By David Sheridan
When students came to Lanie Gray for help starting a GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance), she jumped at the opportunity. Lanie teaches AP English in the same high school she and her brother attended as students in the 1980s—Olathe North High School in Olathe, Kansas. Her brother, an openly gay young man, endured merciless bullying and several brutal physical assaults while at Olathe North.
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“I knew that creating a safe place for LGBT students was a cause I could fight for. I was all in,” says Lanie. Using resources from NEA partner GLSEN, she and the students set up a GSA, with Lanie serving as their advisor.
The Olathe North GSA is a very visible student club. “We even march in the homecoming parade and sell candy at Halloween,” Lanie laughs.
Lanie has also availed herself of the training opportunities provided by GLSEN, even paying her own way to GLSEN trainings. And she in turn has trained the Olathe North staff. “We live in a conservative and religious community. The challenge has been to convince people that standing up for LGBT students has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with making these students feel safe and supported because every student deserves that.”
For Lanie Gray, the GSA experience has been hugely rewarding. In the five years of the GSA’s existence, she has seen the bullying and harassment of LGBT students in her school decline. “There’s still bullying but it’s much less than before.” Gray reports. “Most recently, when two transgender boys started using the boy’s bathroom, some knuckle-headed comments were directed at them. So we educated staff about the Title 9 transgender student guidelines.”
There are thousands of NEA members across the country today who, like Lanie Gray, serve as GSA advisors in their schools.
At Hale-Dale Middle School and High School in Farmingdale, Maine, school counselor Tara Kierstead helped students set up a GSA and serves as their advisor. “Our GSA is three years old and still fairly small, but the students find it a comfortable space to meet and talk. They do not seem ready yet to become highly visible advocates for LGBT rights, but when they’re ready, I will be right there to support them.”
Tara stresses the benefits of a GSA even to students who do not belong. “The GSA is a presence that says to all students we support LGBT students.”
Research shows that students in schools with GSAs are less likely to hear homophobic remarks such as “faggot” and “dyke” on a daily basis, and they are less likely to feel physically unsafe at school.
Polling by GLSEN also indicates that the majority of secondary school educators believe that having a GSA would help to create safer schools for LGBT students. Although the number of GSAs is growing, only 22 percent of secondary schools currently have GSAs. If students in your school s are interested in creating a GSA, both Lanie Gray and Tara Kierstead urge you to help them out, using the GLSEN start-up kit.