It is widely known that youth who identify or are perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer are at a higher risk of being bullied or harassed, especially in school. According to the 2011 National School Climate Survey from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network LGBTQ youth were verbally assaulted (called “dyke” or “faggot” etc.) at a rate of 71.3%, and were physically assaulted at a rate of 18.3% for their sexual orientation and 12.4% for their gender expression. Nine out of ten rural LGBTQ youth living in Montana reported having been called names or threatened at school.
This is why gay-straight alliances (GSAs) are critical and why the leadership of the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) Missoula is vital to the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ youth in Montana.
NCBI envisions a community in which the innate value of each person is respected and where all people have the opportunity to thrive without risk of violence or oppression. One aspect of their work includes helping to develop and support GSAs in schools across the state of Montana.
GSAs are at the forefront of providing safe space, resources, and community to the young people facing severe harassment. LGBTQ identified youth need a space where they can meet peers who are struggling with similar obstacles and consequently build trust and strength within their community. When young people feel safe and have friends they can relate to, they have higher self esteem which provides for a more enriching school experience.
NCBI Missoula has identified approximately a half-dozen GSAs across Montana so far, and over the last few months four more cities have inquired about developing programs of their own. School administrators and educators are recognizing the importance of GSA groups as the rates of violence and harassment continue to escalate. This past year, NCBI was officially designated an affiliate of the national GSA Network, allowing them to bring even more attention and resources to creating healthy and safe learning environments for LGBTQ youth.
Pride Foundation is excited to be working alongside NCBI Missoula and supporting their efforts with a grant this year to further expand and enhance GSA programs in Montana. While the number of supportive communities in Montana is growing, there are still many rural areas where LGBTQ youth do not always feel safe. It is important that youth all over Montana know that there is a place they can turn where they will be accepted for who they are. GSA programs are crucial in providing that safe space.
Kim Leighton is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Montana. Email Kim.