Terri Johnson remembers how it felt to worry about being her true self at school.
“The first time I heard the word ‘homosexual,’ I didn’t know what it meant,” said Johnson, a lesbian who lives in Wichita.
“Then it just hit me in the gut, because I thought, ‘That’s me.’ But I could tell by the way everyone was behaving that that’s not something you wanted to let people know about,” she said. “So I just kind of stuffed that away for a long time.”
Now Johnson and other parents, teachers and students want to build support networks at area schools by starting a Wichita chapter of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, or GLSEN.
The group will host a community discussion April 6 at Wichita State University. The meeting, 2 p.m. in Ahlberg Hall Room 201, is a forum intended to hear concerns and set priorities for the local chapter.
“I see positive change all the time, but I believe in Kansas we do have a long way to go yet,” said Liz Hamor, a Goddard mother who, along with Johnson, is co-chairwoman of a steering committee hoping to start the local GLSEN chapter.
“Everybody needs an ally. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight. Kids get bullied, they get harassed in school, and this is an area that I feel really strongly about.”
GLSEN – participants pronounce the acronym “glisten” – started in 1990 when a group of teachers in Massachusetts formed a coalition to raise awareness of bullying and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
Now the group, with chapters in 23 states, is a leading advocate for legislation to support and protect gay and lesbian students.
It also leads events such as the annual Day of Silence, during which students take a vow of silence to raise awareness about “the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying, harassment and discrimination.”
Eliza Byard, executive director of the national organization, said the group is “thrilled to see a community coming together in Wichita to carry GLSEN’s work forward.”
“Our organization exists to ensure that schools everywhere are safe and affirming environments for every student that walks through the door, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity,” Byard said.
Currently, the closest GLSEN chapter is in Kansas City, Mo. If the Wichita chapter is accredited by the national group, it would be the first chapter in Kansas.
“With any issues that may be tough for a school community to tackle, that may have some element of taboo still around them, it’s important when there’s a clear community response to that,” Byard said.
“It’s the community that supports and sustains schools. … So that local presence is really important.”
Hamor and Johnson said the local group hopes to work with Gay Straight Alliance groups at area high schools and encourage those without groups to start them.
It also hopes to identify at least one adult – a teacher, staff member, coach or counselor – at each high school and middle school who could serve as a resource for students experiencing challenges related to sexual orientation or gender identity. GLSEN offers professional development for teachers.
“In high school, I just felt like there was no one to talk to,” said Johnson, who grew up in Rose Hill. “It took me way too long to finally make peace with who I am.”