Happy Pride Month! We spoke with GSAFE co-executive director Brian J. to learn more about how the nonprofit creates just schools for LGBTQ+ youth in Wisconsin.
Brian has been involved with GSAFE since 1998 as a volunteer and joined the staff in 2002, and he wants to build a better place for kids – especially those who don’t conform to gender role expectations and have other marginalized identities – by creating safe and affirming spaces for the next generation. “I want to make sure students don’t have the same experience I had growing up as a closeted queer kid in rural Iowa in the ‘80s who faced bullying, harassment, and isolation,” he said.
GSAFE helps develop the leadership of LGBTQ+ youth, supports Gender and Sexuality Alliances, trains educators, advances educational justice, and deepens racial, gender, trans, and social justice. “Wisconsin was fortunate because it already had some basic protections for at least lesbian, gay, and bisexual students in place, as well as for educators – not that they were always being followed. Unlike some states, we didn’t have to fight to get protections for students or staff based on sexual orientation. But we still have that fight for gender identity,” Brian said. “For example, we’ve worked with school districts to create nondiscrimination policies for trans students. We’re able to focus on building student leaders and providing education for educators as opposed to just getting simple protection so that students could form clubs and talk about these topics in schools.”
Over the last three decades, GSAFE has been working alongside educators and administrators to “help them improve their skills and learn how to create a safe, affirming, and more inclusive space for our queer, trans, and nonbinary kids,” Brian said. GSAFE has seen an uptick in requests from students and educators, particularly since 2016 when the political landscape shifted and in 2020 due to the pandemic. “There’s been a heightened scrutiny around schools, because it’s become politically advantageous for some to target efforts that help students of color and LGBT youth feel included and supported. Of course, those aren’t mutually exclusive. Organizations have also been eager to sue school districts for doing the right thing to support students, both on the statewide and national level. This has created a chilling effect on schools, in that some schools that had previously been interested in trainings or engaging in best practices have started to retreat. On the flip side, others are doubling down that their role as public schools is to support students.”
In addition to professional development and advocacy work, GSAFE also hosts multiple leadership conferences, classes, and a camp throughout the year for students. The goal is to connect “student advocates from across the state to break isolation and to help them build community with each other,” Brian said.
So, how can the average citizen in Wisconsin support LGBTQIA+ students and staff on a local level? One way is to pay attention to the meetings and makeup of your school boards. “Whether or not you have kids in school, let them know you’re a voter and resident of the community who really values and supports the things that we know keep LGBT students and youth of color safe in school. Because it’s really easy not to make noise, and it can get very scary for school leaders when there’s a small but vocal group pushing them to adopt repressive measures and policies. It’s an all-hands-on-deck political moment. The crisis is happening right now, and students can’t afford to have folks stand on the sidelines,” Brian said.
And, regardless of the amount you are able to donate, invest in organizations that are doing this work, such as GSAFE. “If a whole bunch of really thoughtful people across our state signed up to donate just $5 a month, we could hire a lawyer to push back against policies that harm kids, for example. Together we can actually make a huge impact.” To learn more, visit gsafewi.org.
GSAFE also holds community events and fundraisers that you can attend and support, such as:
(Photos courtesy of GSAFE)