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As a High School Guidance Counselor at John Jay High School, Malerie Simon can assure that there’s a very accepting nature among the student body - especially in terms of those who may fall under the LBGTQ community banner. The 18 year veteran believes the almost two decade presence of a school club know as SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Alliance) has made a big difference. But no matter the supports in place and kind intentions of the majority, the journey can be lonely and a having a self-contained space to open up cannot be overlooked, according to Simon.
“It gives them a safe place to come and talk,” said Simon of the nationally affiliated organization.
Having the benefit of those who are ahead on the path certainly facilitates matters too. “Students can talk about it with peers who have gone through the same experience,” said Simon.
On the other hand, there is no requirement to declare, and the impetus to do so is only encouraged if the student feels safe enough in their reveal. It doesn’t matter where a person falls in their preference either. “You can also be an ally,” said Simon.
Monthly Outreach gets SAGA Conversation to the Community
Attending doesn’t mean parents are party to a student’s membership, but part of the program includes monthly community outreaches. “We invite anyone in the community to come and meet our group, which is always a great day,” said Simon.
The most recent took place at the Katonah Library on March 18. Shared Stories, Open Minds had SAGA members from the high school reading stories and discussing age appropriate books containing themes of gender roles, sexual orientation and diversity to younger students. “Children are encountering these possibilities in their own families and in school,” said KES social Worker Jessica Fulton, who coordinated with JJHS SAGA members. “Families want to learn how to have these conversations with their kids.”
Of course, the conversation is also there for families directly affected. “They want to find their own community within the community,” said Fulton.
Either way, the older students piggybacked the discussion over an unconventional penguin family. And Tango Makes three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, is about two daddy penguins who want to have a baby. “The children’s book brings up all the kinds of issues regarding different kinds of families,” said Fulton.
The second discussion stayed in step with a book called, “I am Jazz.” A true story about a little girl who is born with “boy parts,” her parents are the ones who need to adjust. “At first while they let her dress in skirts and pink at home, they made her wear ‘boy clothes’ in public,” conveyed Fulton.
LBGTQ Community Members Aren’t the Only Ones Left Out
Left feeling like a lie before her parents came around, Jazz’s journey was put in universal terms above the LGBT Community issues. “We had a whole conversation about feeling like you had to lie to fit in, and expanded beyond sexuality, where there’s pressure to pretend to be something you’re not,” said Fulton. “Because we all seek acceptance.”
In accordance, kid speak is not immune to the common refrain of “you’re so gay” - even in elementary school. More often a dig implied to mean someone is less than rather than a commentary on sexuality, Fulton implores that adults acknowledge the derogatory manner in which the term is being used, and the direction it’s pointed. “When you confront the one who used the term inappropriately, validation is given that is ok to be gay,” the social worker asserted.
Safe spaces hopefully assured, there's nothing like a first hand account to help kids settle in. ”One of the high school SAGA students told his story as a transgender youth, and what his experience was like between middle school and high school,” said Fulton. "People like him are committed to helping others appreciate and understand differences."
That put the purview in the sights of those in attendance who were straight. "We had a big discussion of what it means to be an ally," said Fulton.
Of course, that type of acceptance is not always so apparent as national conversations over bathrooms are blown out of proportion and gay civil rights debates seek to demonize. "Our kids are worried about the world we live in, and worry what life will be like when they leave this safe little cocoon," said Simon.
Even so, the long time guidance counselor can easily take solace in the determination of these young leaders, and their intentions to not ever be complacent. "This is a wonderful group of students who care about the world we live in and want to make a difference," Simon concluded.
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