Lambda’s San Diego School Initiative

Jonathan Vatner
From the March/April 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Going to high school in San Diego now comes with an additional privilege: the chance to discuss contemporary works of LGBTQ literature and history with their authors. Lambda Literary, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit devoted to the promotion of LGBTQ literature, first launched the LGBTQ Writers in Schools program in 2012, in an effort to bring LGBTQ authors to high school and college classrooms across the United States. Last October, in the first partnership of its kind, Lambda teamed up with the San Diego Unified School District to bring the program to classes throughout the entire district—the second largest in California, with about thirty thousand high school students.

Prior to the new alliance, Writers in Schools had facilitated only nine visits with individual schools since its inception. Tony Valenzuela, the executive director of Lambda Literary, believes that partnering with a school system rather than focusing on individual schools will help increase awareness and adoption of the program. “To make this program work, teachers need to know it exists,” Valenzuela says. San Diego Unified will help connect its schools with Lambda and promote the program, and also aims to arrange an author visit for each of its twenty-four high schools by the end of the school year.

The state of California recently implemented the FAIR Education Act, which requires public schools to teach the history, culture, and literature of LGBTQ people. Writers in Schools is a way of doing just that. “We make sure to give students and staff access to materials that might not come their way otherwise,” says Linda Trousdale, a high school program manager for San Diego Unified who helped implement the new endeavor. “We’d like to have at least one opportunity in every school, if not more.”

Teachers can request an author visit or video chat with their class or with the school’s student-run LGBTQ extracurricular organization, and Lambda Literary will handle the rest. If teachers don’t have a specific author or work in mind, Valenzuela recommends they choose one from the Rainbow List, the American Library Association’s annual selection of LGBTQ-themed literature for children and young adults.

Valenzuela hopes Lambda Literary’s new partnership with San Diego Unified will help generate similar ones in other school systems throughout the country. He has already fielded queries from school districts in New York and Colorado, whose representatives have expressed interest in forming their own Writers in Schools partnerships. In the meantime, there has been a good deal of positive feedback from students. “For students in the closet, the affirmative self-identity they get through LGBTQ literature can be very important to them in their coming-out process,” says Valenzuela. “For out students, being exposed to artists in their community is really valuable. And from feedback we’ve gotten, even straight students are really hungry to learn about the LGBTQ experience and to be exposed to LGBTQ writers.”

Meanwhile, participating authors, who take part on a volunteer basis, appreciate the chance to talk about their work with a classroom of engaged students. Nick Burd, who Skyped with a group of high school students at Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga, California, when Writers in Schools was just being introduced, was surprised at how much the conversation moved him. “The experience of high schoolers is a lot more intense and personal than that of older readers,” Burd says. The students he spoke with, who identified as LGBTQ and aspired to become professional writers, asked questions about Burd’s life and work as a queer writer of color, and discussed his young adult novel, The Vast Fields of Ordinary (Dial Books, 2009), a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy learning to navigate his life as a young gay man. “Somebody who’s older might say, ‘This is a good book,’” Burd says. “When they’re that age, they say, ‘This is my life.’”

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is the staff writer for Hue, the alumni magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology.