Creating Safe Spaces: Affirming the Identities of LGBTQ Students and School Leaders of Color

How the Academy for Young Writers Shifted School Culture to Tackle Issues of Intersectionality and Celebrate LGBTQ Students and School Leaders of Color

By Michelle Eisenberg

LGBTQ Initiatives and School Culture

Over the past two years, the students of the GSA Club (a student-run club which provides a safe space for students to meet, support each other, talk about issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, and work to end homophobia and transphobia) have worked to make our school community a more inclusive and empowering place for all students and staff members. The GSA Club (historically referred to as a Gay-Straight Alliance) meets after school every week and is open to all middle and high school students. As it reads in our after school club catalog, “The GSA Club is a community for anyone who wants to build a social network where their identity and those of their peers is respected.”

Before we began coordinating school wide events and initiatives, we first had to foster a culture of trust and respect within the GSA Club. It was imperative that students felt they had ownership over the club. Students needed to trust the GSA teacher facilitators enough to speak and listen openly to one another. A few months into our first year, we realized a common theme in our conversations: we needed to do more to reach out to the wider school community to combat bullying and educate both students and staff about LGBTQ issues. We wanted to go from just having a tolerant school culture to the kind of community where being LGBTQ was an identity to be celebrated and empowered.

Spencer 11th Grade

Spencer 11th Grade

“GSA to me means a place I can feel safe. We’ve always been an open community and accepting of students and/or staff regardless of gender identity, sexuality, religion, etc.”

-Spencer, 11th Grade Student

“The GSA for me is a place where not just LGBT students can come and are able to express themselves. All are welcomed and never judged. We work on trying to help and educate our school and creating a safe environment for all.”

-Kelley, 11th Grade Student

For example, we wanted students and staff to use and understand correct terminology. One of our first goals was to make sure that every single person in our school knew what L.G.B.T.Q. stood for, as most people were not familiar with the acronym. We wanted people to know the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. When we began to have GSA Bake Sales during lunch to raise money for pizza parties and field trips, students made posters and handouts with LGBTQ terms and definitions.

Pride Month Pledges

Last year, we organized our first June Pride Month initiative in which students and staff were encouraged to sign a pledge of their choice and then display it in a giant rainbow in our lobby. We created an anonymous School Climate Survey for all high school students with questions such as, “How many times per week do you hear homophobic or transphobic language?” In response to a string of LGBTQ-related bullying incidents, we drafted the Anti-Bullying Policy and met with our administration to roll out the policy at an all-staff workshop. We reviewed concrete strategies for how teachers should respond in the classroom when they heard hateful language. For instance, how should a teacher respond when they hear a student say, “That’s so gay?” What is the best action plan to be taken when a student purposely doesn’t use the correct pronoun when referring to another student?

In the spring, we collaborated with our Student Council and administration on a school culture project called, “What does it mean to be a Young Writer?” Students volunteered to have their photographs taken with a sign of their choice (ex. I value diversity, I like to express myself), and their portraits were displayed around the hallways of our school.

These initiatives have not only created a safe space and increased visibility for LGBTQ students and staff. Our work has sparked higher-level discussions about diversity and inclusion both inside and outside of the classroom. We are cultivating empathy by having our school community think critically about our varied and overlapping identities. We are preparing students for college life by having students find their voices and organize for change in the face of challenges. It hasn’t all been easy, but we are all stronger for it and better prepared for the increasingly diverse world ahead.

Johntay, 12th Grade

Johntay, 12th Grade

“I think having a GSA is as important as having any kind of after school activity because it’s a place where we can go and feel accepted and important. We can confide in each other about our difficulties and problems and help each other as a family and that brings us closer together.”

-Johntay, 12th Grade Student

I think we need a GSA so that we can discuss what things have happened over the week or so but it’s mostly lgbtq problems and how we can solve them. I myself go to GSA because I always feel left out in the middle school because I’m the only trans-male there and I go to GSA to connect to others who are for the lgbtq community and who are part of the community so I feel like I’m not alone in this!”

-Kyle, 8th Grade Student

Similarities of Supporting LGBTQ Students and Non-LGBTQ Students

Many educators might ask the question, “Is there any difference between supporting LGBTQ youth and non-LGBTQ youth?” In my experience, many of the strategies that our teachers, counselors, and administration use to support LGBTQ students are informed from having an awareness of the unique challenges that LGBTQ youth face. The GSA students felt it was important for our staff to know that LGBTQ youth are at higher risk for suicide, homelessness, depression, and to be the target of bullying. In a workshop for teachers, we reviewed and discussed GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey, a national report on America’s LGBT Youth in schools. In small groups, we asked staff to share statistics that stood out for them from the survey, such as: “30% of LGBT students missed at least one day of school because they felt unsafe or comfortable” and “56% of LGBT students experienced discriminatory school policies and practices.”


Norman Guidance Counselor

Norman Hoyte, Guidance Counselor

“Although people may have good intentions by saying things like “I don’t see race” it is this very thinking that denies that your experience as a person and the way you are treated is largely affected by the color of your skin. This is the same for the LGBTQ community; in order for us to truly help as educators we must acknowledge that there are unique challenges that our students will face based on their race and sexual orientation.”

-Norman Hoyte, Guidance Counselor


It is also imperative that we are aware that LGBTQ youth of color face specific challenges. According to GLSEN’s “Some Considerations When Working with LGBT Students of Color,” it writes:

“LGBT students of color face multiple forms of oppression in their lives and may feel isolated and/or invisible at school. Challenging all forms of oppression and empowering students and staff begins with recognizing existing issues of bias and facilitating open dialogue about how these biases affect others. Bringing these topics out into the open allows for healthy and productive opportunities for students and colleagues to ask questions, share their own personal feelings and experiences, and learn from each other.”

GLSEN gives these suggestions for supporting LGBT students of color:

• Assess the extent to which LGBT students of color engage in extra-curricular activities. Encourage your LGBT students of color to take on leadership roles within the school, including student government, sports, and other extra-curricular activities.
• Expose your students to the lives and stories of LGBT people of color who may serve as role models by including them in curriculum, school presentations and displays.
• Be a faculty sponsor for your school’s GSA, diversity club and/or other student-led groups.
• When a student confides in you about their identity, thank them, listen to their story and ask if/how you can help. When a student comes forward to report bullying, intervene immediately.

Facing Resistance from Students and Staff

Right now in our country, only 14 states explicitly address discrimination against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity. I am proud to say that includes New York, but as we know, our LGBTQ young people still face many unique challenges on a daily basis. When discussing resistance and fear of LGBTQ people and issues at the GSA, I often tell students that we need to, “Focus our energy on all of the people who support us and our work, and not dwell on those who are homophobic and transphobic.”

If we lived in a world where LGBT people had full equality and didn’t face discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and race, we wouldn’t need a club like a GSA in schools. We wouldn’t need a specific LGBT Anti-Bullying Policy, or to celebrate Pride Month, or train staff about the unique struggles of LGBT youth. We wouldn’t need the NYCDOE’s Transgender Student Guidelines to tell us that, “Students should be addressed by school staff by the name and pronoun corresponding to their gender identity that is consistently asserted at school.”

All students and staff are legally entitled to a safe learning environment free from discrimination. It is our job to fully welcome and affirm all students and their identities. Whether you are a student, teacher, or school leader, we all have the power to create change in our school communities.



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