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Schooling His Critics

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HISD superintendent Richard Carranza talks bathrooms, queer-inclusive curriculum, and more.

By John Wright

It was August 22, 2016, and Richard Carranza was touring campuses during his first day as superintendent of the Houston Independent School District.

One day before, a federal judge in Texas had issued an injunction barring the Obama administration from implementing guidance saying public schools should allow transgender students to use restrooms based on their gender identity.

As Carranza walked the hallways, a reporter representing Fusion.net approached him and asked about the injunction. Carranza says his response was unrehearsed and came from the heart. “I think kids are human beings, and I think a human being should be treated like a human being, so I have to look at what they said in particular about the transgender bathroom law,” Carranza said, in a video that went viral on social media.

“I can tell you in my former experience—I spent seven years, almost eight years, in San Francisco—we had transgender bathrooms the entire time I was there, [and we] never had one issue,” he added. “[There were] zero reported issues with a transgender restroom, so I think we need to kind of peel the onion. Is it really about the restroom, or is it about something else?”

Not surprisingly, Carranza’s comments did not go over well with anti-LGBTQ groups, including the Houston Area Pastor Council. But the new leader of the state’s largest school district was unfazed by any backlash. In fact, months later, Carranza doubled down on his vocal and unprecedented support for equality when he publicly suggested that LGBTQ studies be added to the district’s U.S. history curriculum.

Midway through his second year in the job, Carranza sat down with OutSmart to discuss these and other issues.

John Wright: After all your time in San Francisco, how difficult was the transition to Texas?
Richard Carranza: A lot of the issues are kind of the same, as it pertains to education. You just change the faces, change the neighborhoods, and change the names. I think the difference here is obviously the politics in Texas are a little different from California, and the politics in Houston are a little different from San Francisco. But I’ve been really impressed with how liberal some of the social thought is here in Houston, and I’ve found that we have a lot of allies who are like-minded.

People think San Francisco is this far-left liberal bastion. It’s not. So even in San Francisco, when we were working for LGBTQ student rights and we were talking about bathrooms there, there were people who just didn’t agree with it. I haven’t done the per-capita analysis, but I would assume there are probably more people in Texas who are contrary to that point of view. But everywhere I’ve been, when we have talked about the rights of students, especially as it pertains to LGBTQ, there are people who speak up. So I’m not bothered by the fact that people have a different point of view.

Again, my eye is always toward making sure that our students are being served. And obviously, the values of the community are important, but I also think LGBTQ students and their families are part of the community, so their voices need to be heard as well.

After you suggested adding LGBTQ studies to the history curriculum, the Houston Area Pastor Council said you needed to understand that you are in Texas now, not California. What is your response to that?
Well, I absolutely recognize I’m in America, and in America we have civil rights. We have the right to not only know our history, but to study our history, and I think that the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights apply to everybody, regardless of religion, creed, sexual orientation. So, last time I checked, Houston is in America, and Texas is in America, and I’m in America. I’m proud of the fact that we have all those protections.

At the time, you said discussions about adding LGBTQ studies to the curriculum were “just beginning.” What did you mean by that?
I think it’s pretty clear that if you look at what is taught in the schools, it should be reflective of who the community is. When you think about American history, there are a lot of components. There’s a definite history of the African-American experience in America. That should be part of what we study in schools. For the Hispanics and Latinos, there’s a whole history—in Texas especially. And likewise, there are many across the country who would say the LGBTQ civil-rights movement is part of the civil-rights movement, in terms of making sure that all segments of society are covered by the Bill of Rights.

So, as we are looking at what is being taught in our schools, we’re starting to engage our teachers and our community members around what those other topics should look like. And that’s all that I was referring to when I made that comment. We’re not going to say, “That’s taboo and we can’t talk about that.” Actually, you’re probably sitting in class with four, five, or six students who are in the very struggle of that civil-rights movement. So, we’re not going to shy away from identifying what should be part of our collective history. That’s all I was saying. It’s not like we’re going to replace American history tomorrow and have an LGBTQ class, or have a pure Mexican history class. Could that eventually develop? We’ll see, but we’re not going to stifle that.

But wouldn’t such a class run afoul of the state’s “no homo promo” law, which prohibits teachers from discussing LGBTQ issues in a positive light?
Well, I think we should have a conversation. And that’s what’s so ironic and actually funny about the people who got very unglued about the comment. It’s not like there’s a brand-new class that we’re rolling out tomorrow. This is the start of a conversation, and we’re not going to shy away from topics. There’s a whole lot of bureaucracy that has to happen to make it happen.

The only voices that are heard out there can’t be the voices that say you can’t do this. And it’s really not just me as a superintendent—there are LGBTQ youth and families in our community, living and breathing in our community, who have been here for years. My being able to burst that little bubble is just an indication to folks that we’re going to have conversations about that, and there’s nothing wrong with having conversations, and being thoughtful, and being deliberate, and making sure that we’re not letting that conversation get framed as, “There’s an LGBTQ takeover of the curriculum.”

With regard to trans restroom access, you said we need to “peel the onion.” What do you think is underneath?
Look, students have rights in schools, and why are we so concerned about where a student goes to urinate? If a student’s gotta go, they’ve gotta go. I’ve walked through a lot of airports, and every airport I’ve walked through, there’s always a multi-use bathroom. So why is it a big deal in school but it’s not a big deal in public?

It’s not really about where kids are going to the restrooms. Let’s peel back the onion. By that I mean it’s really about this issue of conservatism, social conservatism, and another political agenda—not serving kids. I’m not interested in being part of a conversation that’s just solely a political agenda for anything, except making sure that our students are being served, that we have environments created that are safe for students. [And] when you look at what group of students has the highest propensity for suicide [and] one of the highest rates of dropout, it’s LGBTQ students. So why are we going to perpetuate that kind of an environment in schools, when that’s not good for students?

As a second-generation Mexican-American, how difficult has it been for you to watch recent anti-immigrant attacks at the state and federal level, including President Trump’s repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy?
It’s profoundly troubling. And I would be profoundly troubled if [Trump] was talking about banning Chinese students. Again, you have to know your history. There has to be this recognition that a good swath of the Southwestern United States at one time was part of Mexico. There are rich cultural histories and traditions that go back thousands of years. So there has to be this recognition that while we are a sovereign nation—and that’s fine and good—when you start demonizing groups of people, and then you start acting upon that and memorializing that in law, then you have to ask yourself the question: is that the kind of democracy we are? I would say it’s not.

What can the LGBTQ community do to support you and HISD?Obviously, the first thing would be getting involved at the school-site level. That’s always really important, and we can always use that kind of support. But I also think it’s important that all constituents are politically savvy, and that you don’t take any elections for granted. It’s also really important that when there is a conversation (whether it’s in the op-ed pages or on Twitter) where people take offense at the stance that the district is taking in support of our LGBTQ students and families, there should be an equal response from those who are actually being talked about. I think that many times we don’t have time for that, but I think we have to make time for that.

This article appears in the March 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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John Wright

John Wright is the editor of OutSmart magazine. He has spent two decades in the mainstream and LGBTQ media. Most recently, he served as senior editor of Dallas Voice, and covered LGBTQ issues in the state Legislature for The Texas Observer. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Wright earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He resides in the EaDo area of Houston, where he is currently remodeling a 1930s row house.
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