Silent, no more: GLSEN comes to Philly

At the end of an overcast Friday afternoon, teens with rainbow stickers on their cheeks, advocate mothers with ‘X’s painted across their lips, city and state representatives filled with anger and pride, out principals and educators, and young LGBTQ student leaders gathered at the School District of Philadelphia Building for a welcoming party.

All were in attendance on North Broad’s District auditorium to usher in the long-awaited GLSEN Philly outpost (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), and its organization devoted to creating safe and inclusive spaces in schools for LGBTQ students. The School District of Philadelphia may have taken powerful steps to codify all the rights of gay, transgender and gender non-conforming student into official district policy; GLSEN helps ensure those steps and safeties are enacted.

The organization has its own set of codes, available through the Safe Space Kit (SSK), which include bathroom rights and freedom from harassment at every level. Students and educators from area schools can bring SSKs to their fellow classmates and teachers to help educate about anti-LGBTQ bias, as well as assess a school’s climate, policies, practices and aspects for change. These kits are available for anyone to purchase through GLSEN’s website. 

Friday afternoon’s “Silent Celebration” or, rather a “Break the Silence” celebration, found Neubauer Fellows Lauren Overton (principal of South 5th Street’s William M. Meredith School) and Michael Farrell (principal of 42nd & Spruce’s Penn Alexander School) leading the mass embrace for student safe spaces after long having spearheaded the launch of GLSEN Philly. “Let’s shake off the Friday end of day funk and break the silence with a scream,” yelled Overton before inviting a handful of LGBTQ-Identifying youths to read poems and speak their truths.

PA State Representative Brian Sims, Executive Director Amber Hikes from the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, teen leaders from Valley Youth House, The Attic and the Mazzoni Center were all in attendance, listening attentively and participating; conversations were happening among the city’s biggest players.

An opening slide show articulated how GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings worked to cease bullying, discrimination, harassment and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in K-12 schools.  After that, 44 GLSEN chapters across the U.S. were established to improve conditions and promote respect for LGBTQ students.

Sims, the first openly gay elected state legislator in Pennsylvania history, expressed gratitude in the ways that Philadelphia had become the “best plaice in America” for LGBTQ people and their advocates where they are “respected under the law.”

“Change is coming, “ Sims said, after expressing disappointment that it took so long to get a GLSEN Philly outpost up and running. Though he still feels Philadelphia has a long road ahead, Sims said, “By the time that I have the opportunity to vote for you, we’ll get this shit out of the way  We are at our best when we speak out and advocate for each other, and we are at our best, when we are loud and proud.”

That Philadelphia now has a GLSEN chapter, and the goal of those who attended the “Break the Silence” event was to bring the message of safe spaces and its officially sanctioned materials to schools across the city.

Hatboro-Horsham High School’s 18-year-old Anaïs Canepa – who identifies as “nonbinary, queer and Jewish” – has been advocating for GLSEN for years, choosing a sociopolitical role for her future, and the future of LGBTQ youth in this city. “I choose to get really political and really active because I got tired of being frustrated,” said the violet-haired teen. “If something needs to get done you need to do it yourself. I needed to put my foot in the door and get heard. This day of silence is a great start.”

Principle Michael Farrell, with his students surrounding him, stated that he didn’t have out teachers and educators as a kid. “It would have been powerful to look up, see them and know that it is OK to be gay. Now, I am inspired by educators around me, and with that we’re all trying to do to create safe spaces for these students and have them look up to someone who is out and proud.”

Farrell went on to say that GLSEN’s safe space ethos is necessary, especially at the middle and high school level. He said students approach him regularly with horrific stories of bullying and feelings of inadequacy and unsafety.. “The work must start as early as pre-K in creating safe spaces for inclusivity and difference – and continue through college and beyond.”

When asked why it took so long to get a GLSEN Philly up and running, Farrell laughed and claimed that he could show me the emails from 13 years ago (“the magic of Gmail”) where he wrote a letter to GLSEN looking to start a dialogue. “As I poked around and got this group to form, it became less about why it hasn’t, and more about the amazing things happening in this city and bringing youth groups together like Mazzoni, Attic Youth and more with the Mayor’s office of LGBTQ Affairs, and Brian Sims in a collaborative effort.”

Overton chimed in, adding that now there is a GLSEN Philadelphia, the goal within one year is to have a champion in every school to build safe spaces, as well a collective program that could aid all educators. “Our next step is to build capacity and insure that we have a GLSEN liaison in every school building – that is a most healthy first step.”