Welcome to the Club of True Selves

By Sonia Fortin

This is part of NEA’s series Voices of Pride: The LGBTQ Experience in Schools 50 Years After Stonewall.

It could be the name-calling, taunting and snickering that hurts most. “You’re so Gay!”  Maybe it’s the whispering about “he” wanting to be a “she.” Or the run-of-the-mill stereotyping. But no. What is most painful to LGBTQ+ students is when educators hear demeaning epithets related to sexual orientation and do nothing.

The long and sometimes tortured journey of self is not easy for many LGBTQ+ students. Or adults. When you have to live with a lie inside yourself, it creates a terrible feeling of isolation. It took me eight years to build the courage to speak out on behalf of LGBTQ+ youth and myself. Finally, in 2018, I decided to take a stand for my students and myself by starting a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club at Curtis middle school in Sudbury, Massachusetts where I work as a program coordinator.

It was not only important to me as a lesbian and educator to fight prejudice, but I also wanted to create a safe haven for LGBTQ+ students. It was desperately needed amid the usual bullying, sexist and anti-gay incidents you find in many schools. School districts across the nation have to acknowledge that too many LGBTQ+ students and adults suffer in silence, afraid to be themselves. Creating a GSA club can be a first step in acknowledging that we do exist and need community support. Being invisible will not generate open discussions about homosexuality nor enlighten those still living in the dark ages.

Speaking Up on Coming Out

Only by speaking out can educators and administrators make a difference in the lives of students. Surprisingly, my greatest obstacle was myself. I was afraid to be accused of pushing a personal agenda. Afraid to become a target. Afraid to hurt relationships with colleagues, neighbors, family and others that I had worked so hard to develop. Afraid that my outspokenness would jeopardize my employment. Talking politics in a private or public setting can be risky enough. I was in the taboo realm of sexual politics.

I’m delighted to say that for the most part I experienced just the opposite. The impact of the GSA has been a transformative experience for me and the students who often share their joy at having protective policies, support groups, and honest discussions about their sexual orientation and identity. What I am seeing now is students exploring and accepting who they are. They are also finding strength in each other.

I found my activist voice propelled by a need to support students at critical points in their lives.

By voicing our concerns at school, we have helped to awaken and create allies among the community at-large. There is real beauty in it. As for myself, I never wanted to be a so-called expert on gay issues. Still, I found my activist voice propelled by a need to support students at critical points in their lives.

The journey toward liberation and acceptance for students and adults alike begins with knowledge and reliable information. We need to know the issues beyond our own schools and backyards. GLAD’s Right To Establish A GSA In Public Schools provides a quick overview of the federal Equal Access Act granting equal access and privileges to GSA clubs within schools. GLSEN, with its National School Climate Survey, reinforces that schools across the nation ought to do more to support LGBTQ+ youth. Also, the Guide to Meeting with Decision-makers, highlights policy awareness, which, with GLSEN data, aided me throughout many conversations with school administrators and community stakeholders in maintaining our GSA club.

Establishing a GSA Club

We based our GSA club framework of help, self-affirmation, and peer-support on the GLSEN Jump Start Guide, and GSA Network’s Advisor Handbook to better support our members. GLSEN’s 10 Actions For Advisors and GSAFE’s Best Practices for MS GSA helped me define my role as an advisor. When creating a meeting space, I suggest getting students involved in the design process so they have a vested interest in the group and feel empowered by their efforts. The GSA club space should be a place where students can be themselves and feel protected, liberated, and successful.

Creating a safe school environment should not be the sole responsibility of one club or a few adults. All school members have the responsibility to ensure that students are learning in a safe, respectful and inclusive environment, from the bus, cafeteria, and playground, to locker rooms, science labs, and classroom. GLSEN’s Back to School Guide for Educators and Safe Space Kit highlights easy steps to promoting inclusiveness in all settings.

All school members have the responsibility to ensure that students are learning in a safe, respectful and inclusive environment, from the bus, cafeteria, and playground, to locker rooms, science labs, and classroom.

At our GSA club, we promote community awareness by displaying a GLSEN poster (also available in Spanish), outfitting classrooms with Safe Space stickers, distributing Pride ribbons to educators, and displaying LGBTQ+ rainbow and ally flags in common spaces. Raising 10-foot high flags at the entrance of our school at the beginning of the school year made us proud. Imagine arriving at school greeted by a parade of colorful flags. What a welcoming sight! From day one, our community made a strong statement—all students, including LGBTQ+ youth, are welcome in our school. I wanted students, especially those living in the shadows, to know that GSA members and other advocates are here for them.

What started as a six-member club in the fall of 2018 soon grew to almost 30 members strong by Spring 2019. Student-led GSA meetings and activities have become part of our school fabric. Club meetings and luncheons are designed for students to connect, support each other, and get organized. Live Out Loud on GSA Road Map provides meeting agendas and GSAFE on SocialEducation, and Advocacy define frameworks for icebreakers, ground rules, and activities.

As an advisor, I have the responsibility to guide and empower students. Therefore, I espouse that schoolwide club activities should be student-led. Getting to know where they are in terms of their comfort level in the group, leadership and organizational skills is the first step. Starting with a low-risk activity such as No Name-Calling Week builds students’ confidence. Ally Week, as a moderate-risk activity, is the second step towards developing students’ organizational skills. As students become empowered, high-risk activities such as Day of Silence, for example, strengthen their leadership skills. Efforts in ensuring students’ safety when interacting with non-GSA peers (Keeping GSA and its Members Safe) should also be at the forefront of student-led activities.

The decisions we as educators make should help move us closer to creating a robust learning environment in schools where we can be free from violence, persecution and discrimination.  Establishing GSA clubs are a step in that direction.

Sonia is a program coordinator and Education Support Professional for the Sudbury Public Schools in Massachusetts and has worked in the field of education for the past 15 years. A dedicated advocate for LGBTQ+ students’ welfare and a professional development provider, she helped establish a middle school GSA club and is the co-creator of the Safe Space Initiative. For more information on this initiative: Curtis Unveils Safe Space.