By Marybeth Bock

Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, GLSEN (pronounced “glisten”) is a national organization that was started in 1990 by a small group of teachers in Massachusetts who came together with the goal to improve an education system that too frequently allows its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) students to be bullied, discriminated against, or fall through the cracks.

Now almost 30 years later, GLSEN has grown into the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe and affirming schools for LGBTQ students.

Did you know that currently 8 out of 10 LGBTQ students are still harassed at school each year because of who they are? And that 35% of LGBTQ students miss at least one day of school per month because they feel unsafe or uncomfortable?

GLSEN is working to change that. Here in Arizona, the Phoenix chapter of GLSEN is one of 43 across the United States. Accredited in 2002 and following a research-based model, it works throughout Maricopa County implementing localized solutions such as these:

A Student Organizing Program, which supports Gay/Straight/Transgender Alliance (GSTA) student leaders who demand equal access to educational activities and facilities. The chapter provides resources for these student leaders within six school districts.

A Safe Schools Professional Development Program for Educators, which includes delivering professional development workshops at schools and during statewide and regional conferences to pre-service and current K-12 teachers, administrators, and staff on how to create sustainable changes throughout their schools, including how to be an effective and visible ally using GLSEN’s Safe Space Kit.

A Safe Schools Policy Program which focuses on reformation and non-discriminatory implementation of anti-bullying/harassment/discrimination policies, dress and grooming codes, sexual health administrative regulations, and the state HIV/AIDS statute. This area requires significant improvement – Arizona’s sex ed and AIDS education guidelines disallow LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum. Only 7% of LGBTQ students in Arizona report attending a school with an “enumerated” anti-bullying policy that includes protection based on sexual orientation or gender/identity expression.

A Community Outreach Program which addresses reported incidents of anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in K-12 schools from parents, students, and teachers. Responses include making crisis and health-based referrals, helping to de-escalate and problem-solve, and providing evidence-based and institutional-wide solutions to prevent future individual-level victimization. GLSEN also raises public awareness about the importance of safety for and inclusion of LGBTQ youth and families in K-12 schools throughout Arizona.

For any student or family member interested in forming an alliance club at their school, Caryn Bird, the co-chair of the GLSEN Phoenix chapter, offers these tips:

“There are many pathways to forming a Gender and Sexuality/Gay Straight Alliance or the like.  Visiting will help folks find information on what a GSA is and how to get one started. Finding out the club process as detailed by the school is also a great starting point. Additionally, finding a teacher or school employee to be the sponsor is helpful.”