These Student Activists from GLSEN's Award-Winning GSA Are Changing Their World
This GSA has already changed their high school. Next on their list? Change the rest of the world.
The 2016 GLSEN Respect Awards took place on the evening of May 23rd. The awards featured plenty of famous faces, including Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, Empire executive producer Ilene Chaiken, Empire star Jussie Smollett, and LGBT activist Edie Windsor. But the real stars of the evening—as evidenced by the standing ovation following their acceptance—were the high school GSA students from the Academy for Young Writers.
GLSEN, which has championed LGBT rights for K-12 students since 1990, awarded the Brooklyn high school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance the title of GSA of the Year for its numerous accomplishments. Among the organization's achievements, these driven student activists have ensured the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms in their school, met with the New York City Department of Education to advise on trans-inclusive policies, and formed an anti-bullying pledge initiative.
I had the chance to talk with three GSA members—Spencer Washington, Dio Ayala, and Daniel Collado—as well as their faculty advisor, Michelle Eisenberg, and their principal, Courtney Winkfield. Here’s what they had to say about their evening at the GLSEN Respect Awards, the changes they’ve seen in their school, and their goals for the future.
PRIDE: You’re coming off this huge moment of being honored as GSA of the Year at the GLSEN Respect Awards. What was the most exciting or surreal moment of the evening for each of you?
Spencer Washington: I’d say my favorite moment was meeting Jussie Smollett, and thanking him personally, and taking photographs.
Dio Ayala: My favorite moment was meeting Jussie Smollett, because he was really nice and funny.
Daniel Collado: My favorite or most surreal moment was when the award went into my hands.
PRIDE: What does having that kind of acknowledgment and platform mean to you?
Spencer: For me, it meant that the GSA has worked hard. It meant that we’ve grown from a five-member group to over 20 people, with allies who are advocating for transgender rights to use bathrooms, for people to feel safe in hallways, and even outside the community.
Dio: What the award means is that we actually did something to change the world, and we’re helping others the same way people help us.
PRIDE: You’ve accomplished a huge amount. What was the process like of creating gender-neutral bathrooms in your school, or creating a pronoun awareness day?
Spencer: For the pronoun awareness day, a friend of mine came to me about it with resources and why it could be helpful. Often people just use whatever pronouns, instead of really thinking about, 'Okay, this person goes by they and them, and this is why this matters to them as a person.' Instead of just, 'I’m going to call them something based on how I see their gender.'
Daniel: With the gender-neutral bathroom, I have a friend that is gender fluid, and thought, ‘What bathroom is my friend going to go to?’ You should feel comfortable going to the bathroom. You shouldn’t feel unsafe going to the bathroom.
PRIDE: The transgender bathroom rights conversation has become this huge national conversation. How do you view your role as young activists in this larger struggle?
Spencer: For me, being that I am a transgender individual myself, I would have to deal with discrimination if I were in North Carolina. The way I would handle that is to not only go to the state legislature but to find different ways to defend minors. Regardless of how we’re viewed, we still need to feel safe in our communities.
PRIDE: Michelle, what’s the most rewarding thing that you’ve learned from being an advisor to this GSA?
Michelle Eisenberg: If you give young people the platform and the space to voice what they want and who they are, anything is possible. I wasn’t even out at this school five years ago, so if you had told me that we were going to be on stage as the Gender and Sexuality Alliance of the Year, in front of the entire country, speaking in front of over a thousand people, I would not have believed it. And it only happened because of these students. They never back down from doing what they know is right. Even the gender-neutral bathrooms, I think two years ago I would’ve said, ‘I don’t know if I can make that happen.’ Just because of my fear of pushback. They brought it to our principal Courtney [Winkfield]’s attention, and now we have it, and there’s been no issue, and no pushback. So, I think my own fears have been reflective of what’s happening in the country right now, over these adults being scared, and taking that out on our young people’s rights.
PRIDE: To compare Michelle’s high school experience and the GSA’s experience, do you think the climate in schools has gotten more accepting overall?
Daniel: [Our school] has gotten more accepting, but there will always be new students and new people that you have to educate, and just let them know that there are different terms and different names for everything, and that it’s okay that everybody is different. That’s what makes you unique.
Spencer: I do think the school’s climate has changed a lot, especially from me coming in as a ninth grader. Since the anti-bullying policy was initiated last year along with educating students from sixth through twelfth grade, people have really started to open up their eyes and advocate even when they’re not in the club themselves.
Michelle: Just to compare where I was when I was in the eleventh grade to what’s happening at our school right now: in an English class we were writing our college essays, and I wrote mine, at the time, about being bisexual. And my English teacher, when she gave it back to me, wrote me a paragraph—and I was applying to NYU of all places—she wrote, ‘Are you sure this is how you want to introduce yourself to college?’ So that would never in a million years happen in our high school right now. I just think that even if people look at me as kind of the LGBT Police here (GSA laughs), just knowing that presence is there—because I do have people come to me a lot for bullying incidents—just that presence is so dramatic for the climate of a school.
PRIDE: What’s the most encouraging thing you’ve seen or heard from other students about the changes you’ve made in your school?
Spencer: A lot of students have come to the GSA as allies, and said that they’ve learned so much more than they knew coming from middle school or from their household, and they’ve grown with us and become more accepting and educated.
Daniel: I feel like the whole school learned a lot of things. They’ve learned about different gender presentation, different gender identities—that there aren’t only two—and different names and terms for everything. That you should call people a name or pronoun that they identify with.
PRIDE: How has being a part of this GSA informed or empowered the decisions you’re making in your lives outside of school?
Spencer: Just forming the GSA and having the opportunity to be the GSA leader, I feel empowered to not only come out to my parents but to let people know that, hey, it’s okay to question your gender early on. People are coming out at younger and younger ages, and society needs to be aware that this is new, and we have to educate not only adults but minors as well. Because it’s kids that really have an impact with other kids. It’s important to tell other minors, 'This is what this is, and this is how I feel. Don’t disrespect me, because I’m a human being just like you are.'
Dio: GSA has impacted me a lot outside of school because I know that there are people just like me. I can also use the information I get from GSA to educate others. I can educate my nieces and nephews when they’re older, or younger kids.
Daniel: It made me learn that there are more people that are like me. I’m not the only one. Then you don’t feel weird because you’re ‘different than.’ And it impacted me too because now I would like to make every single place safe for everyone. Not only for LGBTQ people but for everyone. And I’d like to make every single place a place that uses the names and pronouns that people identify with. Because nobody has the right to tell you who you are as a person.
PRIDE: For educators and administrators who want to make their school a safer place for LGBTQ students, what are some of the things you think they should be doing?
Courtney Winkfield: I think often administrators, particularly principals, are beholden to so many different stakeholders. You have your students, you have your staff, you have parents, and in some cases, you have a board of education. I also think principals often lead based on a fear of what would happen to them or their schools if they make a decision or really take a chance on something. One of the pieces of advice I would give principals is to just do a little bit of research. Once I was able to do just a little bit of research about some of the things that my students were asking me, it just really wasn’t that complicated. Not just in New York City, but nationally, the law was really on my side. Particularly laws pertaining to privacy. For instance, when we decided to go ahead three or some odd years ago and allow transgender students to use the bathroom they were most comfortable using, I didn’t need to make a big letter or a presentation to my board of education. I was able to just do it because the law said that I could. I think if principals could do a little research, they would find that there are all sort of ways to support their LGBTQ community.
The next thing I would say is that if you are a high school principal in particular—and my personal opinion is that there should be clubs like this in middle school and elementary school—you need to have a GSA. I don’t care where you live—whether you live in New York City or Mississippi—if you believe that there aren’t LGBTQ students in your community, you are kidding yourself. I don’t care if your GSA has two members to start with. That’s how we started.
The last thing that I would say is that there’s this idea that’s heard in the media a lot lately that we need to ‘protect our students.’ Whatever that means. That’s used, I think, by a lot of politicians to evoke fear. What I would say is that if you’re lucky enough to be charged with the privilege of leading a group of young people and staff in a school, then it is your ethical and moral obligation to protect the rights of all of your students. And everybody has LGBTQ students in their community. By protecting the rights of those students, you actually stand to strengthen everybody’s rights. We’re starting to see the trickle down effect of that in our community as other student groups are coming forward to say, ‘I have rights too. I really want to advocate in this way or that way.’ It has really raised the consciousness of our community around all sorts of rights. I certainly understand that depending on where you live and what’s going on that can be a very scary proposition, but if you’re not willing to make some of those decisions and stand up for the rights of all your students, you have no business holding the job.
PRIDE: What are you looking forward to doing in your activist lives after high school?
Spencer: I hope to be more active with the North Carolina laws, and to help get that revoked and vetoed. And just being involved in the intersection of gender and race, as a black transgender person myself, and providing help for trans youth and homeless people.
Daniel: I would like to go to college. I would like to keep fighting for what I believe in. I think, like Spencer was saying, I’d like to do stuff in the United States. But I’d also like to go outside the United States, like Jamaica, Uganda, Russia. People should have the right to express their identity so that you don’t have to hide yourself or be afraid you’re going to get killed because you are LGBTQ.
Dio: I feel like in the next year or so, I’ll be on my way to college. When I’m older I want to be able to help people, and fight for everyone’s rights. Like Daniel said—go to different places and help everyone fight for their rights and what they believe in.
PRIDE: Do you have any advice for students who are meeting a lot of resistance in their efforts to form a GSA?
Dio: If you want to form a GSA and you have a plan set, just go for it. Because there are always going to be people who try to tear you down for what you believe in. But just go for it and don’t let others tear you down.
Spencer: [If you have] more people behind you to form a GSA, they won’t be able to dismiss you just because you’re minors. Minors are the voice of the next generation, and they have more impact than most adults would think.
Images courtesy of Michelle Eisenberg/Academy for Young Writers GSA, @glsenofficial on Instagram, and @glsen on Twitter.