A District-Wide Effort to Expand Gender and Sexuality Alliances
Neil Sarkar sat at a table inside the New York City Council Chambers at City Hall. Dressed in a striped, button-down shirt and pressed slacks, he began his testimony before members of the City Council’s Committee on Education.
“Our goal is to eliminate discrimination and harassment towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, and pansexual students,” said Neil as he leaned into a microphone.
Neil is not an educator, legal expert, or City official. He is, in fact, a 13-year old eighth grader at District 2’s East Side Middle School (ESMS) in Manhattan’s Upper East Side —and he had a message for City Council members: “We want students to have a place where they are able to express and discuss their gender identity and sexual orientation freely.”
Accompanied by ESMS’s Principal David Getz, Neil and fellow student, Katerina Corr, were there to inform legislators about the value of Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs). Formerly known as Gay-Straight Alliances, GSAs create safe spaces for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning) students to socialize, support one another, and advocate for inclusive practices in their schools. Students start these clubs with input from school faculty members, and the GSA at ESMS, which began after a conversation with Spanish teacher, Alejandro Forigua, is part of a District 2-wide effort to ensure that all students feel safe and protected.
With the support of District 2’s Superintendent Bonnie Laboy, two years ago, students from middle schools throughout the district established a Leadership Council (LC) to work collaboratively on a social action project. Last year, the LC decided to focus on celebrating diversity and inclusion, and advocated to form a GSA in every middle school in District 2. Students met with elected officials and LGBTQ advocacy experts to learn about the impact GSAs have on schools, and they reviewed research that showed that schools with GSAs have fewer incidents of bullying and harassment related to sexual orientation, gender, or identity expression. GSAs also help students develop leadership skills and learn the value of civic engagement. In addition, having a group on campus helps all students feel more connected to their school.
Since District 2’s LC was formed, its members have taken their mission seriously. Today, 16 of the 18 middle schools in District 2 have established, or are in the process of establishing, a GSA. Encouraged by this achievement, students have taken their advocacy work to the next level, and on October 19, they testified at the City Council hearing on bullying, harassment, and discrimination.
“Parents have been supportive,” said Principal Getz about the GSA’s mission and activities. “It is something we talk about in our recruitment and open houses. The GSA is part of our school culture.”
The GSA has had a positive effect on ESMS students: “Some have gained a sense of acceptance they didn’t have outside of our school,” said Getz. “Others have found a purpose, a cause they could identify with, a way to be part of something bigger than themselves. Others still have simply found a way to make and maintain good friendships.”
Superintendent Laboy, who also described the Leadership Council’s work at the City Council hearing, is proud of what the group has accomplished. “This experience has empowered students to use their voices, exchange ideas, work through differences, and grow as leaders,” she said. Laboy hopes their work will serve as a model for other schools and districts looking to create more diverse and inclusive communities.
Other DOE officials, including DOE Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose, also testified during the City Council hearing, and they shared some of the innovative ways the DOE is maintaining safe, inclusive, and supportive learning environments for LGBTQ and other vulnerable students. For example, since 2014, the DOE:
- Released its Transgender Student Guidelines in March 2014 to provide direction for schools and support for transgender students;
- Hired a full-time LGBTQ Community Liaison to help schools maintain inclusive and supportive environments. Since being hired, the liaison has trained more than 2,000 students, parents, parent coordinators, and other staff members on ways to make schools affirming for LGBTQ individuals;
- Established an LGBT+ Advisory Council, which now includes 34 organizations that meet bi-monthly to offer support and resources to LGBTQ students and their families; and
- Held its first Family Pride event in June 2016, marched in borough Pride parades, and participated in the larger Heritage of Pride March.
Do you want to learn more about how the DOE is providing students, families, and staff members with safe and supportive environments? Are you a student who is interested in creating a GSA in your school? Contact the DOE’s LGBTQ Community Liaison, Jared Fox, at firstname.lastname@example.org, for more information.
Likewise, the following resources can help educate students, teachers, and community members about gender identity and sexual orientation:
- GSANetwork empowers youth-led groups and GSAs to educate their schools and communities about policies protecting LGBTQ youth from harassment and violence.
- GLSEN (Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network) is the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students.