It was our first meeting as a club. I was admittedly, nervous. My agenda, if one could even call it that, was written on a pink sticky note with a broken pen, so haphazardly I could barely read it. I waited for the bell to toll, past the time when the buses would break past the stretch of road leading away from Sunlake High School, and expected not a single soul to turn up in my room afterward. I was surprised to see seven students come in. Five of them were my own, two were friends of theirs.
It was awkward. We all waited a little while longer, and I took the time to try and complete my agenda, but gave up. I spoke.
“Welcome to the LGBT club, everyone.”
Immediately, a freshman who wasn’t in any of my English literature classes, a jubilant young lady with short asymmetrical hair, asked: “Shouldn’t it be LGBTQ, Mr. R?”
I tried to figure out what the “Q” stood for, stalled like any good teacher would, and said, “Of course!” Then I paused and asked, “What does the Q stand for?”
We all had a lot to learn.
When I came to Sunlake High in Land O’ Lakes, I was a greenhorn educator, the third teacher in my family (my grandparents had worked as special education teachers). The first couple weeks I was there, I was encouraged to promote or sponsor a club. A friend of mine mentioned that the school had had a GSA many moons ago, but the group had since had been disbanded for a variety of reasons. At that point it was the “Gay Straight Alliance”; in keeping with the increased awareness of diversity in sexual identity, GSA now translated as “Gender and Sexuality Alliance.” At the time of the club’s founding, I didn’t even know the acronym had changed! My own high school had never had such a club; the thought of it would have been abhorrent to the PTA.
I decided to sponsor the club with a fellow educator, and the Sunlake LGBT club was formed. I remembered feverishly drafting the club charter, writing it out by hand because our printer had broken and I intended to bring a copy to my first meeting with the assistant principal regarding the club’s legitimacy. Downtrodden, I walked into the office with a half-crumpled piece of paper. They asked me, “What is the club going to do? How does it work?” I replied, “It’s a club that will make Sunlake safer, and help make students feel welcome.” They nodded and signed off on the paper. That was it. I was expecting a massive conflict, only to find that it was a non-issue. The administration welcomed it.
The club comprised a variety of students who identified as straight, gay, bisexual, lesbian, and genderfluid/genderqueer. We spent a lot of time talking. We discussed civil rights, of course, but we also discussed music. We laughed about movies and sports, we lived our lives as anyone else would, and that was important. As mundane as it seemed, normalcy was a great way to advocate for equality, and to implore others to join.
Slowly the club grew, and it shrank as well. Members left for other clubs, some couldn’t find rides or approving parents. We missed school events, few of us could bake, and we could never agree to a proper schedule. It was chaotic. It was fun. And I did finally learn what it meant to be genderqueer and what it meant to be genderfluid.
While making posters for the group, the same freshman from before explained the difference. She said, her friend nodding appropriately, “Being genderqueer is like, it’s like when you don’t really believe in society’s depictions of gender, you can be both, y’know? And being genderfluid means you change over time.” I nodded quizzically. She looked at me again and said, “You don’t get it, do you, Mr. R?” and like a good teacher I said, “Of course I do!” and went home and did some quick research. There was so much I didn’t know, and that’s what amazed me. Sarah, James, and Drew — some of the most loyal and ardent supporters of the club — asked me during the third meeting why I’d started the club. They knew I was married, they knew I was straight, and my only response was about how I wanted everyone to feel accepted, and everyone should belong. I had gay friends growing up. I knew how much they suffered. I never wanted that for anyone.
As the year went on, the club’s co-founder eventually educated me about the Safe Space program, and we began offering it to willing educators and advocating its utility and humanity. Safe Space originated with the feminist movement, and branched out to the LGBTQ community in 1989. Safe Space offers packets, stickers and free printouts that allow teachers to mark their classrooms as hallowed ground for bullied students.
There’s still a disparity in the amount of schools willing to permit dialogue about sexual identity and LGBT safety — not out of a desire to persecute, but often out of an unwillingness to discuss subjects that they themselves are unfamiliar with. But the data regarding the safety of LGBT youth in America is alarming. The HRC reports that 26 percent of LGBT youth suffer from fears of acceptance and being outed; LGBT youth are also twice as likely as their straight-identified peers to have been physically harmed in school, because of their sexuality.
Promoting safety in the classroom, especially for LGBT youth, is more important now than ever, especially after the events in Orlando. Drew, one of the founding members of the club, offered a unique perspective on the shooting in an email: “I feel like this situation focuses heavily on aspects that Americans have already been debating for a while now (gun control, the fear of terrorism, radical Islam, immigration, etc.) and… the victims of the shooting are very much taking a back seat to the story… It’s a hot-button issue with many emotions surrounding it, and many of my friends dilute the story by tossing in other matters into the picture… it’s just that the LGBT community deserves recognition right about now.” Other members of the club expressed similar feelings.
I taught for only one year at Sunlake, but I was overjoyed at the end of that year to see our group’s photo in the yearbook as an official club. I’ve been invited back to several meetings since then, and each time I’m surprised to see how the club has grown. New faces, similar beliefs, but new narratives. I hear personal stories about the fears of parents’ judgment, of churches finding out, of being directionless in the search for identity. I hear stories about love. There’s infighting, but there’s also resolution. I feel incredibly proud.
Those students, my former students, are keeping the dream of the club alive. They’re providing a social space, a way for them to express themselves, to talk, to be who they are without fear or reciprocity. As the shootings at Pulse reminded us so cruelly, such safe spaces are needed more than ever.