June 22, 2012
From Isolation to Empowerment: Transforming A School’s Culture
The suburban Cincinnati high school from which I just graduated is often touted as “a melting pot.” Though my community is quite diverse, this region of Ohio is politically and socially conservative. As such, I found my high school environment quite stifling. I believed that frankness regarding my bisexuality was no option. I had simmered with confusion and anger for years. My demoralization deepened into depression. I felt pushed to the bottom of a deep emotional well; looking up, I could see no daylight. Upon turning seventeen, after years of hiding my fears and frustration, I knew something would have to change.
I discovered GLSEN, and began working with a therapist who helped me accept my sexual orientation. I also confided to a school counselor and an “out” lesbian vice principal. After joining Cincinnati PFLAG, I realized I was not alone. Through these vital contacts with caring professionals, I realized I was not weak, sinful, or inadequate.
As a senior, I decided to take the helm of our dying GSA. It had devolved into a club with no members. It was my vision to make it a viable force within the high school sphere. I voted myself president and recruited other students. I asked a celebrated athlete, the star quarterback, to become a board member. With his willingness to stand as an ally, the stature of the GSA dramatically rose.
I began to realize I had been wandering in my own psychological desert for years. Previously unaware of GLSEN, I was unable to benefit from its rich network of people and ideas. Each local and national news headline, announcing another incident of LGBTQ teen harassment, solidified my commitment to push for LGBTQ rights. GLSEN’s support helped me bolster the visibility and prestige of our GSA to over thirty members.
Perhaps the strength of GLSEN was demonstrated best at a faculty meeting. Administrators asked a representative of GLSEN to speak about the need for safe schools for all students’ regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Shawn Jeffers, a Cincinnati GLSEN chapter leader, spoke to the assembled teachers. His articulate and powerful presentation made an obvious and immediate impression. I also was allowed to relate to the faculty my personal experience as a bisexual student.
I provided an overview of my LGBTQ evolution. Then, I related a very pointed example of how adult indifference perpetuates severe distress among students. Weeks before, while walking to class, a male student playfully caught his friend’s attention shouting, “Hey, faggot!” I explained my pain from prejudice’s sharp blade. Although the apathetic teacher was sitting a few feet away, I showcased his failure to act at the slur. Although unnamed, the atmosphere at the faculty assembly became markedly uncomfortable. My point had been made.
Working with GLSEN helped our GSA create a genuine presence in the hallways and classrooms of my high school. We initiated Safe Space trainings for school staff, distributed Safe Space stickers, and handed out informational pamphlets. We brought in speakers, including a gay Cincinnati city councilman.
GLSEN Cincinnati has recently organized, promoted and hosted another successful LGBTQ prom. None of this could have been done this without Shawn Jeffers and the force of GLSEN empowering myself and many others. Their dedicated work allowed me to make a true impact upon my high school – in just one year. GLSEN is essential in shaping social attitudes and promoting a culture of acceptance for LGBTQ teens.
GLSEN changed not only my life, but my school’s culture as well.
Drew Gelwicks is a recently graduated senior in Cincinnati. He has been involved with GLSEN Greater Cincinnati for over a year and finished his high school tenure being his GSA’s president. He continues to work with his GLSEN chapter to ensure safe schools for all.
Take Action to #ReverseTheBan in Erie, IL
The Erie Community Unit School District in Illinois banned the use of GLSEN resources and programs such as No Name-Calling Week and Ready, Set, Respect! in elementary schools. These programs and resources – endorsed by national leaders in elementary education including the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Elementary School Principals – had been successfully used in schools in Erie until this decision. And they continue to be used in thousands of schools across the country.
We reached out to the School Board in hopes of opening a dialogue, and we asked the School Board to reconsider.
Unfortunately, the school board won’t budge. So now we need your help.