BY ELLEN SHANNA KNOPPOW
“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
When he came out at the age of 14, Josh Lee thought he didn’t know anyone else who identified as LGBTQ. But when he took the initiative to launch Rochester Adams High School’s first Gay-Straight Alliance a few years later, Lee soon found a community of support. He was not alone.
Gay-Straight Alliances, or GSAs, are student clubs that work to improve school climate for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Schools are required to support GSAs just as they do any other club, if they receive federal funding due to the Federal Equal Access Act. GSAs are just one program of GLSEN (“glisten”), a national network that provides support and advocacy for LGBTQ students, grades K-12.
Lee’s experience starting his school’s GSA was extremely positive. As he recalls, “posters celebrating diversity were posted in the hallways and we had bake sales supporting GLSEN and other LGBT-friendly organizations.” He explains that “when I found GLSEN I was a youth just figuring out my identity and place in the world. Now that I have found myself, it is my ambition to help others understand their worth and value in this world.” For that reason, he has chaired GLSEN’s Southeast Michigan chapter for the past five years.
Founded in 1990, GLSEN’s stated mission is to create safe and affirming schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. They work to ensure a healthy school environment, free of heterosexism and homophobia, by educating teachers, students and the public through their national and local programs.
Whether it’s lobbying for the adoption and enforcement of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies that are inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity, training school employees on LGBTQ issues, or ensuring that educational and extra-curricular activities are available to all students, GLSEN seeks to accomplish their goal that every student, in every school is valued and treated with respect.
Their 40 chapters nationwide are designed to help make change and provide support on a local level. Lee is proud to share some of the initiatives in place to ensure safe schools in Michigan. For one, the Southeast Michigan chapter offers professional development for all educators in the state, and has conducted many of these trainings already in school districts across the region. Lee adds that their goal is to disseminate this information to all school districts in the state. (And to contact him with inquiries; information below.)
On the national level, GLSEN’s two Days of Action each year help GSAs bring attention to the public regarding the concerns of LGBTQ students. The Day of Silence is a student-led event designed to illustrate the silencing effects of anti-LGBTQ name-calling, bullying and harassment. And Ally Week is an effort to encourage LGBTQ students and LGBTQ educators to lead the conversation on what they need from their allies in school. In addition, GLSEN promotes other national programs and events like the Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual awareness day celebrated worldwide.
Unfortunately, in Michigan, LGBTQ populations are not protected under statewide education or policies. However, last year the State Board of Education published a guide, "Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Students.”
At present, the adoption of its recommendations is voluntary. Lee stresses that “implementing comprehensive school policies that protect the LGBTQ+ population is a great first step toward an inclusive, welcoming school environment for all staff and students.” The hope is that implementing these policies will one day be required by law.
Overall, the reception in Michigan to GLSEN’s efforts has been positive. They have partnerships with MOASH (Michigan Organization for Adolescent and Sexual Health) as well as the Michigan Department of Education. And while GLSEN comes across resistance within schools occasionally, Lee states that “we remind educators that they have a professional obligation to the safety of their students. If the problem persists, we have a partnership with the ACLU [which] can file legal ramifications should a school be found in violation of municipal, state or federal law.”
When asked to address any concerns regarding the current presidential administration, specifically Michigander Betsy Devos’s actions as education secretary, Lee’s response was diplomatic: As a nonprofit organization, GLSEN can take a stand on specific legislation, but not elected officials, political candidates or political parties. That said, he notes that recently they have seen an overwhelming increase in requests for their Professional Development program. Also on a nonpartisan note, Lee emphasizes that at GLSEN, “we strive to ensure all students are respected throughout their schooling and are protected under the law upon entering adulthood, [yet] we still have a lot of work to do to ensure all students are safe and feel accepted in society.”