Christian Zsilavetz on Affirming LGBTQ Youth

Christian Zsilavetz joins us to discuss the importance of being an ally and advocate for LGBTQ kids and his personal experiences as a transman and educator.

  • Christian discusses the school he founded
  • The risks LGBTQ youth face in their schools and personal lives
  • Civil rights for the LGBTQ community
  • Available resources in the Atlanta community
  • The importance of providing support to LGBTQ youth because of the prevalence of homelessness, drug addiction and risky behaviors
  • LGBTQ Rights in schools
  • Changing perceptions of the trans community
  • Call to action – what everyone can do to support LGBTQ youth and be an ally


Susan Cooper  0:00 
Welcome to Inclusion Catalyst with your hosts Mickey Desai and Susan Cooper. We invite diversity leaders to the table to deconstruct complex social justice issues and showcase the best inclusion practices in our workplaces and our communities.

Mickey Desai  0:17 
Hello, and welcome to the inclusion catalyst. This is Mickey Desai. I’m here with my co host, Susan Cooper and Susan’s got a fascinating guests lined up for us today. Susan, would you do us the honor of introductions

Susan Cooper  0:28 
I’d love to. With us today is Christian Zsilavetz. He is a queer identified transman, a teacher, a dad and LGBTQ youth advocate. Welcome to the podcast, Christian.

Christian Zsilavetz  0:40 
Thank you so much for having me today.

Susan Cooper  0:43 
We’re glad you’re here. So Christian, you live in my neighborhood. And I first met you on Facebook, online and saw just all the wonderful things that that you’re doing and the school that you founded. Tell us a little bit about the school that you founded.

Christian Zsilavetz  0:58 
Well, thank you for asking. About five, let’s see about five years ago, it came to mind to me that we really had a need here for a school that was openly affirming of LGBTQ, and questioning youth, educators and families. And of course, any allies who feel like this is a community that they really like to hang around with. And the founder of Hess Academy which is also in our neighborhood, Kristin has said, “Why don’t you go ahead and start that school”. And so that was the catalyst for (talking about catalysts) that was the catalyst moment for creating Pride School. Pride School Atlanta, which became, after a couple of years, a nonprofit organization with a primary purpose of creating an LGBT affirming school for students of all ages. And we ended up opening up with students ages nine to 16. And we were open for two years, but we also did a ton of work in the community and even though our Organization folded, we still do a ton of work out in the community, for instance, things like this: We had a small group of students who really thrived while with us. And they all got what they needed. In the meantime, we realized we needed to work out in the community more than anything, and serve a lot more than nine kids. And so we folded the school, partially of necessity, but partially because there was a lot more work to be done in the community instead of just with those few kids.

Susan Cooper  2:25 
And so now you’re a you’re a public school teacher, right?

Christian Zsilavetz  2:27 
Yes, I’m actually working for the Dekalb county charter school, Globe Academy. And the great part about working for a charter is that they do their own hiring. And even though discriminatory practices might be present in all of the county, they are not present in a school like this, which is really awesome. And there’s a lot more acceptance here, I think at all levels for families, for educators and for for students, for whoever they are, but especially for LGBT folks. And I’m teaching sixth grade math.

Susan Cooper  2:59 
That’s great. So, why is it so important to provide support to LGBTQ youth?

Christian Zsilavetz  3:07 
That’s a great question. I think that the most important reason is because they are dying the fastest. And they are most subject to self harm to harm from others, to becoming homeless just for becoming open about who they are, they’re more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking, drinking, early sexual behaviors, unwanted pregnancies tend to result. Addiction tends to happen in a in a faster and bigger way in the LGBT community, with adults as well as kids. And they don’t have rights necessarily in every school that they’re in. And so, without more advocating for them from outside their, their school, and outside their families, they generally suffer and they don’t have as many role models out there for them as your typical state as your typical youth. And so the more visible role models they have, the more they can see that they can actually have a life, have a family have a job, and their parents can see that as well. Which is a lot of what parents are afraid of. And that’s why they freak out most of the time.

Mickey Desai  4:12 
Christian, you said they don’t have rights. Could you explain that a little bit?

Christian Zsilavetz  4:16 
Oh, sure. I’m glad to explain why LGBTQ youth don’t have as many rights as their typical counterparts. For instance, there are many schools still were having a same sex date, having a transgender athlete be on the sports team they want to be on or having a homecoming court. That’s not just binary. In other words, just boys and girls versus just people. It’s still a very big deal for there to be visible lesbians and visible gay youth in schools, forming a Gay Straight Alliance, or Gender and Sexuality Alliance is still a challenge in many schools, but especially at the lower grades in middle schools and elementary schools. Where people think is not necessary, because they think kids aren’t talking about this kind of stuff. But of course, they have parents who might be LGBT identified or siblings who are or they’re just experiencing bullying. That’s not necessarily delineated in the anti bullying policies in their schools, about 30 states across the nation don’t have employment protection, housing protection, education protection, and it’s while it’s illegal, it’s illegal to kick your kid out of your home. But it’s also illegal to run away and for LGBT youth who are not welcome in their homes. They don’t have the rights they need in order to complete their education, their their documents can be withheld so that they don’t get to go to college if their parents are not on board with them. And they don’t have a lot of options if they have nowhere to go. Basically, if things go badly at home, which is is really disheartening because 40% of the homeless youth in Atlanta are LGBT youth, and only 10% of the population are and they can’t, they can’t go to a shelter. They can’t go to lost and found because there are under 18. They can only go to drop in center. And so things like that like gender marker changes, using the restroom if you’re a trans kid, using the the locker room that you know you want to use, being called by the right name, even though it’s not legally changed, or being called by the right gender marker. Every school runs its own show, basically, except for maybe the city of Atlanta, to Dekalb County, Wynette County, other counties. Depending on what school you’re in, that depends on what kind of rights you get. And that’s not okay.

Susan Cooper  6:34 
So, what resources are out there for LGBTQ youth?

Christian Zsilavetz  6:39 
It’s an excellent question to ask, you know, what’s out there, especially locally here in Atlanta. There are a variety of LGBT affirming counselors. There’s a variety of LGBT affirming organizations, such as Atlanta Pride, which is a huge organization. There’s the Atlanta Freedom Bands, which is mostly adults, but I think some youth actually joined the band, which is an LGBT and allies band ensemble orchestra jazz band. There are LGBT affirming choruses Vox team, which is a team, you know, news agency here. They have a lot of LGBT youth working for them and volunteering for them. So that’s a great organization to get involved in. The Philip Rush Center, which is the LGBT Center over on Dekalb Avenue, also has a variety of programming for youth, like LGBT groups, trans groups, ways to get involved in different or like whether it’s theater or just get support. There’s a queer prom here, that happens in the spring. This time it happened up that I want to say Northlake Unitarian Church, there’s PFLAG meetings around here which i parents, friends and family of lesbians and gays and trans folk, and the rest of us there are several PFLAG meetings around here for parents families, friends, youth. There’s also a collection of trans support groups for kids and adults and their families. One of them is right in Decatur. It’s called Trans Decatur. And I believe it happens on two Saturdays a month right in downtown Decatur. Gosh, what else is there? There’s there actually is there’s a decent amount of support. But some of the biggest challenge is getting to that or having a parent drive you, having a parent pay for services like therapy. There are medical providers in the area who, especially like Queer Med, which is right in downtown Decatur on Church Street, is a doctor’s office that only serves transgender people. And they serve a lot of transgender youth and they try to make everything accessible to youth and their families. There are many doctors here, even pediatricians who are trans affirming, and LGBT affirming. There’s the feminist Women’s Health Center does a lot of work with queer youth and adults. And that’s right off of 85 off the access road near Clairmont road. So there are and there’s Gay Straight Alliances and Gender and Sexuality Alliances in several areas around inside the perimeter and outside the perimeter. And a lot of it is you’ve got to be in the right place, or you have to be able to get to it or you have to have the time in your day to get to it. There’s also Facebook groups, especially for parents who need to reach out and get connected with other parents. I think it’s more challenging for kids to find kids, where you have vetted groups where you’re not going to have creepy people hanging out on those groups. And there’s always the Trevor Project, which is a national organization, which is a queer youth suicide prevention project has a hotline, they have team groups that are vetted, that they monitor so kids can talk to one another. And people can use, especially queer and trans youth can talk to somebody who understands what they’re going through. So there’s a lot out there.

Mickey Desai  9:59 
Certainly sounds like there’s no shortage of options available for folks who need support.

Christian Zsilavetz  10:04 
You know, in some ways, there’s no shortage. But when it comes to homelessness, and foster youth, that’s the biggest, those are the biggest barriers. Foster Youth don’t have any rights as LGBT kids, they cannot transition. If they’re trans, they can’t change their names. If they’re in a group home, they can be sent away from home for being gay or lesbian, or, you know, harassed horribly, but the homelessness issue. And when you really bottom out as far as like needing to go to treatment for depression, or suicidal ideation or for addiction, that’s where it becomes, it can become pretty challenging, and a lot of our kids bottom out. So while there’s a few treatment centers who are somewhat trans, somewhat LGBT friendly, they’re not necessarily trans friendly, especially for inpatient. And so kids are often put in isolation, just like prisoners, trans prisoners are in our prisons. And thank you can be very difficult for a child to get a placement if they’re transgender especially, but nevermind if they’re obviously gay or lesbian or have come out as gay or lesbian or bi, or any kind of version of queer, but that homelessness, you know, having a place to lay your head at night, and therefore go to school and continue your education. I think we have a long way to go in Atlanta and pretty much every other city. Every state has its own rules about homelessness, but you’re harboring a fugitive if you let a homeless kid stay in your house or in your organization. And so then you can be brought up on charges. So something’s got to change there.

Susan Cooper  11:35 
Wow, that’s intense, harboring a fugitive. So I’ve seen that on your social media persona. You often do Facebook live videos and you post intriguing questions and try to really start a dialogue with the community. How does that go for you? Do get a lot of good response from those. You get a lot of like interesting responses, people answering your provocative questions. participation in the live videos?

Christian Zsilavetz  12:03 
You know? That’s a great question. And I’m so glad you picked up on that. That was one of the things that I was taught early on, when I started doing some media work is to, you know, catch yourself in the moment when the feelings are there or when stuff is really going on, get out there and start interacting with people. And that’s what to do your posts. And also, the interactive feeds are really great because I do get I get queer and trans folks and parents of LGBT folks and friends from all around the country and nevermind around the world who hop on at various times. I moved here from Seattle. So I’ve got some LGBT friends and allies in Seattle who participate in those conversations. I’ve got youth who I’ve met, who are now like 18, or 19, who hop on. There are families who’ve moved from the area and moved across the world and now moved back again, who their parents especially will hop on when you especially if there’s a timezone difference which is really great. And the conversations that happen, whereas they might not meet the needs of every single person from a marketing perspective. They’re really not about marketing. It’s about building community and having people’s voices be heard and have them find one another. Because we’re so busy with our lives that having live conversations with people in person is so difficult for most of us. And for a lot of us who deal with social anxiety. It gives people a chance to interact with each other with each other, be able to collect their thoughts, either write something or not write something or just get a shout out of a whole lot. Oh, and being connected with all these people, many of the people I’ve connected with, have now connected with each other, which, you know, especially for parents, I’ve met parents who’ve either seen my T shirts or seen you know, my our presence on when we had at Pride School Atlanta, a website and all the  media work – the major media work we’ve done as well has also been a great connector. When I did that, you know, building the Facebook presence allowed us to build the social media presence, and therefore get a foothold in, in major media in the area. Between radio we’ve been on public radio several times we were on 106.1 I mean, is that 106.9 had articles in the paper. So being out there encouraging people to, to put themselves out there a little bit is is really helpful. And it’s helpful for me too, because I’ve gained community and I’m a busy Dad. I’m either with my children or working or working on the house. So I need community and if anything that’s happened, it’s helped keep community connected to me, so that I don’t lose touch with the outside world. Because I think that’s the biggest challenge for a lot of people, especially if you deal with depression, that you lose contact with the outside world because leaving the house is just too hard. Or meeting a new person is too hard. But connecting on Facebook and I’ve sent a request to people all over the world who are connected to other people like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence like the Gay Lesbian Softball League, and the Gay Men’s Chorus. And there are Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence chapters all around the country and all around the world. And there are people who raise money for LGBT causes. They used to raise money, mostly for AIDS causes. But it’s really been amazing. And just when I think somebody disappeared, they pop up. And it makes me smile. You know, it makes me happier. And I do struggle with anxiety and depression. And I realized that in the middle of things going really great. When Pride School was kicking off and the ability to connect with the outside with my people. You know, my, my wife is she’s in the community as well, but connecting with other trans men, connecting with connecting trans youth with trans Adults staying active in the community and doing service work, because of my Facebook presence has been. It’s been great. And it’s how we’ve met. Right? I mean, yeah. And here it everything leads to another conversation. And that’s really what I look at them as conversation starters. And a lot of those questions I pose are because somebody asked me, they’re like, Hey, this is what my kids dealing with. Do you know what to do? I’m like, I don’t know. I’ll put it on my Facebook feed and see what people say. Yeah. And we always get answers.

Mickey Desai  16:32 
Yeah, again, Facebook will give you plenty of answers.

Christian Zsilavetz  16:36 
No, we always get answers. And the great part is you get it from people who really need to give the answers. I actually became part of a parents of LGBT support group on Facebook, I help administer it. There’s Oh, there’s almost 4000 parents in this group. from all over the country and Canada and other places around the world already Australia, New Zealand. I mean, beyond and there are many people right here in the area who are on that group, and they need each other, you need more than three people in your life who understand what you’re going through with your kid, so that you don’t out your kid. And you don’t out your family because your kid may change who they are. So if you’re telling everybody in the family, are you telling your best friend, they’re more likely to gossip to. And so I can post questions without putting names on it. You know, I also got to do a blog for GLSEN, which I really like to mention is the Gay Lesbian Straight Educators Network, which has been around for about 30 years now or 40 years, which was formed by a gay educator Kevin Jennings, in the interest of creating community for gay educators, as well as LGBT youth. And that’s where all the Gay Straight Alliances grew out of, and they still go out of today. But I did a blog for them like “Dear trans students from a trans adult”. Now I can’t do that in a regular public school. But I can do that for the entire world because of my media presence. The other day, I wrote that two years ago, I think, a year or two ago, just the other day, I got a tag from somebody at GLSEN national that said, “Hey, a student wants to use your blog post as part of her story. Can you use it?” Like duh? Of course, thank you know, somebody found it. It’s still out there. And just like YouTube, right? I have a YouTube presence as well. It’s not as big anymore. But it gives you a chance for people to pick up on stuff that they would just be googling around for that they wouldn’t necessarily find.

Mickey Desai  18:32 
It sounds like your life as an out trans man has become very fulfilling in a multiple ways.

Christian Zsilavetz  18:39 
Oh, absolutely. I never would have thought 10 years ago or 12 years ago when I transitioned, as a public educator, that you know, who then went back as stealth in a new school and only like five people know I was trans, that I would find myself on the frontlines like this. And part of it was because my boss said, “You know, I think coming out as trans is kind of crosses the personal professional line.” And I said, Well, you know, there’s kids in front of me, I’m a queer man, I’m not a straight white guy with a, with a wife and two kids. I’m a queer trans man with a lesbian wife and two kids, who, who is not being open with the lesbian mom in front of me, whose partner is dying and her daughter is my student, you know, and I can’t tell her hello and family. Because if I come out, like I’m not gay, I’m not Bi. I’m a transman. So I fly under the radar. And, and I’m when I’m mentoring a kid who’s likely trans, but I’m not telling him that I’m trans. Like, why are you having me mentor this kid? If, if he can know that he sees his people right in front of them? And what does that say to a kid? If there’s if they’re adults are supposed to be ashamed of who they are? And what does it say to my children if I have to go to work and tell them you cannot talk about me being trans at school because they could get back to Dekalb county and they could fire me or you know, stuff like that. And I want my kids to be in a school where they are firm for who they are for who their family is, nevermind for who they are. And we’re very careful about where we choose to send our kids to school. We do that, Hey, how are you going to treat you know, our trans queer family? We look for other queer families, we look for other folks who have had experience in the schools. And now I got hired on as an out trans man at Globe. I didn’t have to hedge about who I was. I have a giant rainbow flag hanging in my classroom. Since the day I moved in, in the end of February into my classroom. And just recently, I hung a trans flag in my room. Finally, and three kids asked me about it. They’re like, hey, what flag is that? And I said, Oh, it’s the trans flag as they fly like, I wasn’t freaking out inside. Yeah, yeah. You know, I wasn’t throwing up and I just totally nonchalant. They’re like, see, I told you or I thought it was and they know trans kids. You know, and where some people will say, you know, that has nothing to do with the classroom and like, you talk about your childhood, you talk about your family, you talk about, you know, your life experiences in college. I went to a women’s college. I had women roommates. So the I was a younger sister, not a younger brother. Now I’m a younger brother. I’m a dad, but I’m a trans dad. You know, I didn’t carry my children. But my experience is different than your typical bio dad. But so sometimes I’m still shy about what I say. But there are many open people at my school, which is great. And it sets the tone for families, for queer families and for LGBT youth and kids who are questioning and it’s just growing by the, by the moment really. You know, we’re actually creating more visible staff and going to do some, some training with the staff and possibly with students and with families about LGBT issues and trans issues and you know, how you deal with something when a kid comes out, or how to let the kids know this is a safe space everywhere they go, because that’s the kind of staff this is. There’s so much open mindedness here. It’s a global school. I mean, it’s a dual language immersion school. There’s people from all over the world, families from all over the world, even kind of like ICS in our neighborhood on the International Community School, which is half refugee and half average Dekalb county kids. We chose to have our kids go there, you know, we tried to get in and we got in. And that was actually a model for us to say you’ve got people from all over the world just being themselves, right. That’s what I want Pride School to look like. That’s what I want my school to look like, when I go to work.

Mickey Desai  22:42 
Christian, you’ve talked about various models and concrete steps that you’ve taken to, to do the work that you do. And I looking at the clock. We’ve only got about seven minutes left here. Susan, what do you think we should address in the remainder of our time here and Christian? Can we come back some other day and talk about the actual model and more of the concrete, little pieces that things that you do what’s in your toolkit when you’re when you’re working on these things?

Christian Zsilavetz  23:06 
You know, that’s a great question. I’d be glad to come back another time. Absolutely. Okay. There’s always more conversation to be had. And, you know, and just yesterday, I, you know, I respond to media requests. That’s one thing. I didn’t CBS 46 interview yesterday about LGBT youth in Atlanta for Atlanta Pride that’s going to air in a few weeks.

Susan Cooper  23:26 
Well, I definitely I definitely want to end with a call to action. But first, I wanted to see if we could just touch on. Speaking of visibility, how do you think public perceptions of the trans community have changed over just like the last five years?

Christian Zsilavetz  23:39 
Public perception? That’s a great question. You know, I think because the focus has gotten away from Caitlyn Jenner. You know, she created such an uproar because of her Republican, you know, because of her political views. And just being a little goofy, to be honest. Fortunately, we’ve moved away from that and perceptions of the trans community as just as people as us bunch of freaks. I think has changed for a lot of people, because and but never mind for people of my parents generation who are in their 70s the baby boomers. Now they know at least one trans person. They all know Caitlyn Jenner, everybody of that generation know, knew Bruce Jenner, and knows that he transitioned to her. And so the reality that these people are all around them and they didn’t realize it, I think is amazing. There is more public acceptance of trans youth, especially coming out at a younger age. Some people think it’s, they’re being encouraged, but then they are being encouraged to just be themselves and not hide it for 30 years. As far as trans adults go, there are more people in the mainstream who are coming out as trans or non binary, that it is helping all around. Now, if you take somebody who’s a conservative bent, they may or may not feel that way that the trans community is normalizing, shall we say. Because it’s still unfamiliar to them. But there are plenty of conservative parents who have transgender children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews, I think their way of dealing. People who are not used to dealing with this kind of stuff are getting better at dealing with it in a positive way, and learning that it’s okay to love their children or their grandchildren, especially their grandchildren, they don’t play around. And I think having a foothold in politics now with visibly trans people, it is moving things forward in an in an excellent way.

Susan Cooper  25:35 
So to close out, if our listeners want to get involved and and either, you know, volunteer at any of the organizations you mentioned, or at the very least be good allies to the community, what what should people do?

Christian Zsilavetz  25:48 
I’m so glad you asked for a call to action because the biggest thing that people can do is educate themselves about what LGBT youth especially are facing and never mind the Employment and Housing issues that that young adults and older adults face, if they are an LGBT adults living anywhere across the south, but in many states, there is no job protection. There is no housing protection, there is no guarantee of much of anything or being served at a restaurant. I mean, even in the state of Georgia, we’re not guaranteed to be served at a restaurant or a place of business. And so educating yourself about what the policies are, getting involved in politics, if you’re willing, write your Congressman, write your State Senator, write your State House Representative. And let them know that you care about LGBT youth and adults, and that you want them to have rights. Hand write a letter because they hardly get any. Another thing that you can do is go help raise money for a local nonprofit like Lost and Found Youth which works with homeless LGBT youth as a day drop-in center and also as a Residential center for about a dozen young adults, we’re trying to get their funding. There’s also Atlanta Pride, which is an organization that raises money and does events all year long. And the Atlanta Pride Festival is coming up around October 10 that weekend. And you can join any organization,  march in the parade or go watch the parade or help with one of the events, help raise money. Tell people about what’s going on, I think is one of the most essential things is if you have any kind of social presence, especially social media, find out what’s going on in in the area and tell people about it. So if you hear about a school, that’s LGBT, affirming, put it on your Facebook page, tell your friends somehow talk to your faith community if you’re involved in one about having an LGBT and allies group. If you see something, say something for those of us who are educators or those of us are out in the community. It’s so important that if we see something that’s wrong, we say something and we stop it when we see it, and not be shy about cutting off a homophobic comment or a transphobic comment, or where there’s a gender separation in schools, remind people that we don’t need to separate them by boys and girls. And if you do that, you risk having at least one child severely at risk if they don’t fit in either category. And encourage your schools to have gender neutral restrooms for more than just one kid. Encourage them to create an anti bullying policy that delineates gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation and family status. Make sure your schools have, it says parent and Guardian on their forums and not mother and father. And go to events go to picnics, you know, go, go socialize with other people who have kids like yours. If you have a clear trans kid, look for – you could always contact me if they want to get in touch with other parents who are, who have kids who are LGBT. Especially parents of young trans kids, they’re looking for playdates for their kids, they can contact me on Facebook, or they can just email me And I’d say, you know, just look out for one another. You know, whether that’s at the doctor’s office or anywhere like that, but especially in our schools, and let your schools know that you’re out there and you support the LGBT youth at your schools, and that you can be an out and out a resource if they need it.

Mickey Desai  29:36 
I like the general call to look out for one another. I think that’s how it gets done. Mm hmm. Christian, could you spell Zsilavetz  for us?

Christian Zsilavetz  29:45 
I sure can. Its z as in zebra, s as in Sam, ILA, V as in Victor, E as in Edward,  t as in Tom, z as in zebra. Zsilavetz.

Mickey Desai  29:56 
So it’s Yep. And I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to talk with us today. And I hope we can revisit and, and take a look at more of the nuts and bolts of the programming that we mentioned earlier.

Christian Zsilavetz  30:11 
Absolutely. And I’m always glad to go out and do trainings and such too. So people are welcome to call me for funding for free.

Mickey Desai  30:16 

Susan Cooper  30:17 
Thank you so much, Christian.

Christian Zsilavetz  30:19 
Oh, no, thank you for making this work.

Mickey Desai  30:22 
That’s another episode of the Inclusion Catalyst. Thanks again for joining us. You’ll see us again in about two weeks with another great conversation Talk to you soon. I thank you.

Christian Zsilavetz  30:31 
Thank you so much.

Mickey Desai  30:32 
Thank you, Christian.

Christian Zsilavetz  30:33 
It really heals my soul…

Susan Cooper  30:39 
And that’s it for this episode of Inclusion Catalyst. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and share with your friends and colleagues.