Should I try to start an LGBTQ organization at my middle school?
September 19, 2012 12:38 PM   Subscribe

Should I try to start an LGBTQ organization at my middle school? How?

I’m teaching sixth grade at an urban middle school and I’d like to approach the administration about starting an LGBTQ support club for maybe half an hour a week after school. We have some students in the seventh and eighth grades who are reasonably out and I’d really like to support both them and any other students who are dealing with their sexuality or want to support their LGBTQ friends and family. Here are my questions:

1) Is this a good idea? The worst case scenario is that kids get targeted for being in the group. Is this likely? Would anyone even join?

2) Is middle school too young for a group like this?

3) I would likely get at least some pushback from the community/families along the lines of “Why are you turning my kid gay?” How would I handle that?

4) What should we actually DO? I’d like to make sure it’s more than just eating Fig Newtons and drinking apple cider but I don’t want to get in over my head in terms of what I’m comfortable discussing.

Is there a good way to do this? Should I even try? Thank you so much for your help and suggestions!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl to Education (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think this is an excellent idea. "Ally" is a term I searched on (and remember from my *ahem* school days).

These might be some helpful resources for you:
GLAAD's Ally page.
GLAAD's Teen & Student Allies page.
GLSEN: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network - Safe Space Kit

The last link above talks about middle schools, so I don't think it is too young.

What should you actually do? I remember "ALLY" buttons. You could make them together with a button machine for the students. Talk about current events. Be a support group for one another. Create a webpage together. Make up informational pamphlets together. (Not the best ideas, I know...)
posted by jillithd at 12:48 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

What do you seek to accomplish with such a "support club"? Pretty much every student in middle school is "dealing with their sexuality", whatever that means.

As a thought experiment, omit the gay angle for a moment and consider if you were thinking of a club to "help middle schoolers deal with their sexuality". I think the school would receive, rightly in my mind, a fair amount of response to the tune of "how does this belong in a middle school curriculum"? A big question would be what adult(s) would be running this outfit, and what makes them qualified to do so?

Please forgive me, but as a former middle/high school teacher and a current parent, it does not strike me as appropriate and I think it invites liability. I think your intentions are admirable, but I am confident that you could be supportive in the way you wish in a less formal way.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:52 PM on September 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Are you L, G, B, T or Q? Have any of your students approached you with interest in starting this kind of group? I suspect a "grassroots" origin for the group would be more successful than a top-down, if-you-build-it-they-will-come origin, especially if you are not, yourself, L, G, B, T, or Q, or some combination thereof.

To answer your questions, starting with 1):

Maybe. It depends; you would know better than we depending on local circumstances. It depends; you would know better than we depending on local circumstances.


This is one of the reasons that it would be better if students were the impetus for the club; if you're merely a faculty advisor (and all student clubs probably are required to have one), and the club is student-driven, it's nearly impossible to suggest that you're part of the "homosexual recruitment agenda" or whatever.

Watch films and documentaries about relevant issues, go to talks, invite speakers, participate as a group in bake sales/charity runs/community service. Just providing a friendly, nonjudgmental environment would probably be helpful.

I don't know. Maybe.

Good luck!
posted by jingzuo at 12:57 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think most of these types of clubs are framed as Gay-Straight Alliance clubs, where the idea is that any student of any sexual orientation is free to join the club. A quick google for middle school GSAs turned up this site which seems to have some pretty good resources for someone looking to setup a GSA club specifically for middle school students.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:58 PM on September 19, 2012 [16 favorites]

It's great that you want to be supportive, but just from my perspective as someone completely outside of education but who is a gay former kid, I'd wait for one of the students to bring it up themselves. Maybe broach the subject with one of the out kids after you've formed a good relationship with them, maybe, but be careful of that, too. Let the kids lead on this one.

Also, be careful of "reasonably out". If "out" means anything other than "100% unambiguously out to everyone under the sun, I am a bi/homosexual and I want everyone to know that", you will misinterpret or cross a boundary or imply something you shouldn't be implying in front of someone you shouldn't be implying it in front of, especially considering you're talking to middle schoolers. I was "reasonably out" starting in about eight grade, too, but if a teacher every came to me and asked if I wanted to join a GSA or LGBT support group, I'd have freaked the hell out, run the other way, and felt completely humiliated and creeped out.

Queer kids now seem to have a good bit more self-acceptance at a younger and younger age, but they're still adolescents and that's always a source of awkwardness and a general lack of self-confidence. If they really want one, they'll probably let you know. Just focus on being supportive, so if they are looking for an ally, they'll know you are one. Probably the best way to do that would just be to shut things down if you overhear any students making homophobic remarks or doing any kind of queer-baiting. Don't get too preachy or crusadey, just let it be known that you won't tolerate that sort of shit in your hearing or your classroom.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 1:00 PM on September 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

The worst case scenario is that kids get targeted for being in the group. Is this likely?

My memory of middle school is that anyone who stood out or was different, they were the target of the type of incredible meanness that can only come from the insecurities felt during that age. And I would have died before I talked with a teacher about sex, and would never had any honest, open discussions about sex or feelings or anything like that with large groups of random classmates. Did you not have the same experience?
posted by Houstonian at 1:00 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

There have been a lot of instances where kids bullied for being gay were not even gay, so it may be misplaced to form an organization dedicated to supporting those who are bold enough to be out. Why not an anti-bullying/respect for all kind of club instead?
posted by Wordwoman at 1:02 PM on September 19, 2012

Tanizaki: OP is not suggesting that her group be added to the curriculum. It would be a voluntary after school group.

If religious/prayer groups can form after school clubs and use school facilities so long as they are voluntary associations that don't meet during school hours, I don't see what would be objectionable about OP's group. Obviously, some parents like you wouldn't like it. I don't particularly care for after school prayer groups, personally.

But my dislike for them doesn't mean they shouldn't exist.
posted by jingzuo at 1:03 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The students need to be the ones approaching you to start the club. Maybe you could talk to the students you know and see if they're interested, just let them know "hey, I'm not sure if this is something you'd be interested in, but if you were, I'd be happy to serve as the advisor/mentor for the group."

I ran my high school GSA and boy was it a lonely experience. Maybe times have changed in the past ~15 years, but I spent a lot of time making posters trying to get people to come to meetings, and a lot of meetings sitting alone in a classroom waiting to see if anyone would show up. Things we did were like making rainbow ribbon pins, letter writing campaign on political issues, arranging trips to relevant events (like an alternative prom), etc.

But you know, I later found out that a TON of my classmates were actually gay, even though none of them came to the club (I am straight), and so I'm glad I soldiered on all those lonely nights. Maybe it helped someone in a rough time just to know the club existed, or to see the posters I made when Matthew Shephard was killed. I certainly don't agree with Tanizaki. Maybe he/she is not aware that middle schoolers are committing suicide over these issues.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:04 PM on September 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

You might want to consider going broader/vaguer? Like a "Respect" group that respects people's differences? I feel like with an explicitly LGBT (or even GSA) group you would lose a lot of the middle school kids (gay and straight) who are just uncomfortable with thinking about their sexuality, period (that would have been me as a middle schooler - I'm straight, FWIW).

Plus with a broader focus you would have more different kinds of things to do - sure, print up Ally buttons and get teachers to commit to establishing Safe Spaces, but also you could do some cross-cultural stuff, disability awareness, stuff like that. You could have a bunch of different types of families in to talk (same sex parents, grandparent-headed households, families with adopted kids, whatever you've got handy).
posted by mskyle at 1:06 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you are in a large urban district, could you first put out some feelers and find out if any other middle school in the district has such a club? If not, run it by a trusted co-worker to see what they think.

I'd not get too over your head if you aren't comfortable with discussing deeper issues around sexuality with students/parents. Some kids could really be struggling, and you want to make sure they have the right support. You could just have a "diversity" or "human rights" group and discuss relevant topics including sexual orientation.

I was a counselor in a large urban high school a few years ago. We had limited resources and no time for groups, but I made sure I put up a LGBTQ friendly sign on my office door. The students and parents never said a word about it. One small-minded staff member disagreed with the sign and asked me if I am gay (I'm not), but these are the types of things you may encounter. Not a reason to veto the group, just be prepared.
posted by Sal and Richard at 1:10 PM on September 19, 2012

Response by poster: Yeah, to clarify, when I say "support" I mean more like a GSA (I just wasn't sure how widespread the acronym was), so not just for LGBTQ students but for anyone who wants to demonstrate support for them.

This is looking pretty clearly like a no already, which is fine...thanks for the feedback!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:16 PM on September 19, 2012

One of the reasons for running a group like this as a "Gay-Straight Alliance," as burnmp3s describes, is to give the kids plausible deniability. A queer kid can choose whether to join-but-remain-closeted, join-and-come-out-partway, or join-and-be-totally-100%-out. (And in my experience, some straight kids do join as well, in particular if they're in the same social circle as the queer kids and want to come along to the same activities.)

This of course doesn't prevent bullying — kids still get bullied for having gay friends, after all — but it at least gives the kids finer-grained control over the amount of social risk they're exposing themselves to.

3) I would likely get at least some pushback from the community/families along the lines of “Why are you turning my kid gay?” How would I handle that?

First: know what the law looks like in your state, and make sure the school district has your back. If the principal gets embarrassed and decides to throw you under a bus, it's not gonna be fun.

Second: it's best if your role is really clearly and explicitly NOT a leadership role. Like, "Well, the school requires there to be an adult in the room when they meet. I'm that adult. I'm really honestly just a chaperone. Would you rather they were doing this without supervision?"

4) What should we actually DO? I’d like to make sure it’s more than just eating Fig Newtons and drinking apple cider but I don’t want to get in over my head in terms of what I’m comfortable discussing.

In my high school's GSA there was a lot of, you know, "Ooh let's make flyers that explain why gay rights is important," and very little actually discussing our sexuality. I mean, we made friends through the group who we might have that sort of discussion with IN PRIVATE, but there was no way in hell that any of us were gonna talk about that shit with any adult in the room ever. So to some extent I'd say don't worry about what you're comfortable discussing -- odds are the kids will be even more squeamish than you.

Really the group was like any high school activity: 99% about constructing a certain kind of social identity that we wanted to project, and 1% actual content. But being able to construct those social identities in a way we could control was important.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:16 PM on September 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Also, yeah, I was planning to post flyers and make an announcement that anyone who wants to show up is welcome to do so, I'm DEFINITELY not going to approach individual students about their sexuality.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:17 PM on September 19, 2012

FWIW, too, my school had a De-Facto Queer Kids' Lunch Hangout Spot well before it had a proper GSA. In fact, the DFQKLHS did a lot more for my sanity than the GSA proper ever did. And it existed because someone on the school staff was like "Yeah, you can hang out in here during lunch and play music as long as you're not too loud."

So, I mean, there may be things you can do to give these kids a little space and time to relax and feel "normal" and accepted without actually going on the record and saying "This is an Official Club that's all about Teh Gay!"
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:23 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are there any administrators/teachers/counselors/etc. who already have (positive) relationships with any of the kids who you think might be interested? My thought is that if you're teaching sixth grade and these kids are mostly older, you might not know them personally and they might not have any reason to be open to your idea. You can get the administration to OK the group, but what if the kids don't come? Working with another adult in the school who knows these kids might help you reach the kids and get some support for your efforts.

My experiences, both as a former middle schooler and spending a semester shadowing a counselor at a middle school, is that some kids are going to be comfortable talking about this stuff. The counselor I worked with ran fairly informal lunch groups with a bunch of different groups of kids- maybe you or another adult could do something like that with a couple of the kids you've noticed (and some of their friends, so you avoid an excruciatingly awkward "So we've gathered all the possibly-queer kids together today..." situation) and see if there's any interest? Keeping it low key at first might help avoid a lot of negative attention that might keep some kids from coming at all, and starting it with a core group of interested kids could help give the group some legitimacy from the start.
posted by MadamM at 1:24 PM on September 19, 2012

What do you teach? The health teacher ran the one at my high school (which was fantastic by the way), and she really was the perfect person to do it because she was already dealing with some of these issues (like bullying, dating, self-respect, etc.) in her own curriculum. She was also great at dealing with administration and getting the support of her fellow teachers. For example, when we did the Day of Silence, other teachers decided they would make relevant lesson plans. It was a "GSA" and most of the students (at least at the time) who were members identified as straight.

I remember we did events with other schools that had "anti-bias" clubs. That might be a little easier to implement if you are worried about pusback from parents or administration. You could have plenty of age-appropriate activities, you could do a book/story club, learning about LGBT people in history, speakers, etc. In my school the focus was not on talking about our own feelings and experiences but more "how do we make the school a more tolerant place" sort of thing.
posted by inertia at 1:26 PM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

You need to gauge if there's any actual interest in such a club among students. There may well be, but there may not be. The fact that there are out gay kids at the school does not mean that any are interested in joining such a club.

I'm gay and have never been a member of any such clubs, in secondary school or in college/grad school. The vast majority of the gay people I know have never been a member of such a club either. There are various reasons for this: as people have noted, some kids may not be fully out, some kids may see joining such a club as too public for them; also, these clubs have a tendency to attract the most political/politicized people (see college and university gay/queer clubs) and becoming very leftist, which doesn't really speak to most people's concerns or interests.

If students themselves show interest in such a club, that's another thing.

What nebulawindphone said sounds pretty good to me.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 1:32 PM on September 19, 2012

FWIW, too, my school had a De-Facto Queer Kids' Lunch Hangout Spot well before it had a proper GSA.

My high school had this, and there was no official involvement at all. It was actually about 60% stoners and metalheads, 30% queer kids, 10% total freaking weirdos no one knew what to do with.

Also, queer white and non-black kids of color did drama/anything writing related/philosophy, white lesbians did field hockey and soccer, black lesbians did track, girls of both races did basketball. I think one of the white gay boys did track, and if there were gay black boys (almost certainly), they weren't out. But we all basically knew who each other were if nothing else, even across racial lines and social groups that otherwise never got crossed. And we never outed each other, either, even people "the whole school" knew about.

So OP, the kids at your school might already have much more of a support network than you're aware of, if that makes you feel better.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 1:35 PM on September 19, 2012

1) Is this a good idea? The worst case scenario is that kids get targeted for being in the group. Is this likely? Would anyone even join?

This is why such groups are generally called "gay-straight alliance" or somesuch. Making it explicitly all-inclusive removes a hell of a lot of the stigma.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:36 PM on September 19, 2012

1) Yes, students would join. I'd've joined in middle school, for sure, because even then I thought of myself as an ally. However, you and your students would both be targeted by hate groups, and honestly, if your school district publishes a directory of teachers, I would be asconcerned about your safety as your students.

2) No, it's not. Most of my friends who are LGBT identified were aware of their identity before middle school.

3) You could... keep membership anonymous, and make sure your guided activities provide a safe "cover" for students who are out at school but not at home. For example, our GSA/"Safe Schools" group in HS did a lot of "leadership advocacy" work, led anti-bullying workshops, and organized school wide diversity awareness events.

4) Let your students be the leaders, and inform what you discuss, and also link up with the other GSA/LGBTQA groups in your area. Particularly if you're near a college, where those young adults may know better than you what they would have needed from their school as middle schoolers. Remember, you're not reinventing the wheel; you're introducing your students to a larger political and social conversation AND COMMUNITY, and should plan your outreach work accordingly.
posted by spunweb at 1:41 PM on September 19, 2012

Honestly, before you reject the idea based on the responses of people who used to be in middle school, do get in touch with someone at GLSEN. They can walk you through the pros and cons of a middle school group and probably put you in touch with other teachers/counselors/administrators who actually work with such a group.
posted by rtha at 1:46 PM on September 19, 2012 [11 favorites]

Perhaps you may want to rethink your approach here.

My very mom volunteers for a local group called Gulf Pride for Youth, and which works with area kids as an extracurricular group that is not specifically affiliated with any school. That prevents some of the issues that you are taking into consideration because it is independent.

You could also have a broader/wider/more adult agenda with an external group that is operated by adults, while still serving your constituents needs. What if you made it your goal to convince your school administration to support some education for teachers/staff covering issues of inclusion for queer kids? What if you made it your goal to increase the percentage of visibly supportive staff and faculty at your school, providing kids additional safe harbors to go to if/when they need support? I feel like some of those skills aren't going to organically develop from a student-run organization but might have a much more dramatic impact on the day-to-day life for kids in your district.
posted by jph at 1:48 PM on September 19, 2012

The anti-bias club idea is a really excellent, I think. Perhaps an Amnesty International chapter would be a good fit?

Another angle to look at is anti-bullying resources. The Respect for All Project is not exactly what you are looking for, but might be able to point you in a good direction.
posted by susanvance at 1:53 PM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey, that's a GSA!

GSA Network resources on building a GSA.

I don't see an Equality organization for DC (disclaimer: I work for EQCA), so I'd also email Equality Maryland or Equality Virginia about local resources.

If you're really interested, I have a shit-ton of resources on how to deal with the perception that gays are a threat to children or that teaching about LGBT folks turns kids gay, but it's pretty involved (it's what our public education project, Breakthrough Conversations, is about).

But GSA and GLSEN are both pretty sweet, and if you need help reaching them, I know some folks in their coms departments.
posted by klangklangston at 2:08 PM on September 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

What should we actually DO? I’d like to make sure it’s more than just eating Fig Newtons and drinking apple cider but I don’t want to get in over my head in terms of what I’m comfortable discussing.

My high school's GSA (relatively progressive school in a bible belt area back in the 90's) mostly did things that were neutral in terms of people's individual sexual orientation. For example we raised money for HIV/AIDS research. I think at one point someone did a staged reading of some parts of Angels In America. We did some Raising Awareness type initiatives, had an event for Coming Out Day (and maybe some Gay Pride stuff would be appropriate if your school is in session in June).

A unit about the history of gay and lesbian culture would be cool, as would one of those Did You Know things about gay people in history if it can be done in an educated and not wildly speculative way.

Are there good books that feature gay themes that you guys could read as a sort of book club, without it being wildly inappropriate? (i.e. less The Well Of Loneliness, more My Invented Life. Maybe other media to share, like But I'm A Cheerleader?

My guess is that stuff about gay marriage would probably get play, though it's a little more overtly political than the AIDS crisis oriented stuff we were dealing with back then.

If you guys could do some anti-bullying work, that would be rad.

What about a fundraiser for the Harvey Milk School or other group that deals with LGBTQ youth?

My college LGBTQ group was more about "safe space", though I think the framework of middle school makes that difficult since there probably is not a lot of literal free hanging out space on campus, and kids probably aren't dating a ton yet.

Maybe you guys could frame it as the whole school being a safe space for kids who are different in general?
posted by Sara C. at 2:41 PM on September 19, 2012

I would contact the organizers at SMYAL and see if they have any helpful experiences in youth organizations at the middle-school level. Even if you don't get a full-fledged GSA organization going, they can probably help you organize some events or presentations, and get any individual kids who might need some support connected to the support network. I can vouch for SMYAL; they are fantastic peeps.
posted by drlith at 2:47 PM on September 19, 2012

As someone who was in a GSA in middle school (all the way back in the '90s), I'm not understanding the pushback here-- ours was (I think) the first one in Maine, and it was really small at the time (3 people, all of us good friends), and while we all had other support networks, I do think it was valuable. We didn't necessarily ever talk about our feelings, but we did things like make posters, sponsor equality themed events like the "Love Makes a Family" photo exhibit, and organize groups to work on local campaigns during the heyday of nondiscrimination laws. Among our three, all of us turned out queer in our adults lives, though only one of us was completely out at the time. Many of the projects we did enabled us to meet queer kids outside our school and got us involved in politics, both of which were valuable things, but I suspect we also just made the school a more comfortable place for other kids who weren't yet ready to join us. I also think it's important that a teacher suggested the group; none of us would have been comfortable suggesting it to a teacher, or organized enough to make it happen on our own, but we were all glad to have the opportunity to be in the group.

In the time since then, the GSA has gotten larger and larger and made more strides in changing the school's own culture. It now includes a lot of kids of various identifications, and they recently persuaded the administration to change all the single stall bathrooms in the school to be unisex, which is an easy change that makes the campus much more trans-friendly. That's obviously a hugely ambitious change to make, but it was helped by the fact that the GSA was such an established part of the school.

As for what you'd do, it would be a good idea for you to have suggestions of specific activities, but you could also brainstorm with the students to see what they'd like to do! That gives them a sense of leadership, and makes sure that the club is doing things they think are genuinely relevant.
posted by dizziest at 3:06 PM on September 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

Maybe other media to share, like But I'm A Cheerleader?

Oh god yes this. Maybe it's just that I was in high school during the Golden Age Of Quirky Fun Stupid Gay Indie Movies, but we did so damn much QFSGIM-watching.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:28 PM on September 19, 2012

Maybe start gauging interest/response by building a group to bring the National Day of Silence to your school next April or organize another event before then. If you get a good response and students are into it, it would be easier to transition that informal activity into a GSA group and more ongoing projects.

Really though, follow the advice above and talk to the people in your local area who do this stuff for a living day in and day out. They can undoubtedly put you in touch with other middle school teachers who have dealt with these same questions and can share their experiences and tips.
posted by zachlipton at 3:48 PM on September 19, 2012

I come from a relatively liberal area, but I remember my high school had an Pride Club which were held in secret places with anonymous members. There were posters around the school with an email address on it, and to join, you would email, and you would get a meeting area and time.

You could try something like that to eliminate any bullying the kids might encounter for being in the club.
posted by cyml at 4:30 PM on September 19, 2012

Ditto on contacting SMYAL - it's a terrific organization, and at least one of their staffers (an acquaintance from my high school days) has personal experience in starting up a GSA in a conservative, controversy-averse school environment. I don't really remember what GSA did in my high school (I attended meetings sporadically, as a straight ally) except for Day of Silence, though.
posted by naoko at 1:23 PM on September 20, 2012

« Older Looking for an old sci-fi book   |   Think John Kelly Chocolates but without the sugar. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.