June 24, 2021

Many Threads, One Fabric: 'How to Support Our LGBTQ and Allied Students'

Author: Kara Smith
Source:  NYSUT Communications
many threads pride

Gender and Sexuality Alliances are more than clubs; for many LGBTQ students, they’re lifelines.

“Research shows that being perceived as queer in middle school is very challenging,” explained Jericho Teachers Association member Elisa Waters, a social worker at Jericho Middle School on Long Island, where she helped start a GSA. “These clubs aren’t just about putting up rainbows for a day — they’re about saving kids’ lives.”

In a June event celebrating Pride Month, NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham and the union’s LGBTQ Committee hosted “How to Support Our LGBTQ and Allied Students,” the latest chapter in the statewide union’s Many Threads, One Fabric social justice series. Moderated by LGBTQ Committee members Rashad Brown, UFT, and Cynthia Clo, Albany Public School TA, participants heard from educators, students and parents about why GSAs are important, and learned tips for getting them started.

“It’s vitally important that our school communities uplift and support all students by creating an informed and inclusive environment,” said Abraham. “We’re working to create school communities where both LGBTQ students, and LGBTQ educators, can thrive and feel welcomed.”

NYSUT President Andy Pallotta welcomed participants and praised Abraham for his ongoing work highlighting social justice issues. “This work, along with the work of the LGBTQ committee, is important work for both our members and our students.”

Although more commonly found in high schools, the earlier GSAs start, the better, explained North Colonie TA member Sara Salitan-Thiell, a social worker whose district is running a pilot GSA at one of its elementary schools. “We had elementary kids who were coming out, or transitioning, and we wanted to support those children and their peers,” she said noting that working with administrators to create the club was key, including having discussions about age-appropriate ways to approach gender and sexuality with younger students.

NYSUT pushes bill to protect rights of trans students. NYSUT United, July/August 2021.
NYSUT and its LGBTQ Committee partnered with Equality New York to push for a Transgender and Non-Binary Anti-Discrimination Requirements in Schools bill. The legislation would ensure that transgender, gender nonconforming and nonbinary students are safer in school.

Contacting outside organizations like GLSEN — Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network — is also helpful. Kyle Arnold, co-chair of GLSEN Upstate New York explained that representatives are always willing to attend school board or other community meetings to explain why GSAs are needed.

“It’s also important to find out where support lies within your community and get them involved,” and to have facts and figures underscoring the need for GSAs, explained Arnold.

Several students shared how GSA involvement helped them through difficult times. “It supported me as I transitioned, I started out as she and I’m now they,” said Lauren Jack, a senior at Bethlehem High School near Albany, whose GSA involvement began in ninth grade. “The GSA is a space to explore and [for students to] be themselves, if that’s not a space they can have in their classroom or at home.”

North Colonie junior Cameron Toray is transgender and came out as bisexual in sixth grade. He jointly leads his school’s GLASS (Gay Lesbian and Straight Society) club and explained that during the pandemic, providing a safe place for members was a major focus. “We had about 35 members before COVID hit, so we created a Discord, basically a combination between a website and a chat room, to keep kids connected,” he explained. “That way, even if they aren’t in a safe environment, they could still have a source of support at all times.”

A major benefit of GSAs is increased educator awareness and support. “Teachers get it now, which makes school a much safer climate for LGBTQ students,” said Lisa Suarez, North Colonie TA, a GSA adviser at Shaker Junior High school. Where in the past microaggressions like slurs in the hallway might have gone unchecked, many educators now step in to intervene thanks to better professional development and discussions with GSA advisers.

“When adults learn how to stop these behaviors, it takes the pressure off students; we don’t always have to do it ourselves,” said Jack.

“GSAs aren’t about us, the educators, they’re about the students,” said Brown noting that the burden shouldn’t be on LGBTQ students to create a safer climate for themselves within schools, it should be the responsibility of the adults.

The growth of the clubs gives Clo hope. “When I was in high school there were no GSAs — but every generation we get a little bit better.”

To learn more about NYSUT’s Many Threads, One Fabric events, visit nysut.org/manythreads.

To learn more about NYSUT’s Many Threads, One Fabric events, visit nysut.org/manythreads.

For more LGBTQ resources for educators, students and parents, visit nysut.org/lgbtq.