Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas – Article 1 of 3
Published on Not
in Our Town (http://www.niot.org)
A Middle School GSA: A Refuge Amidst the Swirl of Fitting In
A Middle School GSA:
A Refuge Amidst the Swirl of Fitting In
Submitted by alicia on April 20, 2012 - 12:01pm
On the Day of Silence,
we share with you the story of one middle school that provided
the space for all of its students to have their voices heard.
"Forming a Gay Straight
Alliance at a middle school requires courage—for the
administrator to step
up, for the teacher who
serves as the advisor, and for
each student who walks through that door to be a member."
By Dr. Becki Cohn-Vargas,
Not In Our School Director
daughter knew she was gay from when she was a young girl, but it
wasn’t until middle school that she told me. Not all young
people have someone to talk to at that sensitive age.
At Hoover Middle School in the
San Francisco Unified School District, teacher Janet
Miller learned frightening statistics about her district’s
Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) students at a
district training. She discovered that transgender youth were
the most likely students to attempt
Janet explains that she got on
a table and shouted to the staff, "It’s our job and the
job of every single person in this room to enforce safety for
all students, not just straight ones, so any time you are not
doing it, you are not doing your job!” She
convinced the staff that Hoover needed to do something about
this serious issue.
Some educators feel middle school students are too young join a
Gay Straight Alliance (GSA).
Hoover principal Thomas Graven admitted he had never had a GSA
at any of the middle schools where he had worked.
“When she proposed that we do so, I was very supportive of it,
but I was also a little bit anxious about it because middle
school is a time of great difficulty for kids with the
transition into adolescence,” Graven said.
One of the first things they did was invite their own LGBTQ
students to speak to the school staff.
Teachers listened as students shared with great candor the
painful experiences of being teased and harassed and the sad
reality that when they approached their teachers, little was
With the principal’s support, Miller and students created the
GSA, one of the first at a San Francisco middle school. The
short film, “A
Gay Straight Alliance Creates Unity and a Culture of Acceptance ,” tells
the story of how the student club not only impacted its members,
but the entire school and staff at Hoover. Watch their story:
GSAs at middle schools are still a relatively rare phenomenon.
At the Anoka-Hennepin School
District in Minnesota, the path to starting middle school
GSAs was a painful one.
Until March 2012, Anoka-Hennepin
District policy stated that
“...staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall
remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including
but not limited to student-led discussions.” The policy
rendered Anoka-Hennepin teachers uncertain and afraid, so they
stayed silent. The result meant that endemic anti-gay slurs and
bullying of LGBTQ students were ignored, often with horrific
A string of nine local suicides over a two-year period included
four students who were gay or perceived to be gay.
One 15-year-old, who committed suicide after having been bullied
for being perceived as gay had complained to her mother that
classmates had started an "I Hate July Barrick" Facebook page.
Anoka-Hennepin students described the daily harassment. Seeing
this “neutrality” policy as a virtual gag order, students were
left to fend for themselves in a toxic environment and filed a
lawsuit last summer, stating that the District did not
sufficiently protect LGBTQ students.
2011, Anderson Cooper interviewed
the student plaintiffs and in February 2012, a powerful Rolling
Stone article put
this district’s issues into the national spotlight.
In March 2012, the district
rescinded the policy and settled with
result of the ongoing controversy in Anoka-Hennepin was that
this year, for the first time, students initiated a GSA in every
middle school in the district.
When describing what the GSA meant to one student, he said, “In
sixth grade, my only friend here committed suicide. . . . She
was the one who reached out to me.. . . I joined the GSA 'cause
I wanted to be just like her. I wanted to be nice and—loved."
A GSA can give a voice and refuge to middle school students at a
very important period of their lives. With opportunities for
allies to become members, LGBTQ students come to feel they are
not alone and that their friends will stand with them. This can
send a message of acceptance across the entire school, not only
those questioning their sexual orientation,
but also those who don’t fit in the gender stereotypes or who
might not fit in for other reasons.
Forming a GSA at a middle school requires courage—for the
administrator to step up, for the teacher who serves as the
advisor, and for each student who walks through that door to be
For many students, a GSA can be a lifeline and make a difference
for young people that will last for the rest of their lives.