In 2008, E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, Calif. became the site of an anti-gay gun tragedy. At just 15 years old, Lawrence Fobes “Larry” King, who often went by “Leticia,” was shot dead by a fellow student because they were gender non-conforming and had romantic interests in boys at their school. A decade later, a space linked in the national psyche to intolerance has become one of the most welcoming insitituions for LGBTQ students. In fact, just Monday, E.O. Green’s GSA student organization, PRISM, won GLSEN‘s “GSA of the Year.”
“The impact that the E.O. Green Junior High School GSA has had in its first year is remarkable,” Dr. Eliza Byard, executive director at GLSEN, an education organization working to create safe and inclusive K-12 schools, said in a statement, also noting that the school has since added all-gender restrooms and hosts several LGBTQ events on campus. “… the school has been on a long journey. Today, it has nurtured the leadership of this dynamic group of youth advocates, and the future is looking brighter and brighter.”
While the shift has been a united effort — which Principal Heidi Haines says would not have been possible without the support of teachers, administrators and superintendents — young people drove the cause. We chatted with Valeria, a 13-year-old Mexican-American member of PRISM, about what you can do to make schools more welcoming, affirming and safer for LGBTQ students.
1. Start a GSA.
First things first: Your school should have a GSA. “Talk to a friendly teacher or principal to get support for the club and get your LGBTQ friends and allies together,” Valeria, a founding member of PRISM, told FIERCE. According to her, it doesn’t even matter how many people attend your meetings. “We started with 12 and now have 30 to 40 members,” she says. It’s also not really important to have a ton of previous leadership experience. With tools like GLSEN’s online Jump Start Guide, you’ll learn how to write a charter and organize on-campus activities.
2. Place LGBTQ-affirming posters throughout your campus.
Hang posters with pro-LGBTQ affirmations throughout your school. At PRISM, student members hold poster-making events and, together, and with the permission of their administrators, place them around their campus, so that students and teachers can see encouraging messages, like “love is love,” and important reminders, like “don’t assume someone is straight,” throughout the day.
3. Create a space where people can feel comfortable to talk, learn about, come to terms with and open up about their gender and sexual orientation on their own time and without shame.
Valeria first joined PRISM because she wanted to be in a supportive space where she could explore and understand her attraction to people of different genders. With discussions on gender and sexuality identities, rules to not discuss conversations that take place in meetings outside of the club and an overall positive and sympathetic atmosphere, Valeria was able to identify and come out as pansexual. “It’s a safe place, where you feel accepted, listened and supported,” she said.
4. Hire supportive staff.
The junior high school’s motto is “Everyone at E. O. Green is treated with dignity and respect,” and, for Valeria, that message is important for both students and teachers to know and follow. In order for schools to be a safe place for young people, she believes teachers and staff must be respectful of their students’ identities so that youth can turn to them should they need advice, discuss their feelings or experiences or even just to be heard. “Teachers need to have a positive energy and that, for me, means supporting, loving and caring and not judging anything about you,” she said.
5. Make sure that the curriculum is LGBTQ-inclusive.
At Valeria’s middle school, LGBTQ students see themselves in class lessons, from assignments that encourage critical thinking to readings that include positive representations of LGBTQ people and history that are affirming to students.
6. Have all-gender restrooms.
In its first year, PRISM has already convinced its school to add all-gender restrooms, so that transgender and nonbinary students can have a safe and private alternative to gender bathrooms, where they might face attacks or be outed.
7. Offer resources to students seeking additional help, services or representation outside of school.
While safe and affirming schools are necessary, LGBTQ young people need to feel accepted, respected and seen off campus as well. Valeria, for instance, wants schools to notify youth of resources available to them in their community and online as well as inform them of projects, events and media that might be helpful to them.
When Valeria’s peers leave her PRISM meetings, she wants them “to feel that they got everything they wanted to say out in the open,” “have tools to confront and handle problems” and “be happy, confident and go home with a positive attitude to their family and friends,” — and she, along with her award-winning club members — are able to accomplish this by creating a safe and affirming space for them on-campus.