Nonbinary high-school senior Hayden Cohen is looking forward to graduating from Houston’s Energy Institute High School next spring. But first, there will be some unfinished extracurricular activity that requires attention.
As the founder of the East Texas Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), which covers an area from Northeast Texas to the Gulf Coast, Cohen sees a need for the creation of new GSA clubs (and the rebuilding of existing ones) as LGBTQ students head back to the classroom after a year of pandemic disruption. The East Texas GSA’s ultimate goal is to influence students in smaller school districts in rural areas to connect with students in urban districts that already have active GSA groups. “When there is a GSA active in a school, it makes for a safer place,” Cohen emphasizes. “It’s also given me a sense of leadership and community. I have definitely learned a lot.”
Cohen joined the Energy Institute magnet school’s GSA after coming out three years ago as a freshman, became its president the next year, and quickly realized that involvement with the club made school life a more productive experience.
At the Emery/Weiner School, a private Jewish middle school and high school in Houston’s Willowbend area, students will be focusing on getting back on track with set schedules and routines for both academic and extracurricular activities. Diane Hursch notes that her 12 years as Emery/Weiner’s GSA sponsor has shown her how important it is to create a safe place with comfortable associations for students. “The past year was particularly challenging, with club meeting times being moved around. It was uncharted territory,” she says.
Hursch has observed how many new students feel safe coming out as the GSA has grown at her school. The GSA has about 30 members, which is around 10 percent of the school’s student population. “It’s really beautiful to see. I think where we have gone is only in the right direction.”
Cohen also sees more students coming out at the Energy Institute magnet school, and notes that the GSA club is helping increase acceptance of LGBTQ students. The school’s Pride Day saw students bringing Pride flags and stickers to school that were placed on backpacks. “It was really cool to see how much support we were able to spread in the school,” Cohen recalls.
The upcoming school year will be more difficult for LGBTQ students, according to Frederick Heather, coordinator for the Austin-based Texas GSA Network that is sponsored by Out Youth. Studies show that bullying and violence increase when politicians engage in the kind of verbal gay-bashing heard during the Texas Legislature’s recent session. “I’ve had more individuals reach out to me in the first few months of 2021 than I did in all of 2020,” Heather notes, adding that the network is gearing up for big demand this fall.
Out Youth provides tool kits for students and sponsors on its website, outyouth.org, as well as information on regional GSA coalitions. There are five in Texas. All active GSA clubs throughout the country are encouraged to register on the Out Youth website.
Out Youth also offers the Be a Beacon program, which helps K–12 instructors create supportive learning environments for their students. Level One discusses how to intervene in bullying and harassment, Level Two covers school staff rights and how to deal with students who are coming out, and Level Three focuses on integrating LGBTQ content into lesson plans and how to be an effective off-campus ally.
The Central Texas GSA Coalition, Out Youth, and the Texas GSA Network have teamed up to sponser an annual educational symposium known as Q+ EDU. This year’s symposium will run Aug 2–27. Last year, there were about 80 speakers in 40 sessions aimed at meeting the needs of LGBTQ students. Material from last year’s symposium is available on the Q+ EDU website.
Cohen plans to attend college in the Houston area next year, and to stay involved in GSA networks to help train younger people who want to establish safe school environments and foster camaraderie for LGBTQ students. That includes involvement with Hatch Youth’s steering committee at the Montrose Center. “I want to stay involved with GSA and see it expand,” Cohen adds. “It helps so many students to socialize, grow, and learn.”
For more information on Out Youth’s Texas GSA Network, visit outyouth.org/txgsa.
This article appears in the August 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.com.