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#Pride30: Bethy Leonardi, Sara Staley are redefining how students learn about LGBTQ issues

With their Queer Endeavor initiative, the University of Colorado, Boulder, researchers and NBC Out #Pride30 honorees are bringing LGBTQ issues to classrooms.

The story of A Queer Endeavor, a grass-roots organization dedicated to supplying teachers with LGBTQ educational resources, is also the love story of its founders. Both projects began at the same time: at a bar in Boulder, Colorado, where Sara Staley was working on her dissertation in 2010 while pursuing a Ph.D. in literacy studies.

Over two-for-one drinks, Staley said Bethy Leonardi, who was also in graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, sat down next to her and asked her about her dissertation. “No one ever wants to know about your dissertation,” Staley told NBC News. “I thought, ‘Seriously?’”

It wasn’t long before Staley found herself enjoying the conversation. She said she drew inspiration from Leonardi’s work, which focused on LGBTQ issues in education. “I kind of had an awakening,” Staley said.

That awakening would later become A Queer Endeavor. Officially launched in 2014, its mission statement says it aims to create schools that are “safer and more affirming of LGBTQ and gender-expansive youth.”

Leonardi said it has already made great strides in accomplishing its mission. On the verge of tears, she recalled a story about a child in the third grade with two moms who heard a story about a family like his in a classroom for the first time.

“The kid came home and asked his mom, ‘Did you bring a book to school about our family and tell my teacher to read it?’” she said. “And his mom said ‘no.’ When kids get to read about themselves, those moments are really impactful.”

Both Staley and Leonardi were classroom teachers before they began working on A Queer Endeavor, and they said neither of them encountered any mention of LGBTQ issues in any of the education programs they underwent.

“Teachers are hungry to learn how to support their students, but they’ve never been formally prepared to do that,” Staley said. “It’s never been confronted.”

Among the resources A Queer Endeavor provides to teachers who seek their assistance are workshops where Leonardi and Staley work face-to-face with teachers who want to make their classrooms more inclusive. Their website also offers LGBTQ texts for young readers and “queering the classroom” lesson plans for students at all levels of education.

“Our work goes beyond just working on LGBTQ students. We work on the culture of the schools themselves, which tend to be heteronormative and cisnormative,” Leonardi said. “You don’t see LGBTQ people in the curriculum, so we focused on pushing the educational culture in schools to make it more expansive.”

“Queer students aren’t used to hearing about themselves,” she continued. “In educational spaces, they might think, ‘This isn’t a place where we exist.’ You become invisible. It’s almost like you’re not expected to exist in that space.”

Both Leonardi and Staley have their eyes on the future of A Queer Endeavor. Staley said she hopes to make it a hub of professional development tools and for it to become a nationally recognized center.

“We’re in conversations with other people on campus about how to fulfill that dream,” she said. “There’s no end of the project. I don’t think we’re approaching the point where we’ll solve homophobia and transphobia in schools in my lifetime.”

The two are also making plans for the future of their relationship. Leonardi said that while the two aren’t married, they are planning to expand their family. “Then we’ll get married,” she said, “because we might have to.”

“I come from a family of divorce, so I have weird feelings on marriage,” Staley said. “But to make sure we had legal rights to a child, we could get married.”

Staley said she and Leonardi are on a unique journey, one in which they live together and work together. She said this has created stronger ties in their relationship but also presented challenges. “Learning how to grow into that together,” she said. “That’s one of our goals for our future.

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