Khalid Sherrod was speaking about some of the complications of carrying his handbag through the halls of Brighton High School, and Tyree Haywood could not believe what he was hearing.
“What!?” Haywood said to nobody in particular.
Then the Another Course to College school student reached down, withdrew his own pink alligator purse, and plopped it on the table. The 18-year-old, who is gay, said he rarely has a problem expressing himself at school. Other students said they look up to him.
It was just what Sherrod, 20, was hoping to hear on Wednesday as the 2016 Brighton High graduate addressed a Boston Public Schools conference held to discuss ways to make the system more welcoming to LGBTQ students.
The first-of-its kind event, which drew 52 students and 21 staff to the Boston Teachers Union headquarters in Dorchester, comes as the school system attempts to better serve a population that is at higher risk for bullying and harassment, even amid growing public acceptance of LGBTQ rights.
The message, delivered by students, graduates, and top administrators, was unanimous: Schools must create a learning environment in which students feel safe and free to express themselves and discuss their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Be proud of every aspect of your identity,” said Superintendent Tommy Chang, who drew on his own experience as a young immigrant coming to school and said he wished he had held onto more of his personal story. “It is your asset. Don’t let other people suppress it.”
Chang sat for a discussion alongside three top administrators, two of whom are gay and one of whom is bisexual. Frances Esparza, assistant superintendent of English language learners, who is gay, said the students should take heart knowing that the system’s leaders share their experiences.
“We’ve sat in your seats, and we’ve walked in your shoes, and we’re strong and proud, and we’re getting stronger and prouder every day,” she said.
Chang solicited input from students and teachers, many of whom participate in the system’s 26 Gay Straight Alliance clubs. He asked how many of them had taken courses that included readings or other materials that they felt represented their identity. Only a few had.
“You don’t see yourself in what you’re learning,” Chang said. “Something has to change here.”
People also asked about bathroom and other accommodations for transgender students. Officials reiterated the system’s policy permitting students to participate in programs and use facilities consistent with their gender identity.
When it builds or renovates schools, the school system also aims to create single-stall accommodations for students who don’t feel comfortable using either gendered restroom.
Other students and teachers asked Chang if the department could devote more resources to the Gay Straight Alliance clubs, and he said he would look into it. Some suggested that such efforts could help convey support for LGBTQ students to the broader school population.
Sherrod said he went to Brighton High confident in his identity, which he believes made him an easy person for students to ask questions about being gay. People could ask him about his style, why he painted his nails but didn’t wear women’s clothes, for example.
The dialogue helped, he said, but it didn’t solve every problem — students speculating about his relationships with straight friends, for instance, or the questions over why he could carry a purse under school rules and girls couldn’t.
Teachers said it’s up to school leaders to create an atmosphere where such questions are handled with minimal conflict.
Danielle Murray, the system’s safe and welcoming schools specialist and a former teacher of Sherrod’s, said the gathering aimed to show representatives from different schools that many strategies work, and that nobody is alone.
“These are the kids who are going home to their same neighborhoods, their same youth groups, their after-school programs, their churches,” she said. “They’re not just on an island by themselves. There’s a community here at BPS for them.”Andy Rosen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.