Edit: a previous version of this story stated that there had been no previous LGBTQ+ representation on the Corvallis School Board. This statement was inaccurate.
A supportive voice for LGBTQ+ youth is set on raising inclusivity in our school districts, and it belongs to queer and non-binary human Brandy Fortson, as they run unopposed for a position on the Corvallis School Board. Fortson isn’t the only candidate running unopposed this year — in fact, there are no contested races in the district, in stark contrast to years past. What separates Fortson, however, is the fact that up until their inauguration on May 21, there will have been no prior non-binary representation on the Corvallis school board ever throughout history. Even greater, Fortson is gaining nobility for being the first non-binary individual to hold public office in the state, and possibly the country.
A community organizer and activist, Fortson also holds a position as a paralegal for a local social justice law firm. Their former jobs include being a Skills Trainer II and Qualified Mental Health Associate at the Children’s Farm Home in Corvallis (run by non-profit Trillium Family Services), and a Mental Health Therapist II at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem and Junction City.
Above all else, Fortson takes pride in parenting. Their two children are currently enrolled at elementary and middle school levels, and in the past, they have supported foster children at the high school level. Through their children, Fortson already has a deep insight into the culture and curriculums at our schools. They intend deepen this knowledge in serving and advocating via a platform of equity, diversity, and inclusivity.
“I am really lucky to have the support of the Benton County Democrats, as well as the chapter that I co-chair, Heart of the Valley Democratic Socialists of America,” says Fortson. Their other endorsers include Ward 2 City Councilor Charles Maughan, LBCC School Board Candidate Tony Lapiz, and head of the Lincoln Parent Teacher Association Aaron Lesan.
From Mental Health to Politics
With a chuckle, Fortson says their political career “was an accident, like most things in my life,” summarizing, “car accidents, happy accidents, career changes…”
Fortson’s world was suddenly uprooted last July when they sustained a spinal compression fracture and shattered tibia from a serious car crash while in route to the Children’s Farm Home. Months of strenuous rehabilitation forced Fortson away from direct care work and toward more opportunities “to dive into a lot more altruism and political awareness.”
Many of us will recognize Fortson from local rallies and marches they’ve organized, including the trans visibility rally, the Corvallis stands against fascism rally, and the Corvallis Women’s March, which Fortson helped organized through the local DSA chapter.
Following the accident, Fortson’s sister and niece moved from Portland to help care for them. Forston says their niece, who goes by both she/her and they/them pronouns, “was very upset and unnerved at the lack of culture around pronouns in the high school, because in the Portland school district, the culture is so set there that everybody asks for pronouns if they don’t know you.”
Fortson is set on progressing a similar culture of asking in Corvallis schools, explaining, “Too often kids are shut out of the conversation of who they are. I’ve seen this time and time again in classrooms with my own children, working with children and adolescents at the farm home, as well as [during] my time working for the state.”
Through opportunities to lead LGBTQ+ groups at the Farm Home, Fortson “really got to see the direct impact on how much respect and utilization of [clients’] actual pronouns benefited them directly for their mental health” which Fortson says “directly correlates with lowering suicidality and other self-harm behaviors.”
Beyond a culture of asking, Fortson aims to promote inclusive, comprehensive sexual education in the school district. “It’s a disservice to our students for them to only be taught about safe, heterosexual sex practices.” Fortson maintains that there is no LGBTQ+ mandated curriculum within the district to this day.
They say that while the school has done a great job of approaching the conversation of equity and equality, there needs to be more push for an equitable curriculum. “My children at Lincoln should not be getting a different type of English curriculum than Jefferson [because of socioeconomic disparities].”
Fortson continues, “All of our students, regardless of status, deserve to be represented in our curriculums, in our schools.”
Fortson says that there is some confusion over the role of school board members. Instead of being able to create a curriculum, the board is able to make recommendations and approvals/disapprovals, such as with hires and levies. “That’s when my voice would be the most heard, because that’s when I can identify if the curriculum or levy that we’re endorsing, or staff that we’re hiring, adequately supports and validates LGBTQ+ staff and students.”
Fortson hopes to bring more diversity to the school board as well. Since the position is non-funded, the job generally accommodates those with steady incomes. Many of Corvallis’ members, for example, hold teaching positions at Oregon State University.
“Unfortunately, this is a problem with a lot of civil servant positions,” says Fortson. “It really disallows for natural diversity of the community.”
Yes, Corvallis Can
Fortson finally felt safe coming out as non-binary a year and a half ago, to which their friends and family were fully supportive. Fortson has faith that this support will be largely reflected in the Corvallis community as well, stating, “If my 88 year-old grandpa from Georgia can handle my pronouns, Corvallis can [too].”
While acknowledging that all change comes with resistance, Fortson is undeterred. “Just putting myself out there and showing that I in fact am a real person does a lot to remove the stigma around uncertainties and assumptions about what non-binary and other folks who fall under the trans umbrella are, and who they represent.”
Addressing those intolerant or closed-minded to non-binary pronouns, Fortson examples, “If there’s a person outside doing something, almost everyone will say, ‘oh, they’re outside grabbing something.’ We already use this pronoun.. It’s in our daily usage — it’s just a mental shift.”
By Stevie Beisswanger