Natasha Fircher’s Gay-Straight Alliance helped her come out to her parents.
The same student organization at Rangeview High School in Aurora stopped Odessey Granger from hurting herself.
And if it wasn’t for the safe place the GSA provides Torrell Jackson, the leader of the organization, he believes he’d fall into self-destructive patterns, get in trouble, and break the law.
“The GSA teaches you, you can turn to other people,” Jackson told Chalkbeat Colorado last week during One Colorado’s fourth annual GSA Leadership Summit.
The daylong workshop at the Auraria Campus, hosted by the state’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy organization, aimed to build relationships among the state’s various gay-straight alliances. More than 150 middle school, high school, and college students gathered to learn, share ideas, and brainstorm how to improve their own school-based organizations.
In particular, this year organizers hope students left with the skills necessary to organize and campaign to run for a student leadership position.
For LGBT students, showing up to school, let alone running for an elected office, can be a difficult task with additional roadblocks. Advocates believe, and students profess, GSAs help students overcome those social and emotional obstacles to perform better in school. Now, One Colorado hopes the organizations can develop good students and active leaders.
“I was very nervous,” said Drew Turley, the Community College of Denver’s student body president, referring to his own campaign during a lunch work session. “I had conversations with members of all the different communities on campus — all I ever got was encouragement.”
Commerece City Democrat State Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, the youngest state senator and one of eight openly LGBT lawmakers in the General Assembly, told participants he and his family still get “funny looks” from constituents.
“We’re different than straight folks,” he said. “That’s OK. You shouldn’t be terrified to ask for support.”
As part of the summit, One Colorado is offering small grants to students who want to run for an elected office.
“We hope the summit allows students to have the platform to develop into the people they want to become and to be able to contribute to their community,” said Lauren Cikara, One Colorado’s safe schools manager.
In her role, Cikara coordinates services for more than 100 GSAs across the state. She also carefully monitors school districts and their anti-bullying policies.
Lauren Cikara on why GSAs are important
Colorado’s General Assembly in 2011 passed one of the most progressive anti-school bullying laws in the nation.
The new law, Cikara said, provides teachers and school administrators the ability to stop bullying and hopefully turn the situation into a teachable moment.
Coupled with the state’s existing nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender presentation, Colorado is often considered on the forefront of such policies.
“It all goes hand in hand,” Cikara said.
But as of the end of the 2013-14 school year, only 64 percent of school districts have updated their own guidelines to become compliant with state law.
While rural Colorado schools make up the lion’s share of districts that have not updated their polices, several school districts along the front range still lag behind, Cikara said.
Denver Public Schools, for instance, only updated their policies last school year. Separately, the Denver school system has expanded its GSA network from eight in 2011 to 40 this school year. According to Paula Keenan, who leads the district’s LGBT task force, 22,000 Denver students have access to a GSA.
“For the first time we have momentum in the middle schools,” Keenan said during a discussion of making schools more inclusive.
Students who participated in the same discussion encouraged teachers to make their curriculum and lessons more inclusive.
“Teachers’ lessons are more heteronormative than you think,” a student said. “All queer kids see during school is examples of straight couples. It would be so awesome if some examples on homework included same-sex couples. Teachers just don’t understand how LGBT students feel.”