There’s no denying the past school year (and-a-half) was challenging for many students. But a new report from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights notes that LGBTQ+ youth experienced stress unique to being queer.
“The closing of K-12 [schools] … may confine LGBTQ young persons to traumatic and possibly abusive environments,” read the report. “Many LGBTQ youths cannot be their authentic selves at home because they have not disclosed their sexual and gender identities or because they were not met with support or acceptance from their parents and families.”
That’s why the OutCenter of Southwest Michigan has created two programs to help LGBTQ+ students return to school.
The programs include the Teen Pride Summit Series, which aims to create Gender and Sexualities Alliances (GSAs) in schools and the Brave School Collaborative, which seeks to give school staff, youth and families the tools and best practices to boost school safety for LGBTQ+ students.
“More youth are coming out as LGBTQ+ than at any other time in modern history,” said MaryJo Schnell, OutCenter’s executive director. “The reason: they are seeing role models, athletes, performers and more coming out, and it’s amazing. But we need to understand that in small-town and rural communities, as these kids come out and live their authentic lives, not everyone is onboard and supportive — and that includes some school staff members and their peer students.”
Mina Blatt, a psychologist with the Center for Relationships and Sexual Health (CRSH), told Pride Source that schools can be a safe space for many LGBTQ+ youth who don’t have one at home.
“Virtual learning took these already vulnerable students and left them at home in spaces where they may not be accepted or out, meaning their families do not know their true gender identity or attractional orientation,” Blatt told Pride Source. “I know of a few unfortunate incidents with my own clients where parents took phones away in this time which just alienated our students more.”
Psychologist Susan Ruma, also with CRSH, agreed.
“During the pandemic, we definitely saw some of the negative impacts of not having [an] in-person community,” Ruma said. “Though some kids relied more on online friendships and chat apps like [Facebook] messenger and/or Discord, most that I have talked to did not find that to be satisfactory.”
That’s often where the alliances come in.
“We need more resources like GSAs in school,” said Blatt. “They provide safe spaces where like-minded youth can come together and be themselves, and often they work to change practices in school that are unsafe for LGBTQ youth. They also provide youth with information about what they may be experiencing. There is no handbook for figuring out your identity.”
Schnell said that at OutCenter helping LGBTQ+ youth is a priority.
In addition to their two new programs, the OutCenter also offers an inclusive sex education series on their website and provides a fourth program education to help homeless LGBTQ+ youth.
“OutCenter of Southwest Michigan helps to raise the voices of LGBTQ+ youth in our area and, at the same time, partner with and educate rural and small-town school communities as [they] help create equitable, supportive schools,” said Schnell. “These kids deserve the same safe and robust educational experience that other kids take for granted.”
To sign up for OutCenter’s programs, click here.