As 2021 becomes record-breaking year for anti-LGBTQ legislation, Lawrence Rainbow group redoubles drive for inclusion

photo by: Leah Matthews

Rainbow Kids and Families board member Dr. Malati Harris folds T-shirts in April 2021 that will be sold to raise funds for future RKF Pride Packs. The packs are meant to support area families with LGBTQ kids or parents.

While lawmakers in Topeka — and around the nation — are working to exclude transgender kids from certain activities and locations, some families in Lawrence are doing just the opposite: trying to make schools — and life generally — more inclusive for LGBTQ children.

“No one likes you, no one wants you — they’re just getting bombarded by that message every day,” parent Matt Enyart said of the way LGBTQ kids feel amid reports of bans on bathroom use and athletic participation, among other proposals — proposals that just pile on top of already daunting prejudices.

Enyart and his transgender child have “daily” conversations about these issues, he said.

According to advocacy groups, 2021 has been a record-breaking year for discrimination legislation. The Human Rights Campaign has counted at least 117 bills that have been introduced in the current legislative session that target the transgender community — the highest number it has recorded since it began tracking anti-LGBTQ legislation more than 15 years ago, according to a recent report by CNN. These include excluding trans girls from same-gender youth sports, as the Kansas Legislature would like to do, and denying gender-affirming health care for minors, which is now the law in Arkansas. Other proposals, such as one in Iowa, would restrict public school curriculum dealing with LGBTQ issues, and still others, like one in Arkansas would mandate that educators refer to students only by their “biological sex.”

“It’s a really scary time,” Enyart said, especially for children and families who lack support networks. It’s a lonely battle, which is why Enyart and other parents in the Lawrence school district started a group in 2019 called “Rainbow Kids and Families.”

The goal, as the Journal-World reported at the time, was to form a supportive environment for families in the district with LGBTQ kids and/or parents by giving them resources and a welcoming space to gather.

photo by: Michael O. Taylor

Matt Enyart, of Lawrence, is one of the founders of Rainbow Kids and Families.

Since then, the Rainbow initiative has reached out to less urban districts in Douglas County that may have fewer support resources than the Lawrence district.

One of the group’s main objectives is to get a Rainbow “champion” in every elementary school — that is, a teacher or other educator in the building who specifically is knowledgeable and available as a resource to kids and their families.

“There are kids who can’t talk to their parents,” Enyart said. The only place they can begin conversations about gender might be with a school counselor, and that can be “life-saving,” he said. But the key is making sure that such a counselor or teacher actually exists at the elementary level. Waiting until kids become teens to discuss gender and identity issues is unhealthy and counterproductive, Enyart said, noting that, as with any issue, the time to discuss the issue is when it arises, not years later.

Even though Enyart praises Lawrence Superintendent Anthony Lewis and the district generally for its handling of LGBTQ issues, there are still some inconsistencies with how kids are supported in elementary schools, he said.

photo by: Leah Matthews

Rainbow Kids and Families board members Amanda Atkins, a Lawrence elementary school counselor, and Dr. Malati Harris and the children of RKF board parent representative Jo Herrmann all help organize RKF T-shirts in April 2021.

Enyart’s group hopes to bridge those gaps in support by partnering with schools and other entities in the community. To that end, Rainbow Kids and Families has embarked on what it’s calling a spring inclusion drive, which it partially funded through a $10,000 donation from the annual Transformations charitable event.

The drive includes “Pride Packs” for families that include information resources, plus a checklist for parents and teachers on how to create “positive, healthy & inclusive schools.” The checklist, also available on the group’s website, includes questions such as:

• Are you ready for teachable moments? Practice how to respond when you hear students say things like “That’s gay!” “You act like a girl!” or “You’re not a real family because you don’t have a dad!”

• Have you created and implemented clear classroom and schoolwide agreements with your students regarding respect, caring for classmates and not hurting each other with words or actions? Do students know that this means no put-downs about who someone is or who their family is?”

photo by: Leah Matthews

Above is an example of RKF Pride Pack contents. Each pack includes a tote, a shirt for the student, a car sticker, informative text for parents or caregivers, a book on historical figures, and either story books (grades K-2) or chapter books (grades 3-5).

The Pride Packs also include age-appropriate LGBTQ-inclusive books and bright T-shirts and stickers. One of the books is Sara Prager’s “Rainbow Revolutionaries: 50 LGBTQ+ People Who Made History.” The group partnered with the Raven Book Store and River Rat Print and Skate, along with other businesses and individuals who made donations or discounted prices for the effort. Anyone interested in receiving a Pride Pack can sign up on the Rainbow website, www.rainbowkidsandfamilies.org, where T-shirts and other items are also available for purchase; proceeds from such purchases buy more Pride Packs for distribution. The website also features an educational film featuring Rainbow families discussing their experiences.

Enyart’s hope is — especially as lawmakers in Kansas and across the nation focus attention on vulnerable kids, often in attempts to deny their reality — that those kids have somewhere warm and supportive to turn.

“We need universal, inclusive safe spaces for everyone,” he said.

photo by: Leah Matthews

Rainbow Kids and Families board member Adrian Zelvy, a local therapist, prepares an RKF Pride Pack for a local elementary school student and family in April 2021 in Lawrence.

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