How Middle Schoolers are Creating Safe Spaces for LGBTQ+ Students
“I’m kind of mad I didn't come to this school earlier. I came here a month ago and I finally feel like I belong,” admitted Yair Montano, an eighth grader at Ánimo Mae Jemison Charter Middle School (AMJ). “In other schools, I felt shut out like I was nothing, but now I feel like I’m really a part of something.” Montano credits this feeling of inclusion to the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club. The GSA aims to help members of the school community feel loved, accepted, and safe when coming out, and seeks to support those who already have.
An Inclusive School Culture
In schools without LGBTQ+ safe spaces, Montano’s experience of feeling excluded is all too common. Students often cite feelings of isolation, fear, and disengagement from the school community and eventually from their own learning. In a 2013 study, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) surveyed over 7,000 LGBTQ+ students in the United States. They found that 3.4 percent of the high school students did not even plan to graduate high school, due to negative experiences at school or feeling alienated from school communities.
While high school GSAs and similar groups are becoming more common, far too many middle schools lack them despite research finding that a large number of LGBTQ+ adults found that 12 was the median age at which they felt they might be something other than heterosexual. “I always felt that there was a need for a space like this,” reflected Gabriel Hirsh, GSA advisor and English teacher at AMJ. “A few years ago in one of my advisory classes, I had a lot of students who identify as LGBTQ+, and during our community circles, I found that they weren’t feeling supported or valued. They felt that they had to hide their identity, and that was not okay.”
GSA founding member Celeste Hernandez was one of those students: “At first I felt afraid about coming out, but when I found out that one of my teachers was in the LGBTQ+ community, I knew I wanted to start something where others could feel safe too.” Now an eighth grader, Hernandez is proud of all the work the group has done and is excited knowing the group will continue fostering change and acceptance at AMJ. “I feel at home when I’m here, so I’m happy others are feeling the same way.”
All Means All
Every GSA meeting begins with a video of the day, followed by a short discussion on LGBTQ+ issues in the media and an icebreaker. “We also do a pulse check about how our community feels and what trends we’re noticing,” said Hirsh. Students are able to voice their feelings and discuss what they see in their communities. For Hirsh, it was important that the GSA be student-driven so they could truly cultivate and own their safe space. “This club is for them, I’m just here as a guide.”
On this particular day, Hirsh’s classroom buzzed with excitement, while half of the students worked on posters promoting the GSA and others used a special machine to create buttons for the International Transgender Day of Visibility. GSA students distributed the buttons to students and staff to raise awareness for the discrimination faced by transgender people. Marilyn Martinez, a sixth grader at AMJ, designed several buttons with the hope that they would help her peers feel pride in supporting the transgender community.
Since the creation of the club two years ago, Hirsh has seen students become much more open and vocal and has seen the stigma surrounding the GSA decline. “We’ve done a lot in the past two years, but we’re not where we want to be. We have a lot of hopes and goals to meet our mission,” said Hirsh. “It takes a lot to do this work, and I am always in awe of our students, in what they want to do and how far they want to push our school. It's really amazing.” At Green Dot, inclusivity is a vital aspect of school culture. It’s important that all schools have spaces that support LGBTQ+ students and allies, and where all students can build confidence by practicing healthy self-expression in safe environments.