Updated: Dec 4, 2020
By Jackie (Kiem) Kahrilas, School Social Worker at Friendship Junior High School
“My friend has gender dysphoria, and she wants to be a boy. I don't know how much you can help with this particular topic. The sooner you can talk to us, the better.” As a first-year school social worker with minimal experience, my imposter syndrome was naturally activated after receiving this email. My response: “I appreciate you reaching out--you bet I can help with this! How about Thursday during lunch?” My inner response: “I should probably touch upon that before Thursday during lunch.” That exchange was the beginning of my work with LGBTQ+ students. Several years later, with many more students, stories, and societal changes later, it has become clear that our LGBTQ+ students are a force to empower and embrace. The social workers in my district recognized that our students were becoming more self-aware, informed, and braver at a younger age. We could not ignore the need for attention, inclusion, and change.
The following year, with the support of the school’s administration and alongside the other two junior highs in District 59, Friendship Junior High started its very own Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) as a welcoming place of respect and acceptance. From the start, I found it important to empower the students to create the kind of club they wanted. Did they just want a place to socialize and make new friends? Did they want to be an advocacy club? I wanted them to guide the direction of the group, and there was no shortage of ideas. To be honest, most of the initial suggestions were fundraising ploys to go see Hamilton. Over time, though, the club has evolved into this genuinely sweet and safe place for students hoping to connect.
Each year, it has become increasingly more apparent how this population has continued to grow and demand a seat at the table. They have created posters to educate others and promote the club. They have participated in the day of silence. They have acted as consultants for me on a presentation for LGBTQ+ supportive classrooms offered to teachers. They have helped advocate for reconsidering male/female graduation procedures. Each year, I generally ask a few of the eighth-graders who have been natural leaders to step up and direct the group. That may look like planning our activities, leading our discussions, or generally herding the group when things get rambunctious. It has been a delight to witness them beam with pride when given the chance to contribute and lead.
I have noticed that, with the growth and stability of the GSA, several teachers have become more aware and intentional about their practices. I’ve had teachers share that they realized they should stop saying “ladies and gentlemen” to their class to avoid reinforcing a binary system. Teachers who want to hang rainbow flags in their rooms. Teachers who want to know how to thoughtfully approach students with pronouns or names that differ from their records. Science teachers who want to teach alleles and gene expression thoughtfully. Days before we shifted to remote learning in the spring, a teacher approached me, enthusiastically wondering how we can continue to educate staff about this. It has been incremental over the years, yet every conversation, email, and the question is just as meaningful and monumental as the one before it. To witness shifts in student and teacher perspectives has been one of the greatest joys of this job.
One of the other great joys is being a part of a greater movement. GSA sponsors across the state communicate frequently about how to best serve our LGBTQ+ students. The Illinois GSA advisor email listserv is one of the most inspiring, dynamic, and motivated groups of people. There is always an answer, suggestion, or some other kind of brilliant insight I can reference in a pinch. It is so comforting to know there are other educators out there doing the groundwork to affirm and support our students.
At times, and certainly, in recent months, it is easy to get discouraged about the state of the world. Having a GSA has been a bright spot that continues to affirm and celebrate youth, spurring positive ripple effects in the community at large. I look forward to more collaboration, celebrations, and change.
To contact Jackie, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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