When first asked by several students to organize a gay-straight alliance (GSA) at the high school where I work, I was reluctant. As a gay teacher who kept his personal life private, I was hesitant to attach myself to the word “gay.” But, won over by their conviction that the LGBTQ students needed a safe and supportive setting to meet, I decided to sponsor the group.
In talking with my students, we all had similar anticipations: that this would be an important club for a small group who really needed it — the handful of students who, at the high school level, already knew and had accepted that something about them was different, and knew that they needed a safe environment in which to navigate these difficult years.
Still, I had no idea what to expect for our first meeting. We hoped to attract perhaps 10 to 12 students. If we could provide a safe space for a dozen students, it would make it all worth it. Heck, it would be worth it for five students. In fact, it would be worth it if even one student found a safe space that he or she would not have otherwise had. After all, almost 40 percent of LGBTQ teens attempt suicide before they turn 20 — not think about it, but attempt it — and too many are successful.
What happened next blew us all away.
Fifty-six students and nine teachers (including myself) came to that first meeting. The room was packed. By the end of the meeting, after all the teachers in the room had shared their thoughts on why they had come to show their support, we opened the floor to students. Several said that they had no idea so many people cared about this: “I thought I was the only one.” Some said knowing that there were others like them in the school meant that they would no longer have to face the bullies and the hostility with a feeling of isolation. They were especially touched by the fact that teachers had come to show their support.
In the following weekly meetings, other students (including many non-LGBTQ students and some boyfriend-girlfriend couples) started telling their reasons for coming. For some, it was personal safety. For others, it was because they had a brother, a sister, a friend, an uncle or a cousin who was gay, and they had never been able to talk about it. They, too, had stories, and they, too, had nowhere to go.
We started doing a weekly feature called Spotlight, which became the meetings’ highlight. A student would stand in front of the room and have as much time as he or she wanted to talk about, “who I am, and why I am here.” For almost all of them, it was the first time they’d been able to tell their story. For some, it was the first time someone had listened to them.
We became a group based upon the belief of treating people right, of treating people with respect. We are, of course, a safe space for LGBTQ students, but also for all students.
I made a vow that day when 56 students showed up with 56 different reasons for being there that I would push for more gay-straight alliances, especially in low-income schools. This is an urgent, unaddressed need. As we celebrate Pride Month this month, I hope others join me in promoting gay-straight alliances in local high schools, and making our schools safe spaces for students year round.