California Educator

February / March 2019

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S E V E R A L Y E A R S into my teaching career, a very popular honor roll student handed me his suicide note and ran out of my classroom. After reading the letter, I immediately called his father and told him that his son was in crisis. I did not share details of the letter. This young m a n h a d b e e n b u l l i e d for several years by both students and adults who wanted him to acknowl- edge he was gay. He had not yet identified as gay and felt the pressure to entertain others' opinions was just too overwhelm- ing to bear any longer. After making sure my student was safe with his parents, who responded with love and unconditional support, I sat with his letter and thought. If this young per- son — who had friends, enjoyed great academic success, and had an incred- ible support system — was struggling s o p r of o u n d ly, t h e n t h e re m u st b e many others who were as well. I knew I n e ed ed to of fer th em h elp b efore some other sweet young soul lost his or her will to live. I discovered many high schools had gay-straight alliances (GSAs, later called gender and sexuality alliances), safe meeting spaces at school wherein students could find allies and be themselves. In 2006, two students and I started th e South Tahoe High School ALLY Club. Our first meeting boasted over 100 students, staff and community members! I continue to host ALLY meetings ever y Thursday at lunch . No matter who walks through that door or how many, they always know that ALLY exists and wel- comes them. Our local community college star t ed a GS A in our honor, Fr i e n d s of AL LY. Tw o ye a r s ago, we started ALLY Jr. at our local middle school after years of fighting the principal, who sai d , " Homo sexuality i s not part of the standards until ninth grade" (she retired). I knew the law allowed us to start the GSA, but I didn't want to begin it with a principal who would fight the students and staff at every step. Incredibly, the GSA group is embedded in students' schedule as an elective. My advice for teachers wanting to create a safer and more accepting envi- ronment for LGBTQ+ students: • Create a GSA. Protections exist within the law, so it's not a matter of asking to create a GSA but just doing it. Schools with GSAs have " Be the Change" Why I advocate for LGBTQ+ youth By Bridey Thelen Heidel significant impact on the health and safety of not only LGBTQ+ students, but all students and staff. Look to GLSEN or GSA Network for ideas. • Training specific to the LGBTQ+ population is key to helping staff understand their role — whether it 's pron o un u s e , p uttin g a stop to homophobic and transphobic language, or how to create a safe s p a c e i n a c l a s s r o o m , t e a c h e r s want to help. • Be the change. Come out as an ally. Share with staff and students that you have LGBTQ+ friends and fam- ily members. Opening up about your story gives permission for others to do the same. The key is that each school begins to recognize its own issues. Maybe the campus climate is positive but lacks gender-neutral b athro om s; m ay b e t ea ch ers are creating gender-specific groups in their classrooms but don't know other ways to create groups; maybe young advocates are looking for an adult to advise their GSA but don't know you're their ally. Taking a close look at the campus and students is the first step to knowing what is needed and where to begin. Bridey Thelen Heidel is a South Tahoe Educators Association member, English teacher and department chair at South Tahoe High S chool . This is excerpted from an interview with Heidel in Read Thi s, S ave Lives: A Teach er 's Gui de t o C r e a t i n g S a f e r C l a s s r o o m s f o r LGBTQ+ Students by Sameer Jha (see page 58). Heidel goes into more detail about setting up her school's GS A and g e tt i n g su p p or t f rom h e r d i st r i c t a t S e e o u r s u m m a r y o f t h e H u m a n Rights Campaign Foundation's "Califor- nia LGBTQ Youth Report" on page 15. 25 F E B R U A R Y / M A R C H 2 019 Bridey Thelen Heidel S Y O U R V O I C E

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