MetroWest Jewish Day School (MWJDS), a K-8 school in Framingham, Massachusetts, began offering a GSA (Gender Sexuality Alliance) during the 2021-2022 school year due to growing interest expressed by middle schoolers (grades 6-8), many of whom were struggling with their gender and/or sexual identity. The students were in need of a safe space where they could ask questions and feel supported as they navigated complex questions about their lives and their identities in the context of a political environment that was becoming both increasingly welcoming and hostile toward them.
The MWJDS students are not alone in their struggles. According to a study by the Human Rights Campaign, most LGBTQ+ youth are aware of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity by adolescence. A 2020 nationwide study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law found that approximately 300,000 youth aged 13-17 identified as transgender, and 1,994,000 as LGB. Given that identity is always in flux, so too are these concepts, and the meanings people ascribe to them. While some people have questioned whether LGBTQ+ identification is on the rise among youth, others attribute this shift to the comfort young people feel in expressing their identities. This is due in part to the brave and courageous work accomplished by countless LGBTQ+ activists and allies, Jewish and non-Jewish.
The Jewish community is fortunate to have access to many wonderful resources, including Keshet, which works for the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ Jews and their families in Jewish life, and JQY (Jewish Queer Youth), which supports LGBTQ+ youth and young adults from Orthodox, Chassidic and Sephardi/Mizrahi communities. Both organizations offer training and education to help Jewish day schools build awareness around the needs of LGBTQ+ individuals and develop strategies to create inclusive environments. Keshet emphasizes that “even in communities where there seems to be agreement that inclusion of LGBTQ+ Jews is essential, it is still important to state this explicitly.”
Young people who are able to openly share their sexual and gender identities and receive support have better mental health outcomes and report greater life satisfaction, according to a study by the Trevor Project. At the same time, some LGBTQ+ day school students do not feel that their day schools have created an environment where they can openly share their gender and/or sexual identities. That is not to say that people are close-minded, but rather, there is no precedent for them to rely upon.
In a blog post for The Jewish Women’s Archive, Rising Voices Fellow Nina Baran, who led the GSA at her day school, noted that “some students from our school graduate and then come out as queer a year or two later.” This is a common practice among many day school students. She conducted the Gay and Lesbian Student and Educator Network’s (GLSEN) climate survey at her school, which measures challenges experienced by LGBTQ+ students at their schools and resources that support their well-being. Baran discovered that many students felt that their school’s LGBTQ+ resources were lacking. For example, their library had few books that featured LGBTQ+ identities, and staff with training in LGBTQ+ inclusivity. Keshet cautions that “inclusion is a journey, not a destination,” which means that equality is ongoing work that should involve all stakeholders, rather than a one-off effort.
MWJDS’ GSA, which is now in its second year, is led by school social worker Mike Schneider-Tran, one of the article’s authors. Schneider-Tran’s pre-existing relationships with middle schoolers—he leads the student council, teaches wellness and offers therapeutic support when needed—and his lived experience as a bisexual man made him an appropriate choice for leading the group. The students’ unfaltering trust in him provided an easy entry point for those who were interested in participating. Sixteen middle schoolers, many of whom were exploring their gender and/or sexual identities, joined during the 2022-2023 academic year, and the group is now in its second year of operation.
Members also included allies who wanted to understand what their peers were experiencing. They became better educated and connected to their peers’ personal journeys. The in-school meeting format—the group met during lunch and recess—signified that this was a priority for the school, and also meant that all students who were interested would be able to attend. Parents were also informed about the group. In fact, a few requested it, and they were excited to see it take form. This reaffirmed the school’s commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion among its faculty, students and families.
During the weekly GSA meetings, students discussed topics such as sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. In addition to exploring these concepts, they talked about their own personal experiences and current events they wanted to respond to and mobilize around. They also expressed concerns about state, national and local politics that could threaten their safety and livelihoods, such as anti-trans legislation and discrimination. They discussed how some of these issues intersected with their Jewish practice and identity.
Having access to a GSA during a critical stage in identity development can be growth-fostering for students, faculty and families, and lead to transformative change. Findings from the Trevor Project’s national study among 35,000 LGBTQ+ youth revealed that only 50% perceived their learning environments as identity-affirming spaces. Having access to affirming spaces at school, online and at home, are critical to helping them feel validated and supported. In 2018, more than one-quarter of LGBTQ+ youth experienced alienation at school. This underscores the need for friends, family, and mentors who can understand them and support them.
Cole (a pseudonym), who transferred to MWJDS from a large public school in the sixth grade, recalls how they were one of few students who attended the GSA at their former school. This made them feel alienated and alone, and they were bullied for their gender-expansive identity. At MWJDS, they were elated to find a warm environment where they could safely discuss their identity and meet other friends with whom to share their experiences.
Having a strong sense of self was critical for graduating students as they headed off to larger high schools. Many have since joined GSAs at their new schools. Cole is now part of a GSA at their new school. They were recently elected as a freshman officer, and they helped to organize a panel on religion and queerness for a Pride Day event. They credit the MWJDS GSA for giving them the skills they needed to advocate for themselves and their beliefs.
The GSA at MWJDS allows students to explore topics they might not have otherwise been able to at one of the most vital points in their lives. These conversations led to building confidence in themselves and their abilities to communicate with their peers, school personnel and, most importantly, their families. Certainly, Mike’s ability to form open and caring relationships with the students, and their ability to trust in him and one another, allowed student-participants to become vulnerable and reflective in the group setting. It is imperative that a GSA is accessible for youth to continue showing a growing support from educational institutions and their communities toward the LGBTQ+ community.