As the shelves in every department store fill with school supplies, students across the country, including me, get ready to return to the classroom. We sigh and reluctantly sling our backpacks over our shoulders. Every student has a general sense of uneasiness when going back to school, whether because of our chaotic sleeping schedules or the hours of homework to come. But this year, I'm particularly scared.
As an LGBTQ student, I find school especially difficult. When I think about going back to school, I think about returning to unfriendly classrooms or bathrooms. School is a battleground for LGBTQ students like me, and sometimes our first priority is not learning, but safety. Being afraid to use the restroom all day can distract you from your classwork, and the anti-LGBTQ slurs you hear can make you hesitant to participate in class discussion. Bullies come in all forms: other students, and sometimes even teachers. All in all, LGBTQ students overwhelmingly feel alone.
Last year, I had these same fears. But I had a line of defense waiting for me: my GSA. My friends and peers, under the facilitation of my teacher advisor, afforded me protection and support. We held trainings for teachers and students about creating safe schools, and we hosted LGBTQ events for the first time in my school. I had never truly felt welcomed in my school until the GSA prompted my school to embrace my identity. I made new friends and found allies, all because of my club.
This year is different. I don't have a GSA waiting for me. At the end of last year, we said goodbye to our teacher advisor as she transferred to another school. Now, as the school year quickly approaches, I'm worrying about what safe spaces will be available to me. As the president of the GSA, I tried my best to find another available teacher, but my search has so far come up empty.
This summer has been hard, because I know my last year of high school may not be as positive or affirming as the last two. My own feelings aside, I'm also worrying for the freshmen coming into my school. The benefits of having a safe space in school cannot be overstated. For students, a GSA can be the difference between coming to school or not. Even the presence of GSA posters in the hall with messages such as “Trans is Beautiful” and “Gay is Okay!” changes the entire school atmosphere. This year, if we don’t find an advisor, there will be no posters or LGBTQ events sponsored by the GSA. LGBTQ students will feel alone, with no visible safe spaces to go to for help.
According to GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey, GSAs provide particular benefits for LGBTQ students. LGBTQ students in schools with a GSA are less likely to hear anti-LGBTQ remarks and less likely to report feeling unsafe because of their sexual orientation than students without a GSA in their school. LGBTQ students with a GSA in their school also report feeling more connected to their school community than students without a GSA.
I'm not the only student in this situation. There are students across the country facing an uncertain year ahead. Teachers and students must step up and create safe spaces for themselves and the rest of their school. To provide support this back-to-school season, GLSEN is distributing GSA resources, including new GSA activities and soon-to-be released GSA videos. My friends and I are committed to continuing our GSA, and will be meeting with possible advisors throughout the new school year. We don’t want a GSA; we need one. Through this search, I’ve realized a few things. If we’re equipped with the right tools and all work together, we can create safe schools and make the future for LGBTQ students a little less scary.
James van Kuilenburg is a member of GLSEN’s National Student Council.