Last week, Jericho Middle School hosted a forum on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues in education. The forum was organized by one of our teachers, Elisa Waters along with her colleagues and students as well as the Nassau County Anti-Bias Consortium. Over 150 educators heard presentations by experts from our field on topics related to LGBT issues. The keynote speaker, Eliza Byard, is the executive director of the Gay Lesbian Straight Educators’ Network (GLSEN). She a nationally known civil rights leader who has been outspoken in support of legislation and other efforts to protect the rights of LGBT individuals. She spoke alongside president Obama at the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington which was recently held at the Lincoln Memorial.
It was a privilege to host this event and I am proud that we have a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Club for students at Jericho Middle School. We have had a club here for over 10 years. We owe its success mainly to the leadership of Elisa who has been a groundbreaking educator on Long Island in bringing these issues to the forefront of people’s attention. Since this event, I have been thinking about the many conversations I have had over the last 10 years about GSA and I thought I would put some of these ideas into writing to offer guidance to other educators who are thinking about starting a club in their school or to educators or individuals who feel that the middle school is not the right place for a GSA club. I have organized these thoughts in the form of Frequently Asked Questions:
Aren’t middle school kids too young for this?
When I was in 6th grade, I had my first crush on a girl. Her name was Joanne and she sat next to me in class. She was all I thought about. I couldn’t concentrate because all I wanted to do was steal glances at Joanne. Every time I raised my hand to answer a question, I wondered what Joanne thought about what I said. I thought about Joanne at the expense of everything else, like homework, and spelling tests and remembering to walk the dog. It might have helped if I spoke to an adult about this, like a parent or a teacher, but I was too embarrassed. If I had talked to a grown-up, they certainly would have told me that what I was experiencing was completely normal. They could have reassured me that I was going to be okay; eventually I would be able to concentrate on social studies again. But I didn’t discuss my feelings with any adults, I kept them to myself.
Has this ever happened to you? How old were you when you developed your first crush? Did you tell anybody? What was the reaction you received? What would you want the reaction to be if it was your child? How about our students? When do you think they begin to realize who they are attracted to?
The fact is, middle school is the time when individuals become aware of these kinds of attractions. Shouldn’t children who are gay feel supported and normal, just like heterosexual children? I believe that EVERY child should feel accepted in school, should feel like they are normal and OK; that school is a place where they belong. I know that children learn better under these conditions. That’s an important reason a school should have a GSA. So that all students feel like they are accepted and so that kids learn to accept others.
But Don, adolescents haven’t really figured this out for themselves yet?
Maybe, but shouldn’t they be supported and made to feel good about themselves while they do figure it out.
But Don, why encourage it…?
Science and the law are pretty clear on this point; being gay is not a “choice”; it’s part of what makes us who we are. The American Psychiatric Association has condemned “psychiatric treatment” such as reparative or conversion therapy which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality is a disorder and that a patient should change his/her sexual orientation. Just two weeks ago a federal judge in New Jersey upheld a law barring therapists from trying to turn gay youth straight. Having a GSA, or LGBT programs, isn’t going to “make anybody gay”.
But this club is about sex? I don’t think my child even knows about sex yet… I don’t what him/her learning about this in school.
Firstly, sex isn’t discussed at Middle School GSA meetings. It just isn’t.
Secondly, being gay and gay marriage is no more about sex than being heterosexual and heterosexual marriage is. It’s about who you want to love and spend your life with. It’s a natural, human impulse to want to share your life with somebody who you think is special. My wife is my best friend. We do all kinds of fun things together. I want to be with her all the time. When something good or bad in my life happens, she’s the first person I want to talk to about it. We are each other’s biggest cheerleaders and teachers. She is the person I count on and she knows she can count on me. Doesn’t everybody deserve this? And what about students? If a kid at the middle school has gay parents or gay uncles or aunts, shouldn’t they feel like they can talk about their families in the same way the children of heterosexual kids do? Should they be embarrassed about this or feel it’s some kind of secret?
Why do other kids attend the GSA, isn’t it for gay kids?
Don’t forget, the “S” and the “A” in GSA stand for “straight allies”. When I was a student at Queens College I noticed a plaque dedicated to Andrew Goodman who was one of the students who traveled to Mississippi to march for civil rights in the 1960’s. He was killed along with two other men by the Ku Klux Klan because of their efforts to win equality and civil rights for African-Americans. Andrew Goodman was white. I am proud that I attended the same college as Andrew Goodman. The fact is, no civil rights movement has ever succeeded without the support of members of the majority. This is the main focus of our Bully Prevention Program. We encourage students to be positive bystanders, to stand up for those who are being bullied. That’s what it says on our T-shirts, “We Don’t Stand By We Stand Up”. Frankly, at a GSA meeting, I have no idea who is gay and who isn’t. Students come together to learn about each other and how to be accepting of all people, including LGBT people. Also, there is significant and growing body of research that demonstrates that schools that have GSA’s are safer and more bully-free for all kids, not just gay students.
What about religious objections to the gay lifestyle?
I’m Catholic. I went to Catholic school for nearly 16 years. No one ever taught me to make anybody feel bad about themselves. I wasn’t taught to exclude people or deprive anyone of their rights because they are gay. There’s nothing anti-Catholic about a Gay-Straight Alliance. As far as I know, most religions of the world are committed to helping others and making the world a better place. Besides, public schools can neither endorse nor discriminate against anyone’s religious beliefs; I cannot think of a valid religious objection to having a Gay-Straight Alliance in our school.
But when kids say “That’s so gay”, it’s not a biased remark; they just mean, “that’s stupid.”
That’s not okay. We all have many identities: teacher, Italian, parent, coach, Catholic, stamp collector, Jew, basketball player, cop, attorney, Muslim, cook … Everyone is entitled to be proud of their various identities and be free from harassment because of these. Being “gay’ is part of a person’s identity; why should it be acceptable for anyone to use this as a pejorative. I’m of Irish descent. I’m proud of this. If kids said, “That’s so Irish” whenever they thought something was stupid, that would make me angry.
Why do we need a GSA, aren’t we accepting enough?
I wish we didn’t need a GSA. I wish that kids didn’t call each other “faggot” and “gay” as the put-down of choice in middle school. But they do. I wish young gay adults didn’t commit suicide because they feel like they are not normal or because they are rejected or harassed by their peers. But they do. I hope one day that the Gay-Straight Alliance is an anachronism, an interesting artifact from an earlier, less tolerant period in history. Meanwhile, I strongly believe we need a Gay-Straight Alliance here and at every other middle school in our country.
It is important for me to note that I did not come to the ideas I have expressed in this post overnight. I was not as open in my views about these issues as I am now. I have come to a better understanding of the issues surrounding gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals through many conversations I have had with enlightened people who have shared with me their stories. I have also come to a greater understanding as I have spent time in a leadership position defending this club over the eight years I have been principal. The questions I addressed above come from conversations I’ve had with actual parents, educators, and other people who have expressed to me their reservations about the Gay-Straight Alliance.
Many teachers and administrators attended the LGB T forum because they were looking for insights and guidance as to how to bring these efforts into their own schools throughout Long Island. Just as I have evolved in my thinking over the past many years, I would invite you to do the same. If I can do it, you can do it. And so can the people in your community. I have found the best way to overcome resistance is through face-to-face dialogue. It might sound trite, but the more we get to know each other the more we learn to accept each other. Jericho is a special community and we have the benefit of an extremely supportive board of education and the courageous leadership of our superintendent, Hank Grishman. I am privileged to be the principal of a remarkable school with amazing teachers who are doing exciting work in many areas, including teaching about LGBT rights and acceptance. We would be more than happy to work with anyone to bring a Gay-Straight Alliance Club to their school… just give us a call.
Thank you Don for so eloquently articulating your view and for all of the support you give to the GSA. As you know this has been an uphill battle and we did meet with resistance at first. But you were open, flexible, and really listened to the teachers, particularly Elisa, who provided you and all of us with research to support the club. What you do for the GSA goes way beyond acknowledging its existence. Your presence at most of the meetings gives such a clear message to our students. To borrow a line from Olweous, “You walk the talk.” On another note, I too am so grateful to Elisa. She ignited a passion in me that will never burn out.
I want to reiterate something you alluded to in your blog. Having a GSA is just as important for students who never step foot into the club, as it is for those who come week after week. -Beth Brill
This is what makes our school stand out and our students are learning something that is much more important than the common core. Thank you. 🙂
Thank you Don, Elisa, and all of the teachers, students, and staff members @ JMS who have “stood up” for this cause. It was in middle school that two of my best childhood friends (one a girl and one a boy) confided in me (on separate occasions) that they were gay. I kept their ” secret” for many years, since we grew up in a conservative Catholic community. To this day, we are still very close, and I am so happy that they don’t need to keep it a secret anymore. They are two of the most special people on the planet! As a middle school teacher, I try to make my classroom a safe space for all kids. When I hear an offensive slur, I address it immediately. Even though we like to laugh a lot in my class, I let kids know that certain “jokes” are not funny and can be hurtful. I think back on my middle school days and hope that I am making life a little easier for all of my students. May their biggest concern in life be tomorrow’s essay test; – it’s no joke:)
Thanks Don, for such an important and thoughtful blog post. I’m hoping all our Jericho families read this. We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet. Just recently I overheard a family talking as we were all exiting the auditorium. They were negatively commenting about posters or some kind of work that was so proudly being displayed by the GSA Club. I said nothing of course but I recall thinking to myself how sad…I’m sure their children are unable to communicate to their parents about how they feel about themselves or their friends. Thank you.
I found you via EdCampHome and enjoyed reading this entry. My guess is that you run a fantastic school!