Since 2016, pupils at the Alkwin Kollege take lessons in gender and sex education. Not by a teacher with a book, but by the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA), a group of fellow pupils who share their personal stories at school.
Awareness of gender and sexuality
A GSA is a group of pupils who believe that everyone at school should be free to be who they are without having to feel ashamed or having to justify themselves. These pupils raise awareness for the different sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions that enrich both the school and society. GSAs can register with a national platform resulting in support by each other and the COC Netherlands (the Dutch organized interest group for lesbian, homosexuals, bisexuals, trans and intersex persons).
Understanding and acceptation
Max is one of the GSA members at the Alkwin. “I want everyone to be better informed on diversity. It’s important that you feel accepted the way you are or want to be. Understanding and acceptance starts with listening. We provide information on the various identities and genders, and we ensure a safe atmosphere. During question time in class we, the professionals in this field, answer questions. The other pupils react very positively. They listen carefully and they’re full of respect.” According to Max, it’s a double-edged sword: “We provide enhanced education at school and the positive reactions enhance our self-confidence.”
Support at school
At the Alkwin, two teachers coach the GSA, one of them is Sarai Plas. They schedule the informative lessons and monitor the balance between diversity and the spokespersons’ speaking skills. Sarai: “Whenever pupils are treated in a negative way, we enter into a dialogue with the person who called names, for example. I think people underestimate how important it is for people with authority in the school to openly support projects like this. It gives a clear message about what the norm is when it comes to respect, diversity and conventions.”
The textbook is insufficient
On top of this, the education provided by the GSA has offered the school an important solution, says Sarai. “The education on diversity and gender covered in the biology lessons was insufficient, the text in the book is too concise. Nowadays, the entry in the textbook is actively skipped to make room for the GSA’s lessons. These lessons are crucial, because some pupils have never heard of diversity and are therefore not aware that there is more to life than just heterosexuality and men and women.”
A GSA class starts with a PowerPoint presentation. Multiple speakers take turns at talking about the role and benefits of the GSA, the campaigns they organize for the various sexualities and identities. The lesson is concluded with a round of questions, where no question is silly, and with a game of Who-Am-I in which the pupils must guess who and what the members of the GSA are. This really reveals prejudice and opens it up to discussion: “I think you’re lesbian because you have short hair en wear macho-looking clothes.” “I think you’re gay because gays are always cheerful”. The supervising teachers also join in.
More understanding for identity and diversity
Sarai: “It’s definitely more effective when the education is provided by other pupils. These are their peers talking the same language and they have a comparable perception of the world around them. The fact that it’s about the speakers themselves, really brings the information to life. We’ve noticed that any preliminary giggling is not a reflection of the effect it has in class. The use of gay slurs has practically stopped and there is more understanding for diversity. The pupils feel safer and less vulnerable. They don’t talk about ‘the queer’ or ‘that trans’ anymore, but about ‘Pete’ who explained what it was like having to tell his parents.”
According to Sarai, the project received a warm welcome. Teachers who aren’t actively involved with the GSA also support the project. For example, they wear purple on Purple Friday and come out of the closet on Coming Out Day. Sarai: “Even parents have said they approve of how much time and effort we dedicate to safety and respect at school. I personally think it’s wonderful to see the speakers literally hold their heads high as they walk through the school, because they’ve stood up for who and what they are, which received another warm welcome.”