Safe Schools
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Gay-Straight Alliance Network is a youth leadership organization that connects school based GSAs to each other and community resources.

People ask us why we talk (about our transsexual son). We talk about it so eventually we won’t have to talk about it. We don’t talk about being left-handed.”

- Ruth Waterbury

Safe Schools

Efforts to help young people feel safe expressing themselves are spreading across the country, thanks to the hard work of dozens of organizations and thousands of individuals. The movement to provide safe schools is helped by clubs like Gay-Straight Alliances, efforts to link the clubs to one another, as well as the work of the National Safe Schools Roundtable that works to create more communication and collaboration among organizations working on safe schools across the U.S.; documentary films and supporting curricula help students understand that loving families come in many shapes, that bullying hurts everyone, and that growing up in a nurturing environment paves the way for healthy, productive, and happy lives.

Initiatives to make schools a safe place where students can be themselves are evident in Fresno California where Cynthia Covarrubias was nominated for prom queen of her high school. That wasn’t quite the honor she sought. Instead, Cynthia wanted to run for prom king. Thanks to the strong Gay-Straight Alliance club at her school, the transgender student found support to educate school leaders about state law and won the right to run for prom king. Cynthia wasn’t selected, but the struggle soon inspired another Fresno transgender student born male to run for prom queen - and win.

Carolyn Laub, director of California’s GSA Network, notes that with more than 650 clubs in California, the Gay-Straight Alliance movement has reached nearly half of all the state’s high schools. By helping train student leaders and mobilizing them to get involved in advocacy, the network pushes for school policy changes at the state and local levels. Now the network is helping New Mexico and Texas replicate the model.

“Individual young people feel safer to come out, safer at school, and they find a safe community,” Carolyn explains. “And they learn skills to be activists and leaders.”

Debra Chasnoff, director of GroundSpark, works to help elementary school students talk freely about differences. Through her organization’s documentary films and curriculum guides, children talk about the strengths of a variety of families and the importance of respect.

The goal of using films such as It’s Elementary and Let’s Get Real is not only to help students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender feel safer in school, it’s also about culture change. As Debra says, “The goal is to create empathy and give teachers a tool so when the film is over, every kid in the room wants to speak and talk about what they experience and observe.”

Those experiences, she has found, set children on a path towards respect for all people.

The path for philanthropists David and Ruth Waterbury began with a conversation with their daughter Margery after college. She told her parents she was a lesbian and was concerned about discrimination. Her crew cut financial a dvisor father explained that the Constitution offers protection - but Margery countered that she wasn’t protected.

“She was right,” David recalls. “This became an issue of fairness and equity to us.” Through the St. Paul/Minneapolis chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), they spoke to Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, to businesses, schools and churches and got involved in Minnesota’s successful inclusion of protections against discrimination for LGBT people in 1993.

When Margery later came out as transsexual and became Marcus, the Waterburys held a party at the downtown Minneapolis Club for 300 guests, toasting him on his 40th birthday and the beginning of his new life as Marcus. “We made a point of talking about this so other people wouldn’t be talking behind our back,” says Ruth. “It was a spectacular event.”

David joined the board of the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which works to ensure safe schools for all students, and he learned more about how discrimination interferes with education. “The high suicide statistics of gay kids caught our attention - and kids bullied at school don’t do as well as their peers do,” David says.

The Waterburys, who have participated in the Gill Foundation’s OutGiving program for philanthropists, endowed a scholarship at David’s alma mater, Yale University, and worked for 10 years to make sure the support goes to a student who plays an active leadership role in LGBT issues on campus. They were also instrumental in establishing the Human Sexuality Fund at Ruth’s alma mater, Carleton College in Northfield MN, which addresses issues of human sexuality in a variety of ways, including lectures, various activities and the purchase of books and publications.

Ruth compares the ways that her family’s experiences have fed into a broader movement to melting snow that finds its way to a creek and then a river, gathering force.

“It’s very intoxicating to feel you are part of change,” she says.