What’s in a name? It’s a loaded question for the students of Goodkind High School, who refer to their Gay-Straight Alliance as the Geography Club to keep it a secret from the rest of their school.
Opening in theaters Friday, “Geography Club” is a new film that tackles anti-LGBT bullying through the eyes of students determined to make a difference in their high school. The movie is an adaptation of Brett Hartinger’s novel of the same name. Among the talented cast are Nikki Blonsky, best known for her role as Tracy Turnblad in the 2007 musical film “Hairspray,” and Alex Newell, who came into the spotlight recently playing transgender teenager Unique Adams on “Glee.”
GLSEN had the amazing opportunity to talk to Nikki, who performed at GLSEN’s Respect Awards – New York in 2011 and has been an active supporter of LGBT rights throughout her career. We spoke with Nikki on the phone about her own experiences with bullying, her connection to the cause, and how she prepared for her role as a punk-y lesbian teenager. Interview has been edited and condensed.
GLSEN: What about this movie first caught your attention?
Nikki Blonsky: I read the script and I said to myself, “This movie is so different. This movie is what kids need to see now.” This movie stands for everything I believe in. My gay fans have been extremely supportive of me – all my fans have – but I wanted to do this in honor of them. I wanted to step in their shoes for the movie and portray somebody in their community, to say I got as close as I could to the experience of living life as a lesbian.
Did you have any discussions with the other actors about the issues that are covered in the film?
We did. The night before we were going to start filming, I called the girl who plays my girlfriend, and I had only met her once before. I said, “I just want to talk to you about tomorrow. I want it to be really authentic. This isn’t about two women or two men, it’s about two people loving each other. So if we can find that love for each other just as humans and portray that, then I think we’ll be golden.” I told her we were an open book from here on out. From that day on, it was easy-breezy with her on set.
What was the most memorable part of working on the movie?
My look is very different in this movie. Between the cornrows and the leather jacket and the hoops and the Doc Martins and the chains, it’s nothing I’ve done before, and that’s thrilling to me. But probably my favorite part of this movie is sticking up for the kid who gets bullied all the time. I get right in front of the football players’ faces and give them a little bit of my mind, That, and learning the play the guitar in two days. I’m not Carlos Santana, but I learned a few things.
Can you describe your character, Terese, and how she fits into the story?
Terese is Min’s girlfriend, and they create this boring-sounding club called Geography Club because they figure nobody will want to join it, but that’s where all the LGBT kids are. Terese creates this really hard shell with the way she dresses, and the way she gives this look in her eye. She’s so afraid of people cracking that shell and seeing the soft, lovable Terese that’s inside, and I think that’s absolutely what so many kids do nowadays. I think Terese’s role is to protect the kids in the Geography Club and also to protect herself and her heart, and to show people not to judge a book by its cover.
Has bullying ever affected you? How?
I was bullied my entire school career, from elementary school all the way up – middle school was probably the worst time of my life – and I still get bullied to this day. I get mean-tweeted all the time, whether it’s about my weight, my height, my this, my that. A long time ago, my grandma taught me that people make fun of you because they’re insecure with themselves. When people mean-tweet me or when somebody says something to me, I don’t even respond. No matter how hard we all try, we’re not perfect, we’re never going be perfect. And if we were perfect, what fun would that be? Normal’s no fun.
Did you bring any of that experience to your portrayal of Terese?
I brought that all to my character. When people say mean stuff to me [as Terese] or look at me weird, I give them this attitude, like, “Who gives a crap about you, anyway? What horse did you ride in on?” She doesn’t have time for them and neither does the school. She never verbalizes it, but she looks at them and her little snark and giggle is more than they can handle.
Given your experiences, what advice would you give to kids who are bullied?
When somebody pushes you up against a locker or says something bad to you, just look at them and laugh them in the face. That will piss them off to the highest extreme. It’s telling them, “Your words don’t bother me. You’re wasting your breath.”
Your character in the film is afraid to come out. How do you think that will resonate with viewers?
Way before this movie, my closest cousin visited me while I was doing Hairspray. He said, “Hey, can I talk to you about something?” We went in another room and he said, “You’re the first person I’m telling because you’re the closest person to me. I’m gay.” And I hugged him, and he said, “Are you OK with it?” I said, “Are you kidding me? I love you and I want you to live the best, happiest life you can. I don’t care who you decide to partner up with, I just want you to be happy. If anything, I will hook you up with one of the most beautiful dancers in the movie.” Coming out is a scary thing. I couldn’t imagine doing it myself, but the people who do show us what real strength is and real courage is.
Why is it important to you to speak out about anti-LGBT bullying?
There have unfortunately been so many kids not knowing where to turn, not having an ally or anywhere to go to talk about these issues. When Geography Club comes out, I feel if everybody watched it the first week of high school, it would make things so much easier for the next four years. I think that kids just need an outlet, and parents could be a little more vocal with their kids. I’ve always been extremely vocal with my parents; I talked to them about every single thing, and I still do. You can still have your privacy, but talk to them, because they’re the ones who have been there since the beginning and they’ll be there till the end.
What message do you hope audiences will take from the film?
I hope audiences take away that love isn’t about gender. I hope audiences realize that this goes on in schools every single day across the nation and the world, and we need to stop it. And I think audiences, even adults who bully other adults, need to realize we have one shot at life, so why would you waste your time bullying another person? And it’s a funny movie at the same time. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll want to see it again.
That’s true! And there aren’t many movies out there like it.
That’s what I’m so proud about. People are finally taking this seriously and saying, "Hey, it’s a movie about today’s generation, we’re going to put it on a big screen." Everyone in a movie theater is going to see two guys kissing, two girls kissing, so what? That’s today’s generation. I’m so proud to be a part of this movie because I think it can do so much for this generation. I just hope everybody watches it. If every single person who sees it takes a little bit from the film, we’ll have done our jobs.
This August, GLSEN Student Ambassadors attended a screening of HBO's new documentary "Valentine Road." We invited them to share their experiences and reactions to the film as it is released to general audiences.
Have you ever seen a film that moves you so much, you leave the room a different person?
That is what happened to me this past August when I had the opportunity to watch HBO’s documentary “Valentine Road.” This film follows the aftermath of the murder of Lawrence King, a 15-year-old student who was killed by one of his classmates in 2008.
Watching this documentary was an extremely emotional process for me. In my life, I try and surround myself with supportive people. My friends and family help me feel safe, and I cannot imagine where I would be without their support. Knowing that a kid was brutally murdered as a result of homophobia and transphobia is heartbreaking, but it all gets worse once you see the people who disagree. Valentine Road showcased all sides of the story, from his friends and supporters to the prejudiced teachers, jurors and members of the community who believed Larry deserved his death. I was angry and sad, but also very inspired.
Larry’s death was a tragedy, and sadly it is only one of the many that happen every day around the world. And that is why we need to keep working every day to change the hearts and minds of those who still believe that being who you are is wrong. After watching “Valentine Road,” I wanted to make a change, and I knew that this was not going to happen unless I worked hard every day.
Sadly, we still live in a world full of hate, and this is why watching this documentary is a must for everyone. As horrifying as it can be, it is important that we all know such crimes occur, because looking the other way won’t make them go away. So, understanding that this film is very emotional and crude, I believe that everyone should watch it, and I strongly encourage anyone to see it with a proper support system in place. This film changed me for the better, and I am so thankful I had the opportunity to watch it.
Paulina Aldaba is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
This August, GLSEN Student Ambassadors attended a screening of HBO's upcoming documentary "Valentine Road." We invited them to share their experiences and reactions to the film leading up to its official release.
Stunned. Appalled. Riveted. Frightened. Enraged. Energized to demand change.
I experienced all of these feelings and more during GLSEN’s Student Ambassador Summit in August while viewing the groundbreaking documentary "Valentine Road," about the senseless murder of young Lawrence King. As one of the first youth to see this emotionally charged film before its official release on October 7, I had a unique glimpse at its extremely disturbing and sensitive material.
No matter how much the subject matter horrified me, I am definitely changed for the better having seen the depths some can go to punish alleged violations of gender roles and expectations, even those of a 15-year-old child. It has given me even more drive to rectify King’s death and make sure that such a purely homophobic/transphobic murder may never occur again.
As angry as I was to see many of the testimonials of prejudiced teachers or jurors and the results of the trial of Larry’s killer, the film did not simply blame Brandon McInerney for his crime. Instead, the documentary chose to analyze the story from both sides of the gun, providing a complete tableau of the factors which contributed to Larry’s murder. It left no stone unturned, addressing homophobia and transphobia, racial prejudice, class, abusive histories, family and community support, mental illness, school violence, the failings of the “justice” system, safe schools legislation, and the complications of age in the eyes of the court, among other issues.
"Valentine Road" is a must-see for GSAs and other similar school or community clubs. However, the nature of the film is wrought with emotion and sensitive material. In fact, I was so affected that I cried in the theater, and I was most certainly not alone. Thus, GSAs should be careful before showing this powerful film to students. A safe space filled with ample amounts of tissues, love, and support is required before anyone sees the film.
Most of all, I deeply recommend that a time be provided to discuss its themes and details, whether that be directly following the film showing or a week or more afterward, though, frankly, I would recommend both. This way, immediate reactions may be shared in addition to feelings that emerge after an audience has had time to process the film.
This documentary empowered me to continue my crusade to support LGBTQ* students in and out of our nation’s schools, and I am thankful to have seen it. Please consider watching it to learn more about the life-and-death situation of bullying and discrimination facing LGBTQ* students, the brief but impactful life of Lawrence King, and what you can do to make a difference for students at risk.
Liam Arne is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
If someone told me three years ago that I would be a pansexual LGBT activist, I would have never believed it. I remember the times when I would sit in my room and just seethe at the fact that I wasn’t entirely sure about my sexuality. I didn’t like a particular set of people, and even if I had a “type” I was attracted to, it wasn’t enough to make a decision. I had never come out as any sexuality up until a year ago when I learned about the other sexualities that didn’t quite make it to the ever-growing acronym. Ever since that day, I can only remember positive thoughts about my sexuality and how it really suits me.
I just started my senior year in high school and the time has flown by faster than I can even fathom.
When I started school as a freshman, I was excited to join my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. It was one the main reasons I chose to attend the school that I will be graduating from in just a few months. This year is a very big year for me and my GSA because I’m finally stepping up and taking the reins on the club. Ever since I started high school, I have talked to many different teachers and other youth coordinators about how to make the GSA more active, but now that I have years of experience, I know exactly what we’re going to do to make our club known at school.
All summer I’ve been planning monthly events to do with the GSA and trying to get club members’ feedback on how to make my plans work for everyone. So far I have a calendar full of themed months based on Days of Action, remembrance days, and LGBT topics in general. Once clubs start up for the year, I hope to add some kind of educational component to the GSA to teach students about LGBT issues and what the club means. My school is a very liberal school that allows free gender expression and sexual orientation, so I have no doubt that once this is implemented, people will be more interested in being a part of the GSA.
I think it’s important for students to actually learn about human sexuality outside of the standard health class lectures. I would love to see teachers including LGBT figures in their lesson plans no matter what subject they teach. I remember when my ninth-grade English teacher had my class read the story “Am I Blue?” from the book of the same title. That was my first real experience of talking about being LGBT in an open environment and I will never forget it. It would mean so much to me if there were more people able to experience that.
While it’s a bittersweet feeling to be a senior, I can only enjoy everything that comes my way this year and hope that all my memories of being a high school student can help inspire other people.
Jada Gossett is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
School started a month ago in my district. Students’ alarms started ringing sooner than they did during the summer, bringing life and smiles to lonely bathroom mirrors. Toaster pastries and cereal began to fill bellies once again in the familiar morning routine as students began their days.
However, I wasn’t so thrilled about school because I was all too familiar with the unsafe feeling of being openly gay in a rural area. I knew that this would be my last year and my community has a lot of growing to do through policies, community involvement, and setting up and maintaining safe zones within my school. With that thought in mind, I also know that I am leaving behind a changed school and an improved atmosphere because of my GSA and through allies I have gained, who will advocate on behalf of all of my LGBTQ peers.
The GLSEN Middle Tennessee chapter has already started planning and hosting events around days of action such as Ally Week. To kick things off, GLSEN Middle TN co-hosted an Ally Week Photo Shoot Campaign on September 11 with the Music City Sisters and Out & About Nashville, which celebrates 11 years in October as Middle Tennessee's leader in LGBT news. The event was for supportive community members to show their support for Tennessee students and proclaim their commitment to being an ally!
Those who couldn’t make it to the event don’t have to miss out on the fun, though. GLSEN Middle TN also encourages everyone who wants to participate to print off an Ally Week sign and post it on the GLSEN Middle TN Facebook page, post it on Instagram with the hashtag #AllyWeek2013, tweet their photo to @OutandAboutNash and @GLSENMiddleTN, or email it directly to email@example.com.
The photos from the campaign will be featured in the October 2013 edition of Out and About Nashville and support our next Ally Week event, which will be held during Ally Week on October 24! GLSEN Middle TN will be co-hosting their next event with the Nashville GLBT Chamber of Commerce.
GLSEN Middle TN is thankful for all of its sponsors and co-hosts, without whom events like these would be nearly impossible. There will be more events on the agenda for the coming year, which I am looking forward to participating in and helping to organize! By engaging the public in initiatives like Ally Week and other days of action, GLSEN Middle TN is able to make an impact on the greater community and change schools in Tennessee.
Though I am leaving for college in the coming year, opening myself to new opportunities, and gaining more knowledge alongside GLSEN, I couldn’t be happier to look around and see the community that I will be leaving progressing in the right direction. Middle Tennessee is on a path to safer and more inclusive schools and I am happy to be a part of the great work GLSEN is doing in my area.
Andrew Lawless is a GLSEN Student Ambassador and GLSEN Middle Tennessee leader.
As a high school student, going back to school can be both stressful and exciting. You don't know what to expect, but in your head you make a whole bunch of assumptions, some negative and some positive. Being a gay high school student and going back to school, the only thing you truly want is to have a great year with people who accept and love you for who you are.
I attend a high school that just opened about a year ago, and in addition to the school a new club was born: a Gay-Straight Alliance. My GSA started with three people and we are gradually building up week by week. Our main goal is to bring more awareness about LGBT issues and, of course, create an alliance between our gay and straight students in hopes we can create a safe environment for all our students.
I personally would like to see more encouragement from teachers. I have always been told by my teachers to get good grades and excel academically, but I am never told to be myself and to embrace who I am as a gay student. I would like to see more teachers inspiring students who are LGBT to be themselves, giving them a sense of security and giving them a friend, someone who they can come to for whatever reason.
On the other hand, there are numerous things students can do to make back-to-school pleasant and stress-free for LGBT students. Instead of following the crowd and automatically ignoring the students who are different from them, students can do the simplest of things, like not making insulting comments about one’s actions or appearance (thinking before they speak) or asking students who are alone at lunch if they would like to sit with them. The most effective thing they could do is smile when they see an LGBT student. Little heartwarming gestures can be the best way to start off a new school year.
As this is my last year being a high school student, there are a few things I want to achieve before the school year is over. Mainly, I would like to set a foundation at my school: a legacy where people are not ashamed to be who they are, but in reality are more than happy embracing their sexuality. I also really hope I can achieve a lot with my GSA club this year, most importantly by informing the students of issues faced by the LGBT community in hopes they will be inspired to help us make a difference. The ultimate and last thing I hope to achieve this school year is to find and apply to a college which has an amazing GSA. After high school is done, I want to continue to be a representative, an advocate, and a voice for my fellow LGBT community.
In conclusion, being a gay high school student might come to an end, but my future being an LGBT representative is soon to begin.
Dustin Gallegos is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
When I was bullied for a few years, I didn't feel safe at school. I was unhappy, sad, and uncomfortable. I would try pretending to be sick to not go to school. In one year, I missed 95 days of school for fear of being bullied.
I thought that when I started in a new grade in an upper-level school, everything would change. I would have friends, sit at a lunch table with friends, and be able to socialize and gossip about favorite pets and favorite boy bands. But when I started sixth grade, it didn't change at all. I was still bullied. Everyone except two people—one who is a lesbian, and another who was gay—wouldn't talk to me.
The only place where I felt safe and could eat my lunch was the library. I could talk to the librarian and help students check out books and show them where to find books.
Then in seventh grade, we got a new librarian, one who is a strong supporter of GLSEN and the LGBT community. I still hung out in the library and helped with the students. Then a few weeks later, she put up a Safe Space poster on her bulletin board. As soon as I saw that poster, I knew I was safe in the library.
When school started this year, I walked past the principal's office; I noticed that he also had a Safe Space sticker on his window. I was surprised that he had a sticker on his window. When I saw that poster and sticker, I finally knew I was safe at school. Safe to be myself, safe to come out about my sexuality. Perfectly safe. I could be free.
Katarina “Kat” S. is an eighth-grader at the Creative and Performing Media Arts School (CPMA) in San Diego, California.
Today, GLSEN announced the launch of its #SpotTheSticker campaign, an endeavor to recognize, highlight and celebrate the thousands of schools where LGBT students can feel safe, affirmed and respected.
The GLSEN Safe Space sticker and poster are important components of the Safe Space Kit, a resource guide for educators to become better allies to LGBT students. Three years ago, GLSEN launched the Safe Space Campaign, with the goal of putting a Safe Space Kit in every middle and high school in the country – all 60,000 of them. As we prepare to wrap up the Safe Space Campaign this October, we’re celebrating by spreading the word about the huge number of educators and community members who show support for LGBT students.
Participating in the #SpotTheSticker campaign is easy, and anyone can do it. First, find a Safe Space sticker or poster at school, at work, at your local community center, or anywhere else. Then, just snap a picture. You can take a photo of the sticker alone, a selfie with the sticker in the background, your GSA posing with the sticker—be creative! Finally, upload the picture to glsen.org/spotthesticker and share it on social media using the hashtag #SpotTheSticker. It’s that simple: just spot it, snap it and share it!
When you take and share a photo, you encourage educators to put up their own Safe Space stickers and posters, sending a message of support to LGBT youth across the country. You’ll also be spreading the word about the value of GLSEN’s Safe Space Kit. GLSEN research has shown that having visible allies at school improves LGBT students’ academic achievement, aspirations for the future and personal well-being. By participating in the #SpotTheSticker campaign, you can help show educators nationwide just how important it is to support LGBT youth.
For more information about #SpotTheSticker, check out glsen.org/spotthesticker and follow the hashtag #SpotTheSticker on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. We can’t wait to see where you find stickers!
My experience at the GLSEN Student Ambassadors Summit was truly one of the best times of my life. I met so many wonderful people whom I am honored to call friends. I also met so many influential people who have shaped my life for the better. Hearing so many inspiring stories gave me a brand new outlook on life.
I never expected to be one of the finalists, and once I was told I would be attending the Media Summit my jaw automatically fell to the floor. I was so excited and nervous at the same time. I tried so hard to keep it to myself, but I was filled with so much excitement I couldn't help but tell all my beloved friends and family, who encouraged me to go, knowing it would make me really happy. I didn't know what to expect, but I knew in my heart no matter the outcome I would leave the Summit filled with much contentment and a new mindset.
I learned so much while attending the Media Summit, but out of every experience I encountered, I will never forget my co-ambassadors. It’s surprising that people who were strangers just a couple of weeks ago became very good friends in a short amount of time. We all created strong friendships doing something that meant so much to us: giving a voice to the LGBT community, and advocating for safer schools. I learned so much from them: I learned that you can be successful regardless of your sexual orientation, and to not be afraid to be yourself because of what people might think.
My experience at the Media Summit really changed me. I was so inspired by everyone's coming-out stories that on the day of my return, I fully came out to my mom. In the past, I had told her I was bisexual in hopes that she could accept me more easily, but that was a lie. For a very long time I knew I was gay, but I didn't want to accept it. I lived in fear for many years. That all changed because of the Media Summit. I became more confident, I became happier, and I became a new person—one who now wants to make a change in this world.
Now that the Media Summit is over, I will share my story in hopes of inspiring others. I will begin to blog, vlog, and anything possible to reach as many people as I can. I want to inspire people not to live in fear, but to embrace who they are. Thank you, GLSEN, for teaching me so many useful and wonderful skills, for making me realize how truly special I am, and for giving me a family.
Dustin G. is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.
My life was fatefully changed August 7, 2013.
That was the day I attended GLSEN’s Student Ambassador Summit as my inauguration into this esteemed program that was all I had wanted to be a part of for several years. As I sat for six hours of plane rides to glistening Los Angeles, my mind danced about, pondering how truly excited and humbled I was to be a part of GLSEN’s elite student team.
Questions poured over my brain: “Out of more than 500 applicants, why was I chosen to be one of just nine participants? Why am I valuable enough to be flown thousands of miles from Virginia to California for four wondrous days of learning and community? Do I really have a story to tell?”
By the time I arrived at the Summit, meeting the eight other students and the GLSEN staff helped me realize that I was chosen for a reason, whether or not that reason was abundantly clear to me; I did have a powerful story to tell.
The first day was a whirlwind of anxious and joyous interactions with staff and fellow Ambassadors, flooding me with expectations for the upcoming days. After we were interviewed about our experiences in school for an educational resource organization, I thought it couldn’t get any better. I was most certainly wrong.
The second day of the program was one of the most exhilarating of my life. En route to the KABC television station, I bonded with my compatriots and the adult GLSEN employees over a simple breakfast. More than any icebreaker or training session, this opened me up to being comfortable expressing myself and my experiences to a mostly foreign group.
At KABC, we met with distinguished TV news veterans and professionals who shared their stories of success, took us on eye-opening tours of their innovative facilities and even featured us on their own news report! Following some insightful interview training from the best in the business, each of the Ambassadors had the privilege of speaking a few lines for promotions of GLSEN’s Days of Action, like Day of Silence and Ally Week, as well as being interviewed about our personal experiences revolving around being LGBTQ* students in school, surviving bullying, and how we planned to engage and activate our schools and communities to make bullying stop.
A lot of my fellow Ambassadors were nervous about public speaking, but not me. I was predominantly worried that I wouldn’t have an adequate story to tell that could make any impact at all. However, as the GLSEN staff rolled introspective questions, I spoke from the heart and explored who I was and how I was honestly making a change. I found out why I was worthy enough to be a fundamental member of this team of “superstar students of GLSEN.”
The third day turned out to be the most entertaining of them all. On that Friday morning, the small GLSEN caravan traversed abysmal L.A. traffic to arrive at the West Coast HBO headquarters. An inspiring video chat unfolded with Noah Michelson, the editor of The Huffington Post’s Gay Voices section, who discussed at length his rise to fame and influence, demonstrating the power we had to make a difference for LGBTQ* people. Soon thereafter, my fellow Ambassadors and I were given the privilege to be the first youth to view an astoundingly moving and socially conscious documentary which will be coming out in the next few months, in addition to discussing the film with its producer. A discussion with the executive editor of The Advocate and Chief Correspondent of Fandango followed, inspiring us to reach for all that we could in our futures while staying true to our identities and our passions.
The fourth day went by in a blink. Suddenly, I was off to LAX, preparing for my flight home. It was a shame to have spent only four days with the supremely inspirational new members of the Student Media Ambassador team and the upbeat GLSEN staff. In those four days, I cried, I laughed (until I cried), I learned, I saw, I marveled, I inspired, I loved, I lived, I transformed, I gained.
But most of all, I was affirmed. I was affirmed that I was worthy of being in the presence of such impactful people and that I would be, if not already am, one of them. I was affirmed that I could make a change in my peers’ lives. I was affirmed that I was a porous sponge, soaking up all knowledge and beauty and experiences around me with eager ease, capable of sharing those same influences with those around me. I was affirmed that GLSEN is home to me.
Liam A. is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.