Pride School coming to Atlanta LGBT youth

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Remember that typical gay school kid experience – fearing fifth period, being teased with “faggot”? Supporting the first Georgia school option for LGBT and allied students could be your best revenge.

Instead of just finding our bullies on Facebook fat, bald and miserable, all of gay Atlanta’s chance to deliver a blow back to them comes on Saturday. That’s when Pride School Atlanta (PSA) hosts an informational session and fundraiser at St. Mark’s UMC with a goal that many of us can support: A fulltime school as early as fall semester 2015 that’s free from taunts based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) National School Climate Survey, “schools nationwide are hostile environments for a distressing number of LGBT students.” Nearly three out of four LGBT students reported verbal harassment, and more than half reported physical incidents in 2013. Nearly six out of every ten incidents went unreported.

“Students need to feel safe and have relationships built on respect and authenticity in order to thrive at school,” says PSA founder Christian Zsilavetz. “Educators and mentors can best serve youth when they are able to be authentic, not having to wonder if they will be disrespected, harassed, fired, or even assaulted for their identity or orientation.”

Journey of one to journey of many

 

Zsilavetz's own journey (second photo) served as the ambitious project’s impetus, but it was a necessary step in the journey toward bringing PSA to fruition.

“It wasn’t really OK to be out when I came out as a woman dating women,” he continues. “Years later, when I returned to teaching as a trans man after medically transitioning, I was really scared to be outed as transgender in a school of 2000 high school students in a suburb of Seattle. … A few teachers were out as LGBQ, and there were lots of allies, but I felt pretty confident that being out could be dangerous.”

After moving to Georgia, Zsilavetz asked to be out as trans not just to the staff but the whole school. His boss said it wouldn’t be best.

“I told her that my dream school would be where my trans and queer identities would be honored and an important part of my ability to be the best teacher, mentor and advocate I could be for LGBTQQIA students and their families,” he recalls. “She said, ‘Why don’t you go ahead and start that school?’”

Zsilavetz found a former student from the ‘90s who had since transitioned to female, they reconnected, and “the deal was sealed at that point” for Pride School Atlanta, he says.

PSA has worked steadily to build a coalition that includes Atlanta Pride, PFLAG Atlanta and Atlanta Gender Variations. They’ve attended and produced numerous events, including the Atlanta Pride parade (top photo), informational sessions at Charis Books & More (watch their presentation), as well as January’s Dine Out for PSA with the Atlanta Chapter of Delta Phi Upsilon.

Zsilavetz hopes that Saturday’s event, and its support from St. Mark’s UMC, might help secure the school’s location.

“Although the church is in the process of approving our renting of space from them, we would not be affiliated with the church,” Zsilavetz explains. “It is really helpful to our work that they are willing to be so supportive and that they have a large LGBTQQIA contingent in their congregation. It will help families and educators feel more comfortable in having Pride School within a church building. And being right next to the new Lost N Found residence is a huge benefit, as we hope to serve as an educational arm to support their clients in completing whatever work they need to do to prepare for their future.”

 

A Pride School to be proud of

 

“I think it would be unfair to say that all public school systems are broken, as I don’t work in all of them, but I would say that most are in a state of disrepair and in need of a major overhaul,” Zsilavetz says of his plans for PSA.

Organizers perceive the lack of a sense of ownership between students and their schools, so they envision PSA as “a community within a community . . . where students and staff work together to create the culture of the school and to run the business of it,” Zsilavetz says.

That means student leaders might be involved in decisions to hire staff, where to allocate school funds or even contributing to the overall cleanliness of the premises. While students will have “regular opportunities to develop their basic academic building blocks,” he says, they will also have the freedom and opportunity to learn in a variety of styles and with a natural flow that is suited to them. Students would be engaged in “ongoing intentional conversations and trainings about LGBTQQIA issues of the past, present, and future.”

Aiming for an August opening, Zsilavetz hopes that the school’s scope will reach PreK through Grade 12, although he imagines they will open with grades K-8 and grow.

Finally, outlining the school’s anticipated cost (hopefully under $12,000 annually), Zsilavetz says that the organization’s goal is to “raise enough money annually to provide tuition reductions for all students,” and growing that fund as the organization grows.

One thing is for sure: PSA is growing every single day.

“One conversation at a time,” Zsilavetz half jokes. “It’s where the most impact occurs. Every time someone likes our Facebook page, I do my best to reach back to them personally. …  At this point, every outreach to the website or Facebook page brings in at least two or three emails or calls from community members looking to help, bring their kids, or work for us. I just got one yesterday that read, ‘Way to go! I don’t need this, but I’m glad it will be there for those who do!’” 

“If it saves the life of more than one person (my own), then it will be worth it,” Zsilavetz adds. “I have never worked so hard for something in my life, nor felt so drawn to be out and proud and I can hardly wait to see what the hardest work will turn into on the first day of school. That’s when the real work begins.”

Pride School Atlanta host its community informational session and potluck on Saturday, February 7 @ St. Mark’s UMC, 5 – 8 p.m. Follow PSA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or e-mail them to get involved.

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