Pencils, books and hope: Louisville middle school celebrates and embraces LGBTQ+ students during ‘Pride Week’

by Josh Little

While students across the nation, and here in the commonwealth, continue to face LGBTQ+ discrimination, students at Stuart Academy in West Louisville are celebrated for who they are.

Students walking the green and gold-lined halls of Stuart Academy, a middle school located at Valley Station Road in Louisville’s West End, were greeted with reaffirming and inclusive posters and decorations recently as the school kicked off its 2022 Pride Week to celebrate and embrace students who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community. This year’s Pride Week was recognized the week of May 16 through May 20 as a way to show support for students, or scholars as they are referred to on campus, within the community.

Hanging posters and signs with messages such as “we are all human,” “be who you are” and “you deserve a safe space” was something I never thought I would be doing as a child of the Eastern Kentucky school systems in the early 2000s. It shows how much progress the community has made and gave me an overwhelming sense of sincere joy for that little boy who was scared someone might think he was gay because of the music he listened to, the TV shows he watched, the way he dressed, or even the way he sounded.

A bit about me, I began teaching at Stuart in November 2021, and from the beginning, I knew that this school was different than the ones I attended as a child and teenager in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. 

Roaming the halls, I quickly noticed that each classroom at Stuart had small signs on the door that read “This is a safe space” with a rainbow flag sprawled across the background – a teacher even had a pride flag in her classroom (we love to see it). Early into my days of teaching, I wore a sweatshirt in support of Ban Conversion Therapy Kentucky – an organization seeking to ban conversion torture for LGBTQ+ kids in Kentucky) – and was nervous if someone would say anything about said sweatshirt. Someone did say something. A colleague asked me about the shirt and how she could get involved – I was elated and relieved.

Imagine my surprise when I heard there would be a whole week dedicated to celebrating and supporting students of the LGBTQ+ community. The week featured a number of events to highlight the community, including “Express Yourself” day where students were encouraged to wear the colors of the flag that they felt best represented who they are as well as, a day dedicated to teaching students about The Trevor Project (a non-profit that focuses on suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth) and taking donations for the organization. The week ended on a high note as students celebrated “Pride Day Fri-Yay” and adorned themselves in their favorite pajamas. On Friday, student members of the school’s pride clubs – Skittles Club and Rainbow Raiders – gathered for a party to celebrate Pride Week.

According to Stuart Mental Health Practitioner and seventh- and eighth-grade Pride Club Sponsor Dejuan Brown, Pride Week is a culmination of students expressing the need and desire to have an event of its kind on campus.

“The idea of Pride Week came from our LGBTQ+ student groups requesting one,” said Brown. “With many of our queer students not being able to freely socialize with other queer youth or express themselves in their homes, Pride Week is their opportunity to celebrate their uniqueness and be proud of who they are becoming. Our LGBTQ+ youth at Frost and Stuart Academy have done a great job advocating the need to have a space to celebrate and advocate for students of all gender and sexual identities and gender expressions.”

Sixth grade Pride Club Sponsor and Math Teacher Hannah Keenan said having LGBTQ+ clubs at the school makes it a safe and affirming space for the diverse students that make up the campus community.

“Research proves that our LGBTQ+ youth face a higher chance of feeling excluded or victimized, which is why a stronger support system and community in schools is needed,” said Keenan. “I’ve learned so much as an educator with the group and our scholars have as well.”

For me, seeing students lively freely and being accepted and loved as they are filled an empty box that had been left from my childhood as a young student in the mountains and, while progress has been made, there are still leaps and bounds, hoops and jumps to make to ensure that everyone feels safe and welcome in their classrooms. I can’t help but to think of the young LGBTQ+ students in rural areas, Eastern Kentucky included, who do not have the same support system. It’s difficult for me to envision myself, a grown, adult educator hanging the same posters in the halls of my high school today – a sad reality.

The 2022 Stuart Academy Pride Week was made possible by Brown, Keenan, the school administration and the students of Stuart Academy. A week of joy, inclusion and hope.