By Jodi Fortino
A new school year brings new starts — and for Riley Long, this year, it brings several.
He moved to Blue Valley West High School this year after teaching middle school special education in the district for the last three years.
After graduating from the University of Kansas, Long was an AmeriCorps volunteer before traveling to Australia and Europe — but he says teaching felt inevitable.
“I am the oldest, I have two younger brothers so I feel like from a young age, I was always helping take care of them kind of show them the way,” Long said. “I think working with youth… it just kind of led me from there.”
Long and other educators have to cope with a lack of education funding, low pay and frustrated parents.
But he says being transgender adds an extra layer of concerns.
A lot has changed since Long transitioned several years ago. Both Missouri and Kansas have passed anti-trans laws, and parents-rights movements have worked to restrict LGBTQ teachers from talking about their own experiences or teaching material that includes gay, trans or nonbinary people.
It’s prompted Long to take his passion as an educator to work outside the classroom to help businesses, nonprofits and parents better understand and support trans people.
“Living my life as trans can be really difficult and something that a lot of people need to understand more about,” Long said. “It’s kind of an intersection of being able to share who I am, and how to support others that identify this way.”
When he transitioned, Long was able to get hormones and legally change his name. While it wasn’t easy, he said there weren’t laws preventing him from doing so.
He says not everyone has the privilege to transition the way he did, and it can be hard to see trans kids who can’t be their authentic selves.
“That takes a toll on me, because I know what it feels like to be in their shoes, and how badly they just want to be able to be themselves,” Long said. “It just breaks my heart.”
He’s hoping to help where he can, in part through the official start of his trans allyship training called “Trans Teacher Talks.”
Long says his training starts with the basics — like going over what it means to be cisgender or transgender — but it also teaches others about how to better support the trans people in their lives.
He’s been training businesses, universities and local libraries since 2019 on a word-of-mouth basis.
Brandi Higgins recently brought Long to present to the healthcare organization where she works. She met Long through an online support group for parents of trans kids a couple of years ago.
Now, she helps lead a group of LGBTQ parents and parents of LGBTQ kids at work.
Higgins said a new group member said hearing from Long gave them a new perspective of how to be more open and receptive to their LGBTQ coworkers.
She said that many members of the parent group are already supportive of their LGBTQ children, but a lot of parents can have “blinders” when it comes to their own kids, and it helps to hear the perspective from someone within the community.
“He’s been incredibly vulnerable, putting himself out there the way he has,” Higgins said. “Just to hear the amount of information he has to share, I think it’d be valuable for anyone who’s willing to learn more to hear from him.”
Long’s allyship training is just his latest work advocating for the trans community.
Emily High, community engagement director for the Kansas City Center for Inclusion, said Long helped start a gender-affirmation fund and binder exchange program when he was on the group’s board.
High initially met Long at his first-ever allyship training at the Mid-Continent Public Library, where they worked at the time. After just one presentation, Long’s trainings were delayed because of public pushback.
High said Long’s move to officially launch his training now points to the hopelessness that many in the trans community are feeling.
“I think it really says something about not only his resiliency in the face of hatred,” they said. “His kind of optimistic belief in the goodness of people that people can learn and they can let go of harmful mindsets and grow.”
That’s a big part of why Long, who finished his master’s degree as anti-trans laws were surging, decided it was time to fully launch his trainings as a business.
“I feel at times I don’t have any control over laws that are going to be happening that might prevent me from accessing hormones, or whatever,” Long said. “But with this, I can at least control educating people and letting them know ‘How can I be a good ally? And what can I do to support the trans individuals in my life?’”
Despite dedicating so much of his time to trans advocacy, Long says it’s hard to connect with other teachers who understand what he’s going through.
At work, he says he wants to be known as “Riley” and not as a trans person who works at the high school. He also worries about safety concerns because of stereotypes about trans people.
He says that fear may be why other LGBTQ teachers don’t come out in the workplace, making it harder for him to connect with teachers who might share his experiences. He was the only out trans teacher he knew of at his last school.
By moving to a bigger school, he hopes he can connect with others and continue making a difference by educating outside of the classroom.
“I’ll hopefully not only be able to continue having this business, but help a lot of people and make lives easier for a lot of trans people,” Long said.
KCUR 89.3 is Kansas City’s NPR affiliate public radio station. You can read and listen to more of their reporting at kcur.org.