• Dr. Matt Zakreski

Allyship and the Importance of Pride

Happy #Pride everyone! I'm a proud #lgbtqia advocate and ally.

I thought that I would share a story here that shows the importance of showing up for our #queer folx with whatever roles and platforms that we have available to us. It's a tough story to tell, even if it has a happy(ish) ending. In the interest of setting expectations, this story is about a client of mine who has given me permission to share their story (though I've changed a lot of the identifying information). It contains some homophobic concepts that might be triggering.

"Dr. Matt, do you know any good colleges in the Northeast?"

When Shannon (whose pronouns are they/them) asked me that question, I'll admit that my initial response was one of bemusement. I live in the northeast and yes there are lots of good colleges up here. But Shannon is a junior and they had (so I thought) at least another year before college... and I know that they had planned on going in-state (in Florida) for college for financial concerns.

"Sure I do, why do you ask?"

"Well, I decided to graduate a year early... I need to get out of Florida."

Shannon is 17 years old and they are brilliant. They have engaged in gifted programming since elementary school and have participated in CTY and Davidson Young Scholars. They have gotten amazing grades, been a valued member of their school leadership, won awards in their extracurriculars, and completed over 100 hours of community service. In short, Shannon is the kind of student and person that ANY community would be proud to call their own.

Shannon also came out as gay when they were ten years old. They identify as gender-non binary as well.

While Shannon has experienced some bullying and exclusion based on their #lgbtq identities, Shannon and their parents all described these actions as "mild" and "background noise." The plan was to keep surrounding them with their own people and their activities until they could matriculate at FSU or UF. Even through the first few years of Trump's presidency, things "only got a little bit worse."

Then came Governor Ron DeSantis's "Dont Say Gay" Bill.

For the first time, Shannon felt like a target at school. They feel like their words and actions are being meaningfully policed and monitored by their peers and their teachers. Their anxiety and stress levels have spiked. ("I've never had a panic attack before this year!!" they said, sobbing). Their grades have taken a hit and they're missing more school.

So Shannon is going to college early. They have the grades and the references, as well as the resume and the experience, that makes them a great candidate to start college now. Some people will hear this story and say, "Well, you see? People can just leave the state if they are uncomfortable." And that's missing the point in so many ways.

Because Shannon has been bullied and threatened out of the State, everything changes. Shannon doesn't get to have their senior year with their friends. They don't get to be on homecoming court or go to their senior prom, or do senior week or even get a yearbook. They don't get to share their college journey with their friends.

Additionally, there is a HUGE financial cost. In-state tuition for the University of Florida is $6800/year. At Villanova, one of the schools that they are considering, the tuition is $57,000/year. Yes, scholarships exist, but the reality is that my client is being forced into a decision that is costing them an extra $50,000 per year. This reality is super stressful for them, their parents, and their extended family (who would like to help). And don't start with the "they can just choose a worse/cheaper school" nonsense... obviously they can do that, but the reality remains that this situation wouldn't exist if this homophobia and discriminatory law hadn't been put in place. My client shouldn't have to sacrifice their future because they have identities that some people find problematic.

LGBTQ people exist, regardless of whether it is legal to talk about them. By forcing the conversation inside and away from public spaces, you increase stigma and pain by removing supports and access to services. By refusing to acknowledge someone's humanity, you hurt them emotionally, interpersonally, and psychologically (in addition to the financial costs I mentioned). When these identities intersect with neurodiverse identities, the pain is even more compounded because of the role of education in serving these communities.

A big part of #neurodiversity is having LGBTQ identities. Several studies place the percentage of neurodiverse adults who identify as LGBTQ between 40-70%. If you're going to work with neurodivergent folx, then you've got to be prepared to work with LGBTQ identities. There are lots of resources out there to support this 3E population, and I'm happy to share what I have with you all.

I don't have all the answers, but I learned a lot from working with Shannon. Gifted people can do anything, but they need support and guidance. And the time that we spend bemoaning the existence of a situation (which, to be clear, is infuriating that Florida is being this awful) keeps us stuck. Sometimes, we just have to redirect as much of our energy as possible in solving the problem and taking committed action... even if that action is outside the box.

By the way, Shannon has been accepted into college and will be starting in the fall. They have decided to go as a pre-law major, so they can someday become a professional ally for people like them.

So watch out, those who stand in the way of progress. This generation is smart, passionate, tenacious... and they're coming from you in waves. And I couldn't have more Pride in them.


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