 to protest anti-LGBTQ laws in other states. Photo: Rick Gerharter
About 250 students from San Francisco's James Denman Middle School walked out of their classes May 17 to protest anti-LGBTQ laws in other states. Photo: Rick Gerharter

About 250 middle school students in San Francisco took to the streets — well, the sidewalk — May 17 and made it clear they stood opposed to the anti-LGBTQ actions of state governments around the country.

The students used the observance of International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, or IDAHOBIT, to stage the short walkout.

Nearly a third of the 900 students at James Denman Middle School in Balboa Park poured down the stairs of the entry to the school at 10 a.m. to participate in a student-led — and faculty approved — walkout, protesting the rising tide of state-sponsored anti-LGBTQ legislation in places like Florida, Texas, Alabama, and numerous other states.

Organized by the school's 20-member Diversity Club, the students carried signs and banners bearing messages like "Proud ally," "Born this way," and "Don't label us." They gathered in front of the school in a cacophony of excited voices, calls from teachers and staff to stay out of the street, and chanting.

"Safe schools under attack! What do we do?" demanded the chant leader. "Stand up! Fight back!" the crowd roared in return.

"Supportive families under attack! What do we do?" the leader called out. "Stand up! Fight back!" the students responded.

Jamieson Leadbetter, left, and Maren Brooks, two students at James Denman Middle School, organized the May 17 walkout to protest anti-LGBTQ laws in other states. Photo by Rick Gerharter  

Watching over all this with clear excitement was 14-year-old eighth grade student Jamieson Leadbetter, who had spent the previous three months planning and organizing the event along with other Diversity Club members. It was prompted, he said, by Florida's notorious "Don't Say Gay" bill, signed into law March 28 by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.

The law bans the teaching of LGBTQ topics in kindergarten through third grades and has led to widespread concerns that teachers in the older grades will self-censure their teaching on the subject for fear of being sued.

"We realized that this is, like, really impacting people's lives," said San Francisco student Maren Brooks, 14, a member of the Diversity Club.

"It was affecting students like us and, so, we had to do something about it," added Leadbetter. "Everyone should have the right to be who they want to be."

Both students agreed that their school had a, "for the most part, welcoming environment." But Brooks told the Bay Area Reporter, "in other places, in Florida, it can be really dangerous to not have that support system for a really important time in their lives. And I think that these laws are just making it more dangerous for kids who may have had a safe place at school but who aren't going to have that anymore."

Sara Hwang, an eighth grader and another member of the Diversity Club, said it was important for her and her classmates to demonstrate against the anti-LGBTQ laws.

"We're lucky enough to be growing up in San Francisco," said Hwang, who described herself as questioning. The city "is completely urban and very diverse. And I can't imagine a life where you´re being persecuted for loving someone."

Hwang spoke enthusiastically about the Diversity Club, and about the walkout in particular.

"It's been great," she said. "It's just really touching to know that everybody cares, everybody acknowledges these are human rights."

Earlier in the day, President Joe Biden issued a statement in observance of the international day in Washington, D.C. Biden noted "there has been much progress'' but lamented the "disturbing setbacks and rising hate and violence targeting LGBTQI+ people in the United States and around the world."

"And make no mistake," Biden's statement continued. "Hateful legislative attacks against members of our own LGBTQI+ community cannot be tolerated in America or anywhere else. They spur discrimination and can stoke violence. And they are rooted in the same ignorance and intolerance that we see around the world. Hate is hate — and all of us have a responsibility to speak out against hate wherever we find it."

In her own IDAHOBIT statement House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) pledged that "today, and every day, we recommit to rooting out discrimination from our schools, our workplaces and the very fabric of our society."

As the Denman demonstrators continued their rally, teachers and staff worked to contain them, motioning them off the street and back onto the sidewalk and were, overall, pleased to see their students taking a public stand.

"I'm just proud of them for standing up for LGBTQ rights," said Principal Lisa Jovick, who has led the San Francisco Unified School District middle school for the past five years. The students feel safe at James Denman, she said, adding that she wasn't surprised so many of the students turned out for the event.

"I'm not surprised at all," she said. "It's a very diverse community."

Naroth Than, a seventh grade counselor at the school for the past five years, called the event "amazing."

"It's amazing to see our youth coming out and speaking up for it, or even just showing their faces," she said. "I'm very proud of them and I'm proud to be part of the Denman team and the Denman community."

As the situation for LGBTQ students seems to deteriorate in other parts of the country, Than said she hoped she´d see more events like this.

"I hope so, for this movement and for a lot of other rights, that, you know, people deserve to have as humans here in the world," said Than. "And I know that I will see more of this from our Denman community and our kids."

As the half-hour walkout came to a close — everyone had to get back to class, after all — the students, still a riot of excitement and chatter, followed school staff members down the sidewalk to a gate leading back onto school grounds.

Social worker Geraldine Punazalan, watching the parade of students disappear through the gate, looked happy. She was proud of the students, she said, and proud of the support the school has shown for its LGBTQ students.

"This is amazing," she said.

Updated, 5/17/22: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of students Jamieson Leadbetter and Sara Hwang.

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