Elm City Montessori School unveils murals celebrating LGTBQ+ identity
The school, which launched one of the first Gender and Sexuality Alliance clubs for New Haven students two years ago, celebrated a new set of murals recognizing the LGBTQ+ community earlier this month.
Students at New Haven’s Elm City Montessori School can now look up to the faces of six LGBTQ+ activists, writers and trailblazing historical figures, who have been newly memorialized in murals along the school’s hallways.
Faculty, students and parents gathered at Elm City Montessori School on May 3 to celebrate the murals’ unveiling. The school collaborated with local artist Kwadwo Adae to paint portraits of six prominent historical LGBTQ+ figures as part of its efforts to create an environment for students to learn about diverse individuals’ stories and experiences while also having the chance to safety express their own identities.
“We live in a world that can be scary, but I encourage you to look at the beauty in every day,” Adae said at the unveiling ceremony. “We are supposed to be stewards of ourselves … and there are so many great examples — from the people on the walls to the teachers that come and work here every day.”
David Weinreb, a magnet resource teacher at the school, started Elm City Montessori’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance two years ago during the pandemic, where its first meetings were held online. The middle school became one of the first in New Haven to have a GSA.
Weinreb told the News that the GSA quickly became popular in the school. Students have participated in marches and protests while speaking up about their beliefs and identities. The school’s GSA also developed workshops and training for friends and families of the school’s students to talk about gender socialization — the process of enforcing children to conform to the societal norms associated with their gender — and about creating safe and affirming spaces for LGBTQ+ students.
Corinne Scott, a fourth grader and student leader who emceed the mural unveiling celebration, told the News that she first attended GSA meetings because she “believes it is okay to be LGBTQ+.” Scott was pleased by the conversations and community at GSA and decided to stay in the club.
Artist Kwadwo Adae has been working with Elm City Montessori School since last May. In his first project with the school, he collaborated with students of all ages to paint a mural of a landscape on one of the school’s walls. This January, the school’s GSA asked Adae to help create safe spaces for youth, particularly in response to the recent spike in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation across the country. After a brainstorming session with GSA student members, he decided to paint a Pride Chameleon on the school’s wall.
Scott said she was excited to work on the chameleon mural with Adae as it was a chance to support the school and the community. She said she “felt like [the mural was] helping [others] to understand the LGBTQ+ community better.”
Later this spring, Adae began working on another set of murals in the school depicting six LGBTQ+ heroes. He finished and presented the murals on May 3, ahead of the celebration. For Adae, the murals became a personal project of growth and exploration.
“I have never encountered these names in school. I didn’t know about many of these people and the contributions that they’ve made to society to the LGBTQ movement.,” Adae said. “It’s important, and it’s interesting, who we choose to … honor and tell our students about [them].”
Through the portraits, Adae wanted to show the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community. The six figures represent diverse gender and sexual identities and people who made contributions to their communities in a range of ways.
Activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera played vital roles in the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 — a series of spontaneous protests in New York City against police raids targeting gay bars — which became a turning point in the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, two prominent queer Black writers, were among the first to write about queer Americans and highlight their experiences in their literary works.
British mathematician Alan Turing broke the German Enigma cipher machine and helped bring an end to World War II, concurrently establishing the theoretical foundations of modern computer science. In 1952, the British government prosecuted Turing for being gay, and the mathematician chose chemical castration as an alternative to prison.
In 1977, Harvey Milk made history as the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. He served 11 months as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, where he introduced a bill banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Adae believes that students and faculty today stand to learn much from the lives of the people he painted.
“I was listening to [Lorde’s] writings on there being no hierarchy of oppression … The same playbook that I’ve seen politically be used against people who are LGBTQ+, … is the same … [as] against people who are Black or people who are just ‘the other,’” Adae said. “These people have figured out ways to navigate these difficult times that we’re living through, and even though they’re not alive to remind us of this, their writings and their words, their works are.”
As part of their greater effort to promote inclusivity, the city’s LGBTQ Youth Task Force and the school’s GSA are collaboratively working to help establish GSAs across all other middle schools in New Haven — currently, only one other has a GSA. With funding from a $20,000 Nellie Mae grant that the Elm City Montessori School GSA received last year, the school’s GSA provides $125 gift cards as seed funding to help other middle schools open GSA clubs.
Weinreb added that Elm City Montessori School invites other schools to visit and talk to students and faculty about what a GSA can be at a middle school. He said that the school wants to be an open book and share its experience with others.
“I’ve learned that GSAs are one of the more specific things that a school can do to build LGBTQ safety for a school,” Weinreb told the News. “We know that students are figuring out their identities before high school and building GSAs in middle schools is priority work.”
According to a New Haven Public Schools Climate Survey released in December 2022, students who identified as nonbinary, transgender or genderqueer had significantly lower perceptions of school safety and belonging.