By Andy Armano
This series focuses on individuals who give to our community and make a positive impact on the lives of others. Often it is through our personal adversities that we discover who we are and transform the challenges into strength.
Kezia “Kizzy” Gilyard brings their life experience as transgender, non-binary to support the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual/Ally, and Pansexual (LGBTQIAP) students in Broward county. As an advocate, educator, and mediator, Kizzy has a direct impact on the lives of hundreds of students each year. The impact of Kizzy’s work is felt today and will crescendo in the future as these young students become the next generation of leaders.
AA: Tell us a bit about what you do on a day-to-day basis.
KG: I exclusively serve the needs of LGBTQIAP students, staff, and families. I mostly work with transgender students, and I mostly work with students in elementary schools. A large part of what I do is training and answering questions through emails and phone calls, but I do provide support in response to specific incidents. One of the first matters I handled involved an elementary school boy with two moms. One Father’s Day, his art teacher said, “Oh, we’re going to make Father’s Day cards.” This brilliant little boy said, “Well, I don’t have a father. I have two moms.” The teacher responded to him in front of the whole class, “No, that’s not correct. You have to have a father. Maybe your mom lied to you.” The child went home in tears, confused and full of questions. I worked with the mothers and the student to help resolve the situation. I also implement sensitivity trainings for staff members and board administrators so that the schools themselves work to prevent these things from happening.
AA: Do you find this sort of situation to be common in the schools you serve?
KG: Unfortunately there are overtly homophobic, trans-phobic people out there. But the vast majority of the incidents that I encounter arise from accidental ignorance. On the other end of the spectrum, I have a lot of educators who want to do the right thing, but they’re still afraid of parental backlash.
A good example would be a security officer’s response to bathroom usage. A transgender student might use the restroom, they’ll come out and be confronted by security. I have even heard of security asking a question along the line of, “What genitals do you have?” To many people, I am sure that is clearly a completely inappropriate to ask a child, but for some people, they just don’t know any better. When I explain to them why that’s so problematic, it’s not uncommon for them to be extremely apologetic, saying “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize.”
AA: What are some other challenges to protecting LGBTQIAP students?
KG: We had a student who was in fourth grade who was transitioning. In order to help that student, all the fourth, fifth and sixth graders in that school read the book, “I Am Jazz,” which is about Jazz Jennings who transitioned as a child. There was a parent who got really upset and disruptive and she threatened to sue.
Administrators sometimes drag their feet out of fear of those parents, which puts the kids at risk. The suicide rate is still very high for LGBTQIAP youth. With transgender kids, about 42% of them attempt suicide before their 21st birthday.
AA: What have you found challenging about your job?
KG: Personally, I’ve had a number of students either die or attempt suicide. It’s hard being the only person to support 235 schools. Sometimes, I feel like if I take a sick day I can’t but think, “What’s going to happen to this kid in this school?” Holding onto that burden has been really difficult for me mental health wise. So, as much as this job fulfills me, it can be very draining.
AA: What’s something about your job that surprised you?
KG: I didn’t expect the students to be so moved by knowing me – an openly queer person, openly trans person. That was beautifully shocking to me. I try to be as authentic as possible, and I try to be as open as possible, even though sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. I’ll talk to the students about my coming out story. I’ll talk to the students about my partner, my top surgery … things that are usually very private. And they’re just on the edge of their seats. I didn’t expect that to happen.
AA: Tell me about an experience that makes it all worth it.
KG: When I attend Gay Student Association (GSA) conferences with students. It’s a wonderful feeling to see children feel at home and comfortable being themselves. We frame it as a pride event. So the kids will come with their flags and they’ll have on their best pride gear that they can’t wear anywhere else, you know? It’s beautiful to see them laughing and smiling.
I once saw a student who is very masculine presenting, but ended up being a transgender girl. She did not have a supportive family, so she could not present as a girl yet. At one conference, I saw her come around the corner, screaming to her friends, “I used the girls bathroom for the first time!” That was just such a beautiful experience and I almost cried.