SOGI Story #2: Preparing a School for a GSA
(C. Proxmire, Feb. 15, 2015)
The SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) Issues in Education Conference is hosted each year by Oakland University, with the aim of giving educators and social workers tools they need to understand how best to work with LGBTQ youth. The day-long conference was full of stories and information, which we’ll be sharing over the next couple of weeks. To learn more about SOGI, including the large Midwest Conference coming Oct 17-18, visit http://wwwp.oakland.edu/sogi/.
SOGI brought in experts from nationally recognized organization including the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance. Michelle Jett and Lawrence Carter talked about the importance of laying the proper groundwork before diving in to starting a GSA. They also talked about how a Gay Straight Alliance could change the culture of a community to make it a more welcoming place for all students.
GSAs are student organizations that give all students a safe space to be themselves and to talk about issues of sexual orientation and gender expression. Their main purpose is to give support to students who need it with a network of peers who understand and accept them as they are. Groups may also do work that leads to better understanding and acceptance in the school and in the community at large. Some examples of advocacy include putting up LGBTA-themed displays, participating in events like National Day of Silence, advocating for more inclusive school district policies, and taking part in other events as a visible group like having tables at festivals or fundraising as a team for causes. Thousands of LGBTQ youth around the world have had better lives thanks to the support of a GSA in their school.
But launching a GSA before a school is ready can have unintended consequences. Jett, who is the Education and Training Manager for Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, explained what her organization does before a launch. “Every teacher needs to know about a GSA. Even if they don’t want to be a part of it, they need to be prepared for any kind of a reaction.
“We will not start a GSA if there is not professional development to go along with it,” Jett said. “How will teachers answer questions from students or from parents? Will they know to stop bullying? There can be negative reactions and everyone on staff needs to be prepared to handle this.” She also said that sometimes people want to help, but say things that they shouldn’t. “The professional development is important so everyone knows what the school district expects, and how to talk about these issues in a way that does not violate school policy or create inconsistency [in the school].”
Jett also said that starting a GSA without a clear anti-bullying policy in place can be problematic. “A policy that says it is not okay to bully someone based on their orientation or gender identity or expression is crucial because it gives teachers the tools to be able to stop bullying and inappropriate comments when they happen. Teachers need to know there is a policy to back them up.”
Knowing how to structure the GSA is also important. Carter, who is the Youth Engagement Manager said that often students will want to have a roundtable format with no leaders, but that having an executive team makes the group much more effective. The titles do not matter so much (Chairperson or President etc) as the ned for certain people to handle the responsibilities of a group such as leading meetings, coordinating people for tasks, being a contact person, sending out communications etc.
Carter is also a proponent of students taking on advocacy tasks as well as doing fun activities and providing support. “We need to get work done for people to see who we are,” Carter said. Being visible strengthens the organization and helps them be a beacon for other students, and it also prepares them to be involved in their communities as adults.
In Illinois some GSAs have been able organize Queer Proms and Drag Shows. There has also been success among GSAs who make rainbow pins to sell. The pins can be inexpensively made and sold for $1 to allies in the building.
Resources for starting a GSA are available at Illinois Safe School Alliance website at http://www.illinoissafeschools.org.
GLSEN is a good resource for Michigan GSAs. Their website is http://glsen.org/chapters/southeastmichigan.
Check out other SOGI stories:
SOGI Story #2: Preparing a School for a GSA