Gay-Straight Alliances Foster Safe Haven for LGBT Students

Rockford high school’s GSA is a place where name-calling and judging are left at the door

The laughter inside the classroom reaches a crescendo when Caleb Smith hauls out Bruce the Shark — the somewhat official mascot of Rockford High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance. Bruce, who moonlights as a hand-held puppet, quickly earned his keep when he wasintroduced a few years ago, said Caleb, co-president of the GSA.

“A couple of years ago somebody grabbed Bruce and announced it was time for everybody to shut up and listen,” said Caleb, a senior. “It worked.”

Nowadays, Bruce isn’t the only reason there is ample laughter and chatter to be found at the Rockford GSA gathering. It’s also become a haven from the taunts and bullying that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students too often encounter.

“It’s been a huge shift in our community, not just in our school.” — Suzy Clements, GSA adviser

Gay-Straight Alliances are student-led organizations intended to provide a safe, supportive environment for LGBT students and their straight classmates.

Students are legally allowed to form GSAs in schools under the 1984 Federal Equal Access Act, which protects students’ rights to form religious and other kinds of clubs. If a school allows one non-curricular club it must allow all others, including GSAs, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Students are glad such a law means they’re not left to twist in the wind by themselves.

“I’ve realized I’m not alone,” said sophomore Claire Zacharias. “I have a support system here. That’s the biggest difference in the world. I see other kids are struggling, like in their home situations and social stuff.”

Sophomore Danny Maguire sums up the students’ sense of being safe in the GSA. “Nobody really judges me here,” he said. “Everybody is understanding. The real world is really cruel.”

Related Story: Sometimes Bullies Need Help, Too

Day of Silence

On April 17, Rockford High School and many other Michigan school districts will hold a Day of Silence. The national event is intended to draw attention to the fact there are students who feel like they are silenced because of their sexual orientation, said Suzy Clements, Rockford High School teacher and GSA adviser.

“Working toward anti-bullying is what got me into advising the GSA in the first place,” Clements said. “Even with adults, there are two things they are very comfortable criticizing people about: overweight people and those who are LGBT. They do not want to hear from them.”

Even so, Clements said strides have been taken since the GSA club was founded seven years ago.

“It’s a more positive environment in the high school,” she said. “Seven years ago there were very negative things said about who they are. Now LGBT students are more comfortable speaking out. It’s been a huge shift in our community, not just in our school.”

LGBT students shouldn’t feel like they need to look over their shoulder just to get an education, added Assistant Principal Katy VanCuren.

“The point is we want kids to feel connected here,” VanCuren said. “At the elementary and middle school level, you see the bullying with the name-calling and with the eye-rolling. At the high school level, that definitely goes on but it’s more subtle in nature, and students need to be safe and supported.”

Tips for LGBT Students

  • Be aware. Keep your ears and eyes open for situations where someone is putting a person down for their orientation due to ignorance or malice.
  • Choose your words and actions with care keeping diversity and inclusion in mind.
  • Be kind.
  • Speak up for yourself.
  • Speak out for others.
  • We can’t make things better if we don’t communicate the struggle.

Source: Suzy Clements, Rockford High School GSA adviser

A Gateway to Understanding

GSA groups play an important role in helping to build a gateway toward understanding in the school community while providing a safe haven for LGBT students, said Julie Mushing, Kent ISD diversity coordinator.

“Having a GSA present has shown that it helps to have a safe place to talk,” Mushing said. “It breaks down the stereotypes and builds a positive environment.

“In Kent County, as far as I know all schools have done a great job in recent years, and that comes with better understanding of the legalities,” she added. “Previously, people were hesitant because a small population might complain.”

Thornapple Kellogg High School is among other schools in the Kent ISD with a Gay-Straight Alliance.

There are steps teachers and administrators should take if a student comes to them for advice, said Tonya Woods, Thornapple Kellogg High School’s GSA adviser. The school has on average 10 students who belong to its GSA group.

“Be a good listener if the student needs to talk,” Woods said. “Be observant of any changes in the way others treat the student. Coming out can be a very stressful experience for some students, and having a caring adult who will listen is important.”

Thornapple Kellogg’s GSA was launched five years ago with 20 adviser volunteers. Woods called it “a show of educator solidarity and support to LGBT students, as we pledged to stand up against bullying, harassment and discrimination.”

“I have a support system here. That’s the biggest difference in the world.” —  Claire Zacharias, student

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network conducted a National School Climate Survey in 2013, which demonstrated that Michigan schools were not safe for most LGBT middle and high school students. Among the study’s findings:

  • The majority of students experienced verbal harassment — eight in 10 based on their sexual orientation, and nearly six in 10 based on the way they expressed their gender.
  • Nearly four in 10 were physically harassed based on their sexual orientation, and more than one in 10 were physically assaulted based on how they expressed their gender.
  • Eighty-eight percent felt deliberately excluded or left out by peers; 78 percent had mean rumors or lies told about them; 54 percent experienced electronic harassment or cyber bullying; and 45 percent had property deliberately damaged and/or stolen.
  • Fifty-seven percent of students who were harassed or assaulted in school never reported it to school staff, and 52 percent never told a family member. Among students who did report incidents to school authorities, only 32 percent said it resulted in effective intervention.
  • Only nine percent attended a school with a comprehensive anti-bullying/harassment policy that included specific protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.
  • Only 49 percent had a Gay-Straight Alliance or similar student club at their school.
  • Fewer than two in 10 were taught positive representations of LGBT people, history and events.

Today, four advisers work with the group. The GSA is part of Thornapple Kellogg’s anti-bullying policy, which includes making counselors available at all grade levels for students to report bullying. It also offers peer groups for students, training for administrators, teachers and support staff, and encourages students to treat others as they would want to be treated.

Allies Found Here

At Thornapple Kellogg, students are supported by “allies” who stand up against mistreatment of LGBT students. Among the allies are teachers who have posted “Safe Space” stickers on their classroom doors to show that they “will not abide harassment and discrimination of LGBT students,” Woods said.

With marriage equality for gays on the rise nationwide, people’s perceptions have changed through the years, Mushing noted.

“We have kids from different religions and ethnicities and cultures. Our kids have a more worldly view, which is helping to decrease the bias against the LGBT community. It still persists but it’s getting better.”

Rockford High School freshman Kailee Roosenberg said she still encounters choppy cultural waters during the school day. Those include coming across off-putting assumptions about her because she attends the after-school GSA club.

“I feel like it’s an escape from everyday life because nobody is going to judge you for who you are, and what you truly are inside instead of people trying to tell you who you are,” Roosenberg said.

We’re Here

In recent years, Rockford’s GSA has put more social outreach into its mission by leading voter registration drives, organizing parent/community meetings and participating in the local Relay for Life. It also has organized campaigns to put “ally” gay pride flags or triangles on school lockers. Clements said such outreach “puts a face on the GSA, that they want to be a part of the community and not be judged and stereotyped.”

It appears those efforts have worked, if only in the fact the club is not a big deal anymore. Seven years ago, it was.

“I think the most important thing about having a GSA in the school is that we call it a Gay-Straight Alliance, and we are open about it as a part of our school community,” Clements added. “The fact that the club exists tells people that it’s important to Rockford, that we treat one another with kindness regardless of gender identity or perception of that identity.”

CONNECT

Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network

Day of Silence

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the Equal Access Act

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