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Building a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth in your school

JoyAnn Boudreau is a library/media specialist at Hamilton Southeastern Intermediate/Jr. High School. Boudreau started a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) in her school nearly two years ago. She shares the value of offering a GSA as well as resources to ensure success.

Why start or support a GSA?

Studies have shown that just the act of having a GSA in a school can lower statistics of bullying for all youth in the building. LGBTQ+ students are less likely to fear their safety when a GSA is present, and without a GSA present, their stress increases. The pandemic found LGBTQ+ youth facing more extreme levels of isolation, lack of support networks and mental health challenges.

Several middle schoolers I encounter through my school’s GSA express, “I just want to feel like I’m normal;” “I want to know there are others like me;” and “I’m scared ____ won’t accept me.” These are basic needs and rights that we can help meet. All students benefit when there is representation and visibility. As educators, we should strive to contribute to an inclusive school culture and build a safe classroom environment. All students learn better when they feel safe and seen.

How do you start a GSA?

  • Find an ally in your building/district. Bounce ideas off this person on how to approach administration about the club, especially if it’s new to your building/district.
  • Get administration on board. Go in with reasons it is needed and some research/data to back you up.
  • Are there other GSA sponsors in your district or surrounding area? Connect with them to ask questions.
  • Do your homework. Research and learn more about how GSA’s might run, tips to start one and what resources are available from organizations such as GLSEN, the Trevor Project and the GSA Network. Reach out to Indiana Youth Group, and find out if you have a local PFLAG chapter, which can offer support for youth and their families.
  • Go into initial GSA meetings with the goal of letting your students guide the club. Some GSA’s are more social, activist or support-oriented – find out what students want/need. Set community guidelines to develop a safe space and start with getting to know each other without pressure to share personal details in meeting one.  

How can you be an ally in other ways?

  • Post your pronouns somewhere in your classroom and/or on your email.
  • Learn about Safe Spaces and post a Safe Space Poster in your room.
  • Don’t tolerate hate speech of any kind in your space. Sometimes those moments require immediate discipline. Sometimes they can be a learning opportunity for that student, where you can ask them questions such as: Why would you say that? Do you understand what that means? How might that make someone else feel?
  • Assess your classroom library, texts, curriculum, posters, etc., for their inclusivity.
  • Learn more. Read books with LGBTQ+ characters/experiences, learn about LGBTQ+ history and find resources on how to support LGBTQ+ students.
  • Work to become aware of your personal biases. Are you censoring certain topics or characters? Are you making assumptions about your students’ gender/orientation (i.e. teasing about having a boyfriend, always grouping by boys and girls)?

“Teach like you have LGBTQ+ students (because you do),” said Angie Americana, teacher and artist.