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September 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 1

More Than a Safe Space

Three schools offer a lesson in how to take support for LGBTQ students to the next level.

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Educators and school leaders who attempt to make their learning spaces more supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) students often talk about these efforts in terms of safety. Anti-bullying policies, the "safe space" of gay-straight alliances, and LGBTQ "safe zones"—usually indicated by rainbow-colored stickers on educators' doors—all make an indispensable difference in the school lives of LGBTQ students.
The use of this "safe" language in schools has a long history. In the 1980s, when the first efforts were underway to support high school gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and similar programs in progressive areas of the country, advocates argued that all students needed safe schools where they would be free of verbal and physical harassment and have access to safe space. These strategic efforts led to a proliferation of GSAs, anti-bullying programs, and other LGBTQ-supportive programming across the country that seemed unimaginable three decades ago.
Safety is an essential prerequisite before any learning can take place. Students need to feel safe before they can focus on reading, math, science, or anything else they study in school. Moreover, a growing body of research has shown that GSAs, LGBTQ safe zones, and strong, specific anti-bullying policies all make a tremendous difference in the extent to which LGBTQ students feel safe and supported at school. Yet the language of safety that still dominates the discussion of LGBTQ issues raises several questions. In our current era of nationally recognized same-sex marriage and wider (though still limited) acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, are we ready for a new paradigm? Is safety the only thing to which LGBTQ students are entitled, or can we do better?
In 2013, I began interviewing students, teachers, administrators, counselors, and other school staff about how they supported LGBTQ students. I began the research with two underlying premises. First, I believed that there were educators all over the United States who wanted to do more to support LGBTQ students but didn't know where to begin. Second, I knew there were professionals who were, in fact, taking this work to a level beyond safety—helping LGBTQ students develop positive relationships with their peers, teachers, and schools—and that other educators could learn from their examples.
In my research, I talked with educators who were doing innovative work to help LGBTQ students not only survive but also thrive as LGBTQ students. Many were working in circumstances that might have been perceived as difficult climates for approaching LGBTQ-related topics, namely elementary and middle schools, schools in the Bible Belt or in politically conservative communities, and urban schools in neighborhoods with few economic resources. Their work demonstrated, however, that there are many ways to go beyond merely creating "safe spaces" for LGBTQ students, and that this work can succeed in a wide range of settings. What follows are case studies from three schools that deepen LGBTQ students' relationships to learning every day.

Literature in Massachusetts

At Amherst Regional High School in Massachusetts, the gay-straight alliance is by no means the only space where students discuss LGBTQ issues. In fact, at least half of the students spend an entire semester discussing LGBTQ identities in English class before they graduate.
It all started when longtime English teacher Sara Barber-Just designed a hypothetical class as part of a social justice-themed graduate course she took in 2002, not necessarily expecting that it would ever see the light of day. "What I really wanted to do, but I thought 'nobody can do this,' was teach a whole course in gay and lesbian literature. Everything I'd heard—and everything I still hear—is that it's too controversial."
Soon after, Barber-Just received permission to teach a pilot version of the class in a 10-student alternative learning program at the school. Barber-Just thought it was important to design the course using many of the same goals that a more traditional English course would have. "I thought conservatively at first: 'What does an American literature course look like in high school?' If I ever had to present this to someone who wouldn't understand it, I wanted it to look like a regular American literature class," she says.
After overwhelmingly positive reviews of the pilot course, Barber-Just proposed the class as an elective in the school's regular English language arts curriculum. Following a unanimous vote from the English department and enthusiastic approval by the school board, Amherst added the course to its schedule in 2004. The popularity of the class, now called LGBT Literature, has grown ever since. Covering authors whose work spans a century, including Willa Cather, James Baldwin, and Michael Cunningham, the course now enrolls about 150 students each year in six sections.
Along with growing enrollment, the demographic of students taking the course has changed. "It used to be all queer youth, mostly girls. A lot of boys take it now," Barber-Just says. "Sometimes no one ever comes out [as LGBTQ]; other times I've had like eight kids come out."
Issues affecting transgender people and LGBTQ people of color make up an important component of the curriculum. Students have read sections of Janet Mock's book Redefining Realness, plus interviews with her and with transgender actress Laverne Cox. They've also watched the Dutch film I Am a Girl and Caitlyn Jenner's 2015 interview with ABC.
In addition to a chronological survey of literature written by LGBTQ authors and addressing LGBTQ themes, students complete a media analysis project in which they compare how LGBTQ individuals were depicted by Hollywood in the 20th century with representations in the media today. As Cleo, a student in Barber-Just's class in 2014, described in a reflection written for the course, "I started seeing gay subtexts everywhere. No, I couldn't confirm that they were gay subtexts, but it made the world feel a little less straight."
Other student reflections speak to the empowerment that students felt when they saw LGBTQ identities—so often silenced in many school communities—represented prominently in their curriculum. Another student said that Barber-Just's class "gave every student a voice."

Counseling in Georgia

Decatur High School is a racially diverse urban school on the perimeter of Atlanta. Known for being a relatively progressive southern community, Decatur has a policy to protect students from harassment and bullying because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The school has had a gay-straight alliance for more than five years, participates in the National Day of Silence and National Coming Out Day, has held faculty professional development sessions about incorporating LGBTQ issues into the curriculum, and has several out LGBTQ faculty and staff members, including head school counselor Ken Jackson.
A key staff member in charge of ensuring that the school supports the needs of LGBTQ students, Jackson has been active not only at Decatur, but also at the state and regional levels in helping to improve learning environments for LGBTQ youth in the South.
In addition to being a cosponsor of the school's GSA and chaperoning the community LGBTQ prom, Jackson facilitates a weekly counseling group specifically for LGBTQ-identified students (unlike the gay-straight alliance, which welcomes students across all sexual orientations and gender identities). As Jackson clarifies, however, this might encompass any of the following: "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, unsure, or 'to be announced.'"
Having counseling sessions where students all identify as LGBTQ has its benefits. Given the rejection they can face from peers, family members, and religious communities, these students can be especially vulnerable to anxiety, stress, and depression, Jackson says. With clear, agreed-upon rules about confidentiality, the group discusses challenges specific to being LGBTQ, such as coming out or dating, though sometimes they talk about problems in their families or academics.
As a school counselor, Jackson is well equipped to assist students in the LGBTQ support group with resources for planning for college and their futures. "We've had conversations about how to find an LGBT-friendly college," he says. And the fact that Jackson is out to students as gay (with a picture of himself and his husband in his office serving as a visual reminder) seems to help students feel that they can talk about anything related to being LGBTQ.
Even though students miss a section of one of their classes each month to attend the counseling sessions, Jackson says most faculty support the program because they recognize the link between social and emotional well-being and academic performance. "We make the case that if you attend to students' emotional and mental health, they make better grades in your classroom," he says.

An Inclusive Middle School in New York

It is impossible to walk down the halls of Jericho Middle School in New York without noticing the colorful "safe space" stickers on nearly every door. In addition to the stickers, designed by a Jericho 6th grader, wall art, posters, and other displays in the hallways proudly announce the school's LGBTQ-friendliness. A family tree poster completed in Spanish for a class project depicts a family with two moms. The walls are peppered with banners that students created on National Coming Out Day. Students filled in their own responses to the prompts "I'm coming out for ___," "I'm coming out against ___," and "I'm an ally to ___." Among the 100 or so "coming-out flags" on the wall are handwritten proclamations such as "I'm coming out for kids who get bullied" and "I'm coming out against racism."
The school library is a frequent site for LGBTQ-themed school events, such as a recent presentation and reading by Bill Konigsberg, author of the young adult novel Openly Straight. Whenever an LGBTQ-themed event is held in the library or elsewhere in school, librarian Pat Minikel collects the library's LGBTQ-themed books and creates a special display.
The LGBTQ-affirmative work throughout the Jericho school building, which houses the middle school, high school, and administrative offices, is part of the district's larger emphasis on social-emotional learning, according to principal Donald Gately. In 2003, the district conducted an action research project and found that anti-LGBTQ harassment made up a major portion of the bullying that happened at the school. Instead of simply adopting an anti-bullying policy, the district began offering teachers, administration, and school staff inservice courses.
In fact, the education of faculty has been essential to making LGBTQ issues a part of everyday life at the middle school and high school. Teacher Elisa Waters has organized and facilitated both formal professional development and informal, one-on-one coaching sessions with colleagues about how to integrate LGBTQ issues into their lesson planning. Waters regularly teaches a 15-hour summer inservice course for district teachers, which she calls a sort of "LGBT 101" that covers such topics as LGBTQ identities, the risks faced by LGBTQ students (such as bullying and harassment), and the use of inclusive language. For teachers who wish to expand their knowledge, Waters offers a second course on the curricular integration of LGBTQ issues.
Gately says that Waters has been a significant contributor to his own education and has advised him and other educators on how to talk to parents and community members about the school's LGBTQ-positive work.
He believes that these programs are essential at the middle school level because middle schoolers are at an especially self-critical age:
Middle school kids are so uncomfortable in their own skin. Research says that kids go through more changes between the ages of 11 and 16 than at any other stretch, except maybe birth to age 4—intellectually, emotionally, physically. They come to school thinking, "I've got bad skin, I suck, I can't get a girlfriend or a boyfriend, and I think I really should just end it." A GSA sends a strong signal to a kid that everyone is welcome, everyone has a place.

A Place and a Voice

The safe schools movement, which began in the late 1980s and grew in the 1990s and 2000s, led to vital changes at a time when LGBTQ issues were highly controversial. In fact, it was considered bold even to suggest that schools should take targeted steps to ensure that LGBTQ students were safe at school. Although far too many students still face bullying, harassment, and other daily risks and indignities in their school environments, the safe schools paradigm brought needed change and has made a life-altering difference in millions of students' lives.
But is being safe the same as what principal Donald Gately calls "having a place" or what Sara Barber-Just's student calls "having a voice"? The educators in the three schools profiled here, as well as the many others I interviewed, suggest that it isn't. They also suggest that creating school environments where LGBTQ students feel truly connected, both to the content they are learning and the people with whom they are learning, is essential—and eminently possible.

Michael Sadowski is the author of many books, including Safe Is Not Enough (Harvard Education Press, 2016). He teaches at Bard College and has been a faculty member at Harvard and Stanford universities, vice-chair of the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth, and a high school teacher.

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