Affirming & Supporting LGBTQ+ Youth in Bennington: An Interview with Heather Voice

Heather Voice is the facilitator for GLOW (Gay, Lesbian…or Whatever!) at Mt. Anthony Union Middle School, in addition to being a Reading Specialist and Literacy Coach. She has been teaching in the SVSU for 11 years.

Tell us about GLOW and the work that you do. 

This is going to be GLOW’s sixth year at the middle school. It was originated by a group of students who were looking for support, especially around changing rooms in the gym and that sort of thing. There were some students who were really incredible advocates for themselves and they got some teachers on board, myself included, and Tracy Galle, the Physical Education Teacher, was involved. Principal Tim Payne has been incredibly supportive of us from the beginning.

So in addition to trying to make some gender-neutral changing areas and bathrooms, we started GLOW as a way for those students to connect with each other and share some space together. It’s very flexible, very student-run, and student focused.

It’s been an incredible experience to see over the years how much acceptance and love there is. Our students are so resilient and so thoughtful and super, super respectful towards each other.

I always look at it as I really want to be the person that I needed at that age. There wasn’t a lot of space for these kinds of conversations for exploring your identity, exploring what it means to you, when I was in high school, let alone middle school. So I really try and create a space that’s comfortable for them. And I think ritual is really important for creating a space where people feel comfortable. When we were in person, we would sit down together, introduce ourselves, making sure week after week there’s an opportunity for kids to use names that feel meaningful for them, if they want to explore using different pronouns. We always announce our pronouns at the beginning. It creates a space where kids are able to explore and try things on and also ask questions.  It’s been really wonderful for me to see how open kids are to learning about different identities, different ways of being, and their ability to share their vulnerability with me and with each other.

There’s always a certain subset of kids who gravitate towards going, being, hanging out together in person, but that’s not for everyone. I mean, it takes a lot of guts at that age to show your face there, as welcoming as I try to make it. So I also want to try to figure out how we can reach some more students.

Because that was something that was very striking to me in the [Core Measures] survey results—the number of kids who feel like, yeah, straight is not a label that applies to me. If I am surprised by that—and I’ve seen years and years and years of kids—I imagine kids are feeling really alone and not acknowledged in how they’re feeling and what their identity means to them. So I really want to try and push, in addition to doing the after-school group, how can we make sure that kids know that they’re not alone, they don’t have to show up at GLOW to count as “gay” or whatever, but that there’s different ways to interact and make that connection with adults who care or peers who know where they’re coming from. Those connections really, really important to not feeling like you’re on an island by yourself with your feelings and whatever it is that you’re going through.

Can you speak a little more about that—what it looks and feels like to you to create a safe, inclusive, and affirming environment that isn’t necessarily showing up to a particular space or club. 

At the end of this past year, we did our first Pride celebration at the middle school, which was super exciting. We had some music, and a couple of flags and posters, and lots of cute little rainbow stickers to hand out, and as kids walked in, it was very low pressure. If they wanted a sticker, they could take a sticker. If they didn’t, they didn’t.

I think doing school-wide events is a good example of just making it a normal part of life. For me it was very powerful to see the flags—we had the rainbow flag, the transgender flag, the bisexual flag, the pansexual flag, as well as the genderqueer flag hanging up in the entrance to the school building. So creating these almost passive ways of showing kids: We see you, we see your experience, and we don’t even have to talk about it, but we’re here with you.

What brings you joy in this work?

It brings me so much joy getting to meet students that otherwise I wouldn’t necessarily have known, and journeying with them through the three years. There are a number of kids who will stay with us and keep coming to group for their whole time at middle school. So it’s wonderful to see them grow.

It’s wonderful for me to do something that is just 100% positive, affirming. There’s so much joy in gathering together every week, and having a shared experience with kids. We’re able to just spend time together. We’re just trying to, you know, be. And for me to be seen by students and for students to see me, for them to see each other… I think it makes us feel stronger, feel safer, feel accepted, and feel like it’s okay to be who you are. It’s such a real encounter with… human beings. It’s beautiful and wonderful to witness, and I’m so honored to be a person that kids feel like they can be open with. And it’s very healing and wonderful for me too, to be able to just be in the space with them.

The most recent results from our Core Measures Survey of MAUMS students show that there are significant differences in mental health responses by sexual orientation: students identifying as heterosexual were significantly less likely to report poor mental health. One third of students who identified as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Other, or Not Sure reported feeling sad or hopeless all of the time. What do you think about this? How do you see this play out in your work?

I think in some ways it’s not surprising because I do know that that seems to track at a national level. But it still is so surprising and just devastating to see those numbers in the school that I’m in every day, and how much suffering kids are going through while they’re trying to do everything else that they’re asked to do during their day.

Looking at the survey, one of the things I was thinking about is I really need to be more intentional in making sure students know how to get to resources. I work very closely with Hannah Green and Melissa Cleary, and I know that our counselors are really good resources. We also have school-based clinicians in our building, and they’re a great resource as well. But I’m thinking about how we give students access to resources that don’t require them to stop what they’re doing, get a pass to leave study hall to go and talk to someone. So I’m trying to see what other connections we can make or resources we can provide to students who are obviously struggling, and that they can also pass on to kids who maybe aren’t coming to GLOW.

I think the survey really made me recognize how much more we need to focus on how we can support students in taking care of themselves day to day, and trying to make space for kids to share what it is that they’re going through and validate that, because they really are going through a lot. These kids are very sensitive. They’re introspective. They’re asking questions about themselves, about the life they want to lead, about what it means for them, what their gender means. That’s really asking a very deep question about yourself and the way that you move through the world.

So I think students who are asking themselves those questions, and especially if the answers they’re getting from friends, family, community is, Oh, no, that’s gross. That’s wrong. That’s embarrassing. You should keep that to yourself—if that’s the message they’re getting, then it’s no surprise that they’re really struggling. It’s hard enough to ask those questions, let alone be met with that kind of reaction from people you love or look up to—it feels like a rejection of something really deep inside of you once you’ve spent so much time and thought trying to figure it out.

So these students need that affirmation. They need lots of support and patience, and just people to listen.

“These kids are asking questions about themselves, about the life they want to lead, about what it means for them, what their gender means. That’s really asking a very deep question about yourself and the way that you move through the world.”

What do you hear from the students you work with? What kind of support or resources do they want or need?

I think often students don’t even know what’s out there, so they don’t know what to ask for. Sometimes, we’ll try and problem solve if they have an issue with a teacher or with a friend, or a classroom situation. And we’ll say, What can I do for you as an adult? Can I step in and have a conversation? And often they’re very surprised that’s an option.

So I think really being proactive for us as adults, really providing students with options and making sure it’s in front of them so that they can make their own decision. Putting it on the students, on top of everything else, to reach out and make these appointments or seek things out… it’s not a reasonable request.

What would you tell a caring adult or an ally in the school or greater community about how they could be more affirming and supportive of our LGBTQ+ youth?

I would say don’t be afraid to ask questions. Kids are open to talking about what things mean to them. And I think as adults, we often have a lot of preconceived notions about what gender means, what sexual identity means, what orientation is, you know?

So inviting kids to share with you—whether it’s an identity, word, or label, what their pronouns mean to them, how they got there, what they’re thinking about, what that means for their life in the future—just asking questions is the first part. And the second part is really listening and making sure that, as an adult or whatever experience you’ve had, that you can put that to the side a little bit and just listen to what is it for them right now at the moment that they’re in in their lives.

Another way of being affirming is also not being scared of them and not being scared of making a mistake. I think a lot of people with really good intentions are scared to ask about pronouns, are scared to say the wrong thing, use the wrong name. And then they end up not interacting with the student because they don’t want to mess up. And the message the student gets then is, I’m scary. No one likes me. No one wants to talk to me. They don’t respect me. I don’t matter. I shouldn’t have said anything.

I think being okay with making mistakes and being able to say, Oops! Fix it, move on. It doesn’t have to be melodramatic if you do make a mistake. I think just being accepting of them. We see middle school-aged kids changing their favorite music, changing what kind of video games they’re into, changing their fashion all the time, and we don’t find those changes surprising. Being open to sharing in this part of their journey of self-discovery, and whether or not things might change for them later on, is an incredible gift you can give to any child. New things are hard, change is hard, and they already aren’t the same person they were five years ago. And they’re not gonna be the same person five years from now, but this is where they are at the moment, and if they feel seen and acknowledged, that’s empowering, it’s affirming, and it allows them to feel safe.

“Being open to sharing in this part of their journey of self-discovery… is an incredible gift you can give to any child.”

I’m thinking about something I read recently that said: if you get someone’s pronouns wrong, and you are corrected, say “thank you” rather than “I’m sorry.” It’s so much more affirmative. And that exchange of gratitude is like, instead of focusing on the mistake, it supports that relationship. 

Yeah, exactly. I think that idea of gratitude is really important too. Like when a student, or your child, does share something with you that’s really important to them, I love the response: Thank you for sharing this really big thing with me. I don’t understand it, or I don’t know what that means, but thank you for trusting me. Can I ask you some questions about what you’ve said?

I think a lot of adults don’t like to say, “I don’t understand.” 

Yeah. And it is impossible to overstate the complexity of these issues. People feel like, well, I’m, you know, I’m 50 years old, I’m 60 years old. You think I don’t know about boys and girls? But gender is very complicated. And sexual orientation is very complicated. And what it means to people is very complicated. And not complicated bad, just complex.

It’s awesome to have these conversations with kids because they are just going through it and figuring out really what it means to them. And there’s such a richness of possibility and of, you know, their own experience. On my part, I love not understanding something because I get to find out more about the many ways people move through the world and celebrate that with them. 

What are some ways that as community members, teachers, and caring adults, we can demonstrate our care more, whether it’s in the school buildings, certain kinds of programming or different spaces in the community that we might need to develop. How we can as a community really show up for our young people and create these spaces that demonstrate that they matter?

I think what this pandemic has really taken away from kids, and especially middle schoolers—given the developmental kind of stage that they’re at, everything is about their peer group and social connections. And that’s really what got taken away over the last year and a half. So I think creating opportunities for any kind of connection, whether it’s centered around your identity or not, making things feel comfortable, feel safe, whether it’s physically together or communicating, to just feel like there are other people out there. There are other people like me, there are other people who care about what happens to me or happens to people like me. So any kind of making space for youth to connect with each other.

And making sure that they feel respected by the adults around them. A really easy thing to do is to ask pronouns at the beginning of meetings, at the beginning of class, at the beginning of any kind of group activity where people are introducing themselves. I think it signals that we’re not going to take it for granted what your gender is, or we’re not going to take it for granted how you want it to be addressed.

You know, adding pronouns to your email, those sorts of things are very small. But they do have an impact, because the more kids see it, the more they can say to themselves, Oh, people are thinking about me or they’re thinking about what it would feel like for me. Those sorts of things where it doesn’t even have to be a big deal. We don’t need to throw a whole Pride parade every weekend, but that kind of visibility signals to trans, gender non-binary or gender expansive youth (and adults!) that your experience is a part of our community. This is a part of life. If those little gestures can make a big difference for one person, I think there’s no reason not to do it.

“Adding pronouns to your email, those sorts of things are very small. But they do have an impact, because the more kids see it, the more they can say to themselves, Oh, people are thinking about me or they’re thinking about what it would feel like for me.”

Any last thoughts?

We have so many resources in our community to support LGBTQIA+ youth in addition to GLOW at MAUMS. We have SAGAA (Sexuality and Gender Awareness Alliance) at the high school and Queer Connect to name a few, so my hope is that we just keep building these connections, keep putting our own baggage aside and showing up for kids, keep asking questions when something doesn’t make sense to us, and most importantly, listen. Kids know themselves, they know their own lives and experiences from the inside out, and when you trust them to tell their own stories and show them you’re there to listen, they can learn to trust their own beautiful, growing, immutable selves. And that’s where the magic happens.

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