Robt Seda-Schreiber, an art teacher in the Kreps Middle School in East Windsor, New Jersey, runs that school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. Named in June as the National Education Association’s Social Justice Activist of the Year, he is the first recipient of that honor recognized for his work in LGBTQ advocacy. A straight married father and Brooklyn native, Seda-Schreiber has been a teacher for 25 years and, in 2005, spent a year in Japan as a Fulbright Scholar.
Gay City News recently chatted with him.
MICHAEL LUONGO: How does it feel to be NEA’s Social Justice Activist of the Year?
ROBT SEDA-SCHREIBER: It is extremely gratifying to be recognized on such a grand level, to be chosen amongst so many hundreds of other qualified and dedicated teachers, but I am even more thrilled that it will allow me the platform to speak on behalf of all the kids I serve and all the other students I can help exponentially — to be a voice for the voiceless, a friend to the friendless.
I realize though that the award is not only a validation of what I have done to this point in my career, but also a call to arms for what I will do moving forward with the rest of my career. I strongly intend and solemnly promise to move this forward with the love, respect, and strength of character it deserves and demands.
I fully appreciate the support I received from my family, students, colleagues, union members, and folks from across the country who voted for me. In lieu of trying to quantify what is immeasurable, I will simply and truly try to live up to the confidence and the belief they have shown in me every day, and try my absolute best to make a difference in their honor.
My gratitude for receiving this title will be shown a hundredfold in the actions I take to continue to deserve it. I know fully that now is when the real work begins.
ML: How important is it for students to have allies in the classroom, if they are LGBTQ or wondering about their sexuality?
RSS: GSA’s are love, and love is contagious. The very existence of Gay-Straight Alliances saves lives every day, both literally and figuratively. Being in a GSA keeps kids off the streets, out of the hospitals, away from the jails, safe from their own hands and, even more so, the hands of others.
GSA’s are not just for LGBTQIA kids, either — they are in no way exclusionary, hence the word straight in the very name of the group. It’s a safe space for all kids to listen to and to learn from each other, lend a hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on.
They are a wonderful and inspiring microcosm of community-building: kids reaching out to other kids, creating relationships, and forming identities through conversation, mutual understanding, and respect. Simply hearing and seeing each other and simply being heard and being seen, for some of them, for the very first time. GSA’s make kids feel safer, more accepted, and, indeed, more loved. Sometimes, this is what allows some students to get up in the morning, traverse those very intimidating hallways, and make it through difficult days.
ML: How different is all of this from what you remember for LGBTQ youth when you were in middle school?
RSS: When I was 12, my parents told me my beloved Uncle Les is gay. He couldn’t come out until now because his father, my Poppy, wouldn’t have understood. Now sadly my Poppy is dead, but my uncle can finally be who he has always been.
When I was an adolescent, these issues of identity, especially for youth, were shrouded in secrecy and thereby imbued with a sense of shame and wrongness. Nowadays, it is easier in that we realize how important it is to recognize and respect each child, no matter how they represent or indeed whom they love. But it is also important to know that we still have a very long and arduous journey to equality and these kids still face tremendous bullying and hardship in the form of physical, emotional, and psychological violence. We need to love, respect, and protect all our students as well as our colleagues and the folks in the greater community.
ML: What is your favorite success story in helping a young person, or for the GSA?
RSS: The Kreps School Gay-Straight Alliance invited Vincent V., a student from another district who because of his otherness was being bullied to the extent that he had to be home-schooled, to one of our Rainbow Dances. He came to the dance and realized there were other kids and, indeed, other adults who accepted and, in fact, celebrated him. I became his advocate and his family’s partner in a difficult legal battle with his district, resulting in that district paying for Vincent to attend our school.
Safe at our school, Vincent flourishe, finally able to realize who he was and who she had always been. Vincent became Vee, now Vita, our school’s first transgender student and she allowed me the honor of helping her with that transition. Vee’s bravery and self-realization was a gift to our entire school and our greater community and to me personally: a concrete example of the power of outreach, an abstract made very real. A life saved; a life realized. An extraordinary story indeed, but not uncommon in schools that allow GSA’s to exist.
ML: What do the kids say about what it feels like to march in a Pride Parade?
RSS: Marching in Asbury’s New Jersey Pride allowed my kids to feel a sense of pride in who they are and gave them a sense of a greater community. Seeing them take in all that love and acceptance literally brought tears to my eyes. It is an experience I think that opened their eyes and their hearts. It gave them strength and a sense of what is right and good in all people.
ML: Do you see things getting harder or easier for LGBTQ youth in the current climate of the country?
RSS: The future for LGBTQ folks of all ages is fraught with much peril but one that I truly believe has hope in equal measure. We, of course. have an administration that is not only unsupportive but has indeed shown itself to be willfully ignorant and obstinate and fearful and hateful, but it’s in these dark times that we find our strength in each other and in our community. It may not seem like it, but these are our times. We will persevere, we will rise up, we will come out the other side — stronger, faster, better — with more folks on our side and at our backs. Love always has and always will trump hate. Remember that arc of justice will bend only if we do the good works to make it so.
ML: What are your plans for the school year related to the GSA?
RSS: The Kreps School Gay-Straight Alliance plans to have another fabulous year indeed. We will continue to host our fabulous Rainbow, Superhero, and various themed dances, bequeath our annual scholarship awards given to our inspirational graduates, hold our weekly meetings open to any and all students, faculty, and community members, present informational and motivational workshops, sell our fashion-forward T-shirts to raise monies for various charities, and many more fun and exciting and inspiring activities. This year we also plan to donate a Rainbow Flag to our school to be hung centrally in our cafeteria as a symbol of our pride and our sense of acceptance and community within the school!
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