Several years 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 man had been bullied for several years by both students and adults who wanted him to acknowledge he was gay. He had not yet identified as gay and felt the pressure to entertain others’ opinions was just too overwhelming 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 person — who had friends, enjoyed great academic success, and had an incredible support system — was struggling so profoundly, then there must be many others who were as well. I knew I needed to offer them help before 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 the South Tahoe High School ALLY Club. Our first meeting boasted over 100 students, staff and community members!
I continue to host ALLY meetings every Thursday at lunch. No matter who walks through that door or how many, they always know that ALLY exists and welcomes them.
Our local community college started a GSA in our honor, Friends of ALLY. Two years ago, we started ALLY Jr. at our local middle school after years of fighting the principal, who said, “Homosexuality is 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 environment 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 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 pronoun use, putting a stop to homophobic and transphobic language, or how to create a safe space in a classroom, teachers want to help.
- Be the change. Come out as an ally. Share with staff and students that you have LGBTQ+ friends and family 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 bathrooms; maybe teachers 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 School. This is excerpted from an interview with Heidel in Read This, Save Lives: A Teacher’s Guide to Creating Safer Classrooms for LGBTQ+ Students by Sameer Jha. Watch our video with Heidel where she details her efforts to set up a GSA at her school and get support from her district .