A is for Alliance

By Desi Rubio, July 31, 2014.

Eight out of 10 LGBTQ students are still harassed at school each year because of who they are.

While today's LGBTQ youth exist in an era where they know that after graduation they can serve openly in the military or marry their significant other (in 19 states) if they so choose, their sense of safety and belonging in academic environments is still not guaranteed.

As students make the annual back-to-school migration, events such as Ally Week (Oct. 13–17) and National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11), and dialogue around LGBTQ topics follow shortly thereafter. And for students in search of support or information on how to connect with their peers on these issues, among others, there is the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

As one of the leading national organizations committed to creating a better climate for LGBTQ students in the academic environment, GLSEN comprises many chapters in throughout the country — including Phoenix.

A Safe Place

Founded in Massachusetts, nearly 25 years ago, by a small but fierce group of educators, the network continues to make research-based resources available to anyone interested.

GLSEN's Phoenix Chapter has seen continued growth in member volunteers and independent school organizations, such as gay-straight alliances (GSAs).

GSAs are clubs created and run by students in middle and high schools for LGBTQ members and straight allies to work together to raise awareness on diversity and acceptance.

"GLSEN plays a large role in GSAs and there is definitely a strong partnership with them," said Sean Nonnenmacher, GLSEN's Phoenix chapter co-chair. "We often support them by attending meetings with the club, we help students brainstorm events and encourage them to use resources."

GLSEN's goal is to register as many GSAs throughout the valley as possible. In comparison to other chapters, the Valley of the Sun has an impressive level of participation, with 20 clubs, but Nonnenmacher hopes to see these numbers increase as early as this fall.

Leading By Example

With more than 20 years of teaching experience, Tempe High School's Eileen Yellin has become one of the strongest proponents among local GSA sponsors.

Yellin recalls the time she learned one particular student was being harassed, and that was the moment she knew she had to make a change. "I decided to start up our school's GSA because I simply did not want to see this happen again," she explained.

In 2000, her goal of developing a safe place for LGBTQ students and straight allies became a reality. And, with about 35 active members in Tempe High School's GSA during the 2013–2014 school year, this club has grown into a "model" GSA for other schools to emulate.

"The club is really what the members make it," Yellin said. "We provide a place where they can meet, ask questions or find resources, ‘try on' an identity or orientation, come out to staff, peers, or allies first — if they want — report incidents of disrespect or danger, and just be themselves without fear of ridicule or other consequences."

Not only does the Tempe club participate in annual events such as AIDS Walk and Phoenix Pride Festival, but they also give back to the community by volunteering with St. Mary's Food Bank and organizing training sessions designed to equip educators with knowledge and resources to better understand the LGBTQ community.

Additionally, Tempe High School's GSA organizes an annual "Breaking the Silence Dance" each April following the National Day of Silence. The dance is a celebration of diversity where GSA members from throughout the greater Phoenix area dress as they wish and dance with whomever they wish.

"Students love this dance," Yellin said. "Just like any club, if you have things for students to do they will participate."

Yellin invites students looking to start a gay-straight alliance at their own school to reach out to schools like Tempe High School for guidance. Additionally, glsen.org offers a wide variety of resources, including GSA tools and a Jump-Start Guide.

The Smart Start

Olivia Tamras, a recent graduate from Barry Goldwater High School in Phoenix, started a GSA during her final semester before graduation. "The administration really allowed us to promote the club with the use of flyers, posters and daily announcements," she said.

Tamras said she's proud to have played a role in creating a safe place for herself, her peers and the students will follow in her footsteps. So much so, that she already has made plans with the club's new president to continue to make positive changes in the school year ahead.

Equality and acceptance are only achieved if a difference is made, if minds are changed, and if education is prevalent. And, according to Nonnemacher, the best way to effect change is for youth to form and sustain our GSAs in the academic environment. Together, LGBTQ youth, their GSAs and GLSEN can create a positive climate for themselves, their peers and the future.

Photo courtesy of GLSEN Phoenix.

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