Michael Dixon-Peabody, a social studies teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School and sponsor of the school’s Gay/Straight Alliance group, TJ Pride and Equality, knows the importance of having a safe space where students can “be who they are.”
And as Pride Month winds down, he welcomed the opportunity to reflect on the crucial role the GSAs can play in the lives of students who identify as LGBTQ. Dallas ISD has about 30 active campus groups, most of them in high schools, where the meetings are also attended by those who consider themselves straight allies, there to support their peers.
“Each student comes seeking something different,” Dixon-Peabody says. “Sometime the GSA creates a safe place for them to be who they are. They can dress the way they want, paint their nails, talk about their favorite celebrity crushes, or even catch up on their favorite anime. Some students come to seek a listening ear, whether it be a friend, a staff member, or the group. Some of the best group discussions have come from a student needing to share or asking a thought-provoking question. GSAs are also able to connect our students to resources in the community.”
Dixon-Peabody knows from experience what it means to have that safe space. He was in middle school when, he says, “I was forced to come out to my mother,” knowing that she would learn about his sexual preference when his younger brother joined him at his school. Though his mother was not surprised at the revelation and took it in stride, his father took the news much harder. “Because of my sexuality, I never felt ‘at home’ or safe when I was home. There was a time when I spent a summer living elsewhere because it was not safe to live at home. I no longer speak to my mother or father.”
It was his teachers in high school who became his chosen family and really helped light the way for the work he does now, he says. “I credit my teachers for raising me and in many ways saving my life. I was heavily involved on campus as a student and in most organizations on campus. School in many ways was my home because I could be who I was and felt safe.”
Even though he had the greatest teachers and support system, he says, “I never had an openly ‘out’ teacher. I was accepted but I never had that role model or teacher that I could relate to on that level. Part of the work I do on campus and my passion is being that openly out teacher with the Pride flags who shows up authentically every day to let students know they can do the same.”
One of the key reasons for having a GSA on campus, Dixon-Peabody says, is that students are able to openly express who they are. “Our students are tough and have overcome major back-to-back setbacks,” he says, including a tornado that destroyed their school and forced a relocation, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Because a large number of students remained virtual during the school year, many did not feel comfortable opening up in a Zoom conference while at home with their families. “The tornado and COVID made achieving that safe place inaccessible for a number of our scholars,” he said.
Because the group was unable to meet in person during the pandemic, he started what he called Pride Office Hours, where he would open Zoom and be online if a student needed to talk or needed access to a resource.
When the new school year begins, Dixon-Peabody will be working to find new ways to create the most open, safe and welcoming campus for all students.
“When we started the group, students talked about not knowing which teachers they could open up to on campus,” he said. “In response, I started the Safe Place program. Every year I send out an all-staff email asking them if they would like a rainbow Safe Place placard in both English and Spanish to display inside and outside of their classroom. This past year I also added pronoun placards. We have over 70 faculty and staff members on campus displaying the Safe Place placards along with their pronouns. This little card in the corner has a huge impact for our students to know they are able to be themselves.”