North Carolina

Gay kids were getting bullied. So an NC school called in the drag queens.

Editor’s note: Since we first reported this story May 15, the drag queens’ presentation to students at a Durham charter school has been picked up by national media outlets including CNN. Listen to the latest story on the NPR show “Here & Now” at 1 p.m. Thursday, May 30, on WUNC 91.5 FM and online.

When eighth-grade teacher Taylor Schmidt realized his LGBT students faced more bullying and other problems than their peers, he decided to call in some unusual help: local drag queens.

Several LGBT students had left Central Park School for Children in Durham because of “incidents of targeting, harassment, and bullying,” he said.

“Our data was indicating that we had a problem,” he said. “We were not immune to the state and national trends.”

In a 2018 national survey of over 12,000 students by the Human Rights Campaign, 70% of LGBT students reported being bullied because of their LGBT identity.

Schmidt and Schara Brooks, a fellow eighth-grade teacher at the progressive charter school in Durham, began to look for new ways to help.

“If we’re going to be a school that’s focused on equity and justice, and if we’re going to be a school that believes in the act of liberation, we need to be creative with our approach,” Schmidt said.

They decided that one answer to bullying might be to focus on joy.

Drag queens Vivica C. Coxx and Stormie Daie provided plenty at the school’s Pride & Liberation Event this week.

Gowns and glitter

Coxx, the alter-ego of Durham Pride’s lead organizer Justin Clapp, showed off a wardrobe of cocktail dresses and glitter-drenched gowns.

After her first song (“Big, Blonde and Beautiful” from “Hairspray”) she asked the audience of over 200 middle-school students if they were proud of their school.

“You should be proud of Central Park School for Children,” Coxx said. “You have a famous person standing in front of you who wishes I had this experience when I was your age.”

In between Beyoncé and Nikki Minaj songs, Coxx and Daie connected with the students about growing up in Durham and what it was like to feel different, slipping in quick lessons about LGBT history along the way.

For one song, Daie swirled a floor-length skirt, each layer of fabric a different color of the rainbow. Cheers erupted when she pulled the skirt off to reveal a gold jumpsuit and knee-high gold boots.

“Only in my hometown could something like this happen,” said Daie, aka environmental scientist Raafe Purnsley.

The response from the students was overwhelmingly positive.

For each student who sank down into their hoodies, another dozen bounced in their seats or danced in the aisles.

In a survey afterward, a fifth-grader said: “I really, really, loved the Pride and Liberation celebration. I think it really showed and maybe helped others who are LGBTQ+ really see that they are not alone and that they can really express who they are.”

“Durham is very one of the most welcoming communities,” a seventh-grader wrote “but we still do always have more room to be more welcoming.”

Community leaders

The event also featured the school’s step team and a panel featuring Durham City Council member Vernetta Alston and Helena Cragg, executive director of the LGBTQ Center of Durham.

Schmidt and Brooks said the school invited Coxx, Daie, Alston and Cragg because of their leadership as LGBT people of color in the Durham community.

In February, Alston was invited to speak at Immaculata Catholic School for Black History Month. The school rescinded the invitation after some parents expressed concern, but then re-invited Alston to speak at a later date.

“Everyone, no matter their age, deserves respect for being exactly who they are,” Alston told the Central Park students on Monday.

The Pride & Liberation Event was the finale of a week focused on educating students at the charter school about LGBT history.

In math classes, students learned about Alan Turing, the English mathematician who broke Nazi codes during World War II. In English classes, they studied James Baldwin, the writer and activist whose work highlighted the experiences of black and LGBT Americans. And in science, students learned about Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

Students in kindergarten through fourth grade could also opt into a story hour with Daie. Drag queen story hours have been popping up at school libraries and bookstores across the country since 2015.

Purnsley went to Durham School of the Arts, but he said in an interview that he didn’t fully come out until the summer after his senior year.

“I remember being scared, many times in my high school and middle school experience, to just Google the word ‘gay,’” he said.

“I would have been gobsmacked to go to an assembly and have a drag queen like Vivica C. Coxx tell me that I am someone who is celebrated,” Purnsley said.

National trends

In a letter to parents, Schmidt emphasized what can happen when kids are bullied and harassed.

The youth suicide rate in North Carolina has nearly doubled in the past decade, and LGBTQ youth are particularly at risk, The N&O has reported.

In North Carolina, 16% of all high school students — and 43% of LGBTQ students. — seriously considered killing themselves in 2017, according to a recent report by NC Child.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 8.2% of all high school students in North Carolina attempted suicide in 2017, compared to 35% of transgender high school students.

“We don’t just have a right to do something like this,” said John Heffernan, the school’s director. “We really do it as a responsibility.”

Schmidt said he did get some negative reactions, but from outside the school’s community after internal messaging about the event was posted online.

The school gave families the option to not have their children attend the Pride event, and 10 did.

The charter school’s PTA released a letter supporting the event, and Schmidt called the positive response from parents overwhelming.

Brooks, who has also taught in Pitt County, said she has seen students stand up for their LGBT peers recently, a first in her teaching experience.

“That is extremely powerful to be able to do at thirteen, because we have adults who are still learning those skills,” Brooks said.

Schmidt said he appreciated the unique flexibility of his charter school and hopes what they learn can one day benefit other students.

“As a charter school, we believe that our role in North Carolina is to strengthen and support public schools,” Schmidt said. “If this can be a liberatory event where we liberate not just the bullied but the bullies, where every child can be seen and loved, the dream is that this can be provided to other schools as well.”

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Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.