GLSEN Brings New Annual Conference to Western Massachusetts

The GLSEN Western Mass. conference planning committee included members from GLSEN and numerous local schools and organizations.
Photo: GLSEN Massachusetts
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The GLSEN Western Mass. conference planning committee included members from GLSEN and numerous local schools and organizations.  Photo: GLSEN Massachusetts

The GLSEN Western Mass. conference planning committee included members from GLSEN and numerous local schools and organizations.
Photo: GLSEN Massachusetts

By: Tynan Power/TRT Reporter—

AMHERST, Mass.— The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) welcomed 180 people to a day-long conference at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst late last month. Intended to be an annual event, this first conference offered participants the opportunity to share “passion, knowledge and hunger for change,” according to the conference planning committee.

“We have been hosting an annual conference in Boston every spring for the past several years and wanted to host a similar event for those in Western Massachusetts,” said Hillary Montague-Asp, a member of the board of directors of GLSEN Massachusetts and a graduate student in the UMass Social Justice Education Department. [pullquote]GLSEN Massachusetts—formerly GLSEN Boston—recently changed its name, signaling the organization’s commitment to bringing its programming to the whole state. [/pullquote]

GLSEN Massachusetts—formerly GLSEN Boston—recently changed its name, signaling the organization’s commitment to bringing its programming to the whole state. In planning the event, the organization recognized the need for more large-scale LGBTQ youth events in Western Mass. The planning committee drew together more than 20 youth and adults from area organizations, including the Amherst College Queer Resource Center, Amherst Regional High School, the Youth Action Coalition, the National Conference for Community and Justice, as well as UMass Amherst’s Stonewall Center, Residential Life, the Social Justice Education Department, Department of Student Development, the LGBT Coalition of Western Massachusetts, and the College of Education, which served as lead sponsor. With the help of these organizations and programs, the GLSEN event was able to reach its target audience of people in K-12 schools, with youth making up roughly half the attendees.

“The number of youth and the variety and number of staff in K-12 schools were highlights of the conference,” said Montague-Asp. “Another highlight of the conference for me as an organizer was the variety of topics and the incredible expertise of the workshop presenters. We were able to offer presentations slots to a very talented group of experts in a variety of fields related to LGBTQ issues in K-12 schools, with several workshops created for just youth.”

Youth workshop topics included creative queer comic making, combating harassment, dating abuse, using video media as an

Sweeney gave the closing youth keynote address at the GLSEN Western  Mass. conference.  Photo: GLSEN Massachusetts

Sweeney gave the closing youth keynote address at the GLSEN Western
Mass. conference.
Photo: GLSEN Massachusetts

individual platform, coming out, and finding LGBTQ-friendly colleges. Two teens, Deja Carr and Sweeney, served as keynote speakers and a youth social with pizza and a DJ followed the conference.

Adults at the event were treated to a wide variety of workshops and speakers. A double session was devoted to strategies for interrupting gender-based bullying. Other adult workshop topics included creating inclusive LGBTQ sexual health courses, youth oppression and adultism, and an interactive session on methods used by counselors and athletic coaches working together to reduce bullying.

One of the most popular sessions was “Teaching Out,” which aimed to reduce the isolation of LGBTQ teachers and give them an opportunity to share concerns. The facilitator, Ryan Ambuter, an English Language Acquisition teacher with ten years of experience, created the session because there are so many questions and fears associated with being an LGBTQ teacher and few opportunities to discuss them. This takes a toll, according to Ambuter.

“Even if you’re protected under law, an LGBTQ teacher can get pushed out of a school or have to deal with serious emotional trauma at the hands of homophobia/heterosexism/transphobia, and it’s just really exhausting sometimes to have this additional layer of concerns,” said Ambuter.

Issues that arose in the workshop included fears around coming out, how being out could make a teacher vulnerable, ways for LGBTQ teachers to support LGBTQ students without it being viewed as inappropriate, and explaining the word “queer” in an educational context, according to Ambuter. [pullquote]“Even if you’re protected under law, an LGBTQ teacher can get pushed out of a school or have to deal with serious emotional trauma at the hands of homophobia/ heterosexism/transphobia, and it’s just really exhausting sometimes to have this additional layer of concerns,” said Ambuter. [/pullquote]

Addressing LGBTQ teachers’ concerns would help schools improve and serve students more effectively, Ambuter shared.

“LGBTQ teachers most critically need schools to value authenticity and diversity in a real way. If we valued people [for] being people, so long as we are respectful and professional, then schools would be a rich environment that fostered personal growth and empowerment,” Ambuter said. “So little of our educational system is humanizing, even with many great teachers, staff and youth in it. We do a lot of lip service to ‘diversity’ in schools, but talking about valuing diversity is not the same thing as creating a place where students and adults can be themselves.”

The GLSEN Western Mass. conference provided just such an opportunity for youth and adults to be authentic and learn from each other in the process. With a wide variety of workshops and a balance of youth and adults, the event was considered a success by organizers. Still, the planning team hopes to do even better in the future.

“Outreach to local schools, particularly ones without Gay Straight Alliances, was particularly challenging for the planning committee,” Montague-Asp said. “We are dedicated to improving outreach next year.”

GLSEN Massachusetts welcomes new planning committee members for its next Western Mass. event. For more information, email Montague-Asp at hmontagu@educ.umass.edu. The organization is also accepting applications for its board of directors, which can be submitted online at http://tiny.cc/h01i5w.