My name is Ronnie Rivera, I’m comfortable with any/all pronouns and identify as Queer, Taíno, and Puerto Rican. I am one of the coordinators serving out of the department of Gender & Identity Inclusion for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). In this department, we provide services to two historically excluded groups: girls of color and LGBTQ+ students. Outside of MPS, I work at the Courage House MKE—the first and only group home in the state of Wisconsin providing group home housing specifically for LGBTQ+ youth. Additionally, I volunteer as an HIV counselor at BESTD, an STI clinic in Milwaukee.
I am incredibly humbled, honored, excited, overwhelmed, and thankful to be the recipient of GSAFE’s Educator of the Year Award. Writing this article, I am sharing parts of my speech I gave at the GSAFE Celebration of Leadership event while also including pieces of my story. My hope is to foster a fun, positive, and healthy community across the state of Wisconsin for LGBTQ+ folks while also inviting folks to engage in this important and crucial work.
A Family Like a Shield
The year is 2007, and we are big in the Myspace Era! When I was a 14-year-old boy navigating middle school, I was a victim of horrible cyber bullying through Myspace. Several classmates sent me nasty messages and printed my pictures to show students in my 8th grade class my smile—just to make fun of me. Which in hindsight, jokes on them because, look at this smile!
They messaged me things like “He is so girly!” “He is so gay!” “Why does he act like that?” Adult Ronnie would be honored to receive these messages, but 14-year-old Ronnie felt ostracized, hurt, and alone. My father one day found me upset and crying, and he asked me what’s wrong. I bravely confessed that one bully, of the many, was making fun of me and sending me mean messages. I showed him the messages and he said something along the lines of, “I’ll handle this.”
Either that night or the following day, my bully was in our front sala—our front living room—in our house. He was nervously there with his mother, and my Dad made him apologize in front of our whole family. Although I was mortified, there was a piece inside of me that was also thinking “MMMHMMM, THAT’S WHAT’S UP. DON’T MESS WITH ME.”
My journey hasn’t been—and isn’t always—easy. Yet I share this story, not only to honor my protector, my father—gracias, Dad—but to highlight something I really came to understand later in life. I had a family to wrap around me, to shield me, and to love me even when they didn’t understand facets of my being. Although I wasn’t out at the time, I had a family that didn’t kick me out. This is not the experience for a lot of LGBTQ+ youth.
What We Do Here
As I began my career as a school social worker, I always heard the following things, “Ronnie you’re always YOU,” or “You’re a Unicorn.” And I kept thinking “Ok…why do y’all keep gassing me up?” Then it dawned on me, “Oh, snap.” So often our LGBTQ+ youth, more so our black and brown LGBTQ+ youth, do not see teachers or social workers or educators that look like them, can relate to them, and affirm them through a shared identity and experience…while also being competent at their job.
In 2021, for students who took our Youth Risk Behavior Survey in MPS, our LGBTQ+ students attempted suicide 3x more than than their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts. Lemme write that one more time. Our LGBTQ+ students in MPS attempted suicide 3x greater the amount of time than their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts in 2021. The disparities in those numbers may look worse when our LGBTQ+ youth live at the intersection of other marginalizations, whether it be race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language, immigration status, ability status, and other social identity markers. Additionally, those numbers might be affected depending on where a student lives in Wisconsin.
What are we doing in Wisconsin? How different would and could the wellness trajectory of our students, in this state, look like if they had a protector like my father, if they had a Ronnie to ensure they were passing their classes with love and accountability, if they had state organizations like GSAFE advocating for policies and protections for our youth, and if they had local organizations like Diverse & Resilient and The MKE LGBT Community Center, training teachers so that teachers know exactly what LGBTQQIP2SAA means?
There are no regulations that permit LGBTQ+ inclusivity in K–12 schools on a state level in Wisconsin. What that means, is that everything is determined on the local level. In MPS, we work to affirm and honor the identity of our LGBTQ+ students—we are the only public school department in the state of Wisconsin specifically designed to serve K–12 LGBTQ+ youth. Unfortunately, if you drive 15–20 minutes down the road to a neighboring school district, it is a completely different reality. This highlights the issues and inequities that so many educators—and more importantly, youth—struggle with every single day.
Community Comes From Collaboration
I look forward to the day where Gender Sexuality Alliances are not needed, where advocating for gender neutral bathrooms isn’t an uphill battle, where LGBTQ+ awareness trainings are no longer a thing, because in Wisconsin and across the country, everywhere is a safe space for all of us to exist in unity.
Yet the harsh reality is, we are living in trying times. The rights of LGBTQ+ folk continue to be up for debate. Whether it is the Drag Bans, restrictions on gender affirming care, or censorship of books and language in schools, it often feels daunting. If there is something that I have learned during my time in Milwaukee so far, it is that community is essential. And through comunidad we really can create healing, transformative, sustainable change. Although easier said than done, we need to come together, listen to one another, and collaborate because that is how we can ensure the livelihood of all of us.
Again, thank you to GSAFE for bestowing upon me their Educator of the Year award.