Denver LGBTQ+ students share their stories, and joy, in new film for educators

A group of students pose in a library.
“Reclaiming the Narrative: A Film About LGBTQ+ Students” features 16 Denver Public Schools students, pictured here with staff from DPS and the organization A Queer Endeavor. The film will be used for teacher training. (Courtesy Levi Arithson)

The last words in a new film about LGBTQ+ students belong to a 17-year-old named Ca’Shara, who graduated from a Denver high school last month.

“My queer joy is all the time,” Ca’Shara says, a wide smile on her face. “I feel like there never was a time in my life when I wasn’t queer. I feel like we should also celebrate your Black joy, your Latino joy, all these other joys. They’re just as important. And, yeah. That’s me.”

Ca’Shara throws her hands up and scrunches her face into a laugh.

The hourlong film, called “Reclaiming the Narrative: A Film About LGBTQ+ Students,” features 16 Denver Public Schools students speaking about their lives and experiences in school as LGBTQ+ students — and also, for many of them, as Black, Latino, and Indigenous students.

The film was made in partnership with A Queer Endeavor, an organization housed at the University of Colorado-Boulder that provides training to educators about gender and sexual diversity. It will be used in those trainings — in DPS, throughout Colorado, and even nationwide — starting next school year. Though the training sessions are not always mandatory for educators, even in DPS, the filmmakers hope the students’ voices will spur action and change.

“I hope that viewers are open to listening with a full heart,” said Bethy Leonardi, an associate professor at CU Boulder and co-founder of A Queer Endeavor, “and to think carefully about: What can I do? … How can I hold my community accountable to do right by these people?” 

Fewer than half of LGBTQ+ Colorado youth surveyed in the fall of 2021 said they felt like they belonged at their school, according to the results of the biennial Healthy Kids Colorado survey. LGBTQ+ youth were more likely than straight and cisgender youth to report being bullied and also more likely to report attempting suicide. 

But the filmmakers — and the students themselves — didn’t want to focus solely on the ways LGBTQ+ youth are marginalized or oppressed. They also wanted to focus on joy.

“That was the main thing they wanted to talk about,” said Levi Arithson, program manager for LGBTQ+ equity initiatives at DPS. 

Well-meaning adults often want “to feel like they are saving a kid,” Arithson said. But, he added, “We don’t always have to wait until it’s terrible. How do we find the things that are wonderful?”

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Students’ voices are the most powerful

“Reclaiming the Narrative” was filmed over the course of several days in the spring of 2022 with students from 13 DPS high schools. It was funded by a $16,350 grant from Denver-based education nonprofit RootED, which called the film a valuable tool for teacher training.

Though the film features quotes from famous writers and activists such as James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, as well as interviews with scholars from universities across the country, the students’ words are the most impactful. 

“Our students, it’s really their story,” Arithson said. “All we did was make it into a film.”

Here is some of what the students had to say:

“I want to know about the previous queer people in history,” a student named Ronan says in the film. “It feels like in school curriculums, there’s no conversation about queer history.”

A student named Zoë says she has known she was gay since kindergarten. But she never saw LGTBQ+ people in her schools’ curriculum. “If I had seen that since I was in elementary school, I wouldn’t have thought something was wrong with me,” she says.

Helios talks about how empowering it was to do a history project on queer artists. “But then it also made me sad,” they said, “because I realized I’d never heard about any of them.”

Sammy, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls how sometimes their teachers use the wrong pronouns “not because they’re malicious or anything, but just because they don’t remember.” And sometimes, the teachers make a big deal of correcting themselves.

“When they correct themselves, I find more times than not, it will be much, much overexaggerated,” Sammy says. “It’s really just a grammar mistake at the root of it. And if you were to say another grammar mistake, you wouldn’t spend two minutes addressing it to your class. … So I want to treat it more like that. Like ‘Oh, sorry. My bad.’”

A student named Lumi talks about how much they love to write and how it feels “so, so amazing” when someone listens to them “talk about my gay little stories,” the characters in the stories, and how Lumi builds relationships.

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“Hire queer teachers,” a student named Tally says, speaking directly to school administrators. “Hire teachers who are unabashedly and proudly queer.”

“It’s just really hard to be Black and to be part of the queer community,” a student named Karla says. “Because you just have that double standard all the time. 

“Like, ‘well, I’m Black so I have to act a certain way, I have to talk a certain way,’” Karla says. “And then on top of that, ‘oh, I’m queer so I have to still act a certain way, talk a certain way, and not be too loud or not be too happy.’ It’s a lot of restriction that comes along with it. It’s just that level of trying to find yourself and be in both groups but still be just you.”

Zoë talks about how the Black students at her school are disciplined more harshly than the queer students — and how that leads to friction between the groups. “Make sure you’re not singling out anybody just because of what group they’re associated with,” she says.

A student named Eric recalls being asked what queer joy looked like to him and not knowing how to answer. But now Eric says he knows that “it’s self expression, it’s joy, it’s laughter. 

“It’s being authentically you.”

Students hope the film makes a difference at school

In an interview, Lumi said participating in the film gave them a sense of belonging.

“I’ve never been in a place where I felt like I belong except for in that room with all those other students and Levi and Bethy,” they said. “It’s important for students who are queer and (people of color) to gather in a space where they feel welcomed and know that it’s OK to be a person of color and be queer. A lot of schools aren’t really all that accepting of queer students.”

Lumi, 18, graduated from a DPS high school in 2022. As a student, they said they were often afraid to speak up. Their teachers’ behavior contributed to their silence, they said. When their classmates would “say words like ‘fruity’ or use ‘gay’ as an insult, most of the time my teachers would look at those students and just let it go,” Lumi said. “That’s what made me so afraid.”

Although their school had a club for LGBTQ+ students, Lumi said the school didn’t provide much support other than a classroom for club meetings, and they often felt like they didn’t have a voice. Lumi said the film offered them another opportunity.

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“It was so exciting to see myself up on that screen and realize I made a difference,” they said.

Ca’Shara recalled going to a premiere of the film earlier this month. Afterward, she said educators in the audience came up to her and told her how moved they were. 

“They gave me unconditional love,” Ca’Shara said in an interview. “I’d love to see teachers — when you see students who are different and all of that, that unconditional love that you might have felt for the people in the film, put that into the classroom. 

“You see students from different backgrounds? Support and love them.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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