By Stephen Lane
I n the late 1980s, Massachusetts educators launched a revolution: Schools began to support LGBTQ students. This seemingly small step was
an admission that their previous policy — pretending
that such students did not exist — represented an
abandonment of the children in their care.
This change did not come easily; it happened
because educators made it happen, dragging reluctant
administrators and fearful politicians toward a
brighter, more inclusive future.
Work that had been invisible to most finally
broke the surface in 1987. Soon it would force
changes in Massachusetts educational policy and
have ripple effects across the nation.
Arthur Lipkin, a teacher at Cambridge Rindge
and Latin School and perhaps the first openly gay
teacher in Massachusetts — he came out in 1980,
well before state laws afforded any protection — tried
to get his school to address the constant barrage of
homophobic slurs in the hallways. Finally in 1987,
impatient with a timid administration and after yet
another homophobic joke — this one by a colleague in
front of a group of students — Lipkin walked off the
job and informed administrators that he would return
when they could ensure a safer environment for all.
After a monthlong standoff, administrators
agreed to Lipkin’s primary demand: all-faculty
workshops on homophobia.
Inspired by the training, Lipkin’s colleague, Al
Ferreira, launched the first club in Massachusetts to
promote acceptance of LGBTQ students in schools.
Robert Parlin began the fight against
homophobia at Newton South High School in 1988.
He spent three years pushing the school to address
the issue. The principal said he didn’t know of any
gay students. A guidance counselor swore he’d never
met a gay student in his career.
To help them overcome their blindness, Parlin
came out to his colleagues. He recounted his
own adolescence, including the fear and isolation
he endured and his unceasing efforts to remain
undiscovered. Newton South soon conducted faculty
trainings, and Parlin started a gay-straight alliance.
Thirty students attended the first meeting.
Once underway, the revolution spread quickly.
By 1993, a wave of activism by educators and
students across the state resulted in new Department
of Elementary and Secondary Education policy, the
Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students. Its key
recommendations included trainings for faculty and
the creation of support groups for LGBTQ youth
and allies, or gay-straight alliances. Schools in other
states expressed interest, and the GSA model spread.
What had begun in schools rippled through
communities, changing perspectives and eventually
votes. One Massachusetts politician is said to have
stated that legislators’ support for same-sex marriage
in 2007 would not have happened without changes in
schools a generation earlier.
Schools with GSAs are not perfect sanctuaries.
They are safer, however. According to a number
of studies, straight and LGBTQ students face less
bullying and are more likely to stay in school, more
likely to form strong connections at school, and
less likely to engage in risky behavior, even after
graduating. A significant amount of research shows
that suicide rates for all students are lower at schools
that have GSAs.
The GSA movement — almost entirely the
work of educators and students — is educational
leadership at its finest. And it is hardly an anomaly
— ideas born of necessity in classrooms are often
adopted across school systems and eventually made
But leadership doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It
is vital, when sticking one’s neck out, to know that
others are working to keep the ax from falling.
Unions were there early on: In 1972, when Joe
Acanfora was removed from his teaching position in
Maryland over concerns about his sexual orientation,
the National Education Association supported
his court battle, and it has advocated ever since
for nondiscrimination clauses to include sexual
orientation and gender identity. In the 1990s, the
NEA was in the forefront of those supporting LGBT
All too often, educators and unions are put on
the defensive. We fight to hold our ground against
tightening budgets, dubious educational “reforms”
and ill-founded attacks on our profession. Defending
what we have is necessary. But we must also go on
offense. We must be the leaders our students and
Educational leadership is risky, but also vital
to our core mission: helping students solve the
problems that stand in the way of success. The
fight for LGBTQ rights in schools started with a
decidedly local focus; only later did educators’ work
snowball into a nationwide revolution. In education,
major reform can begin with such small steps. The
important thing is to encourage the beginning.
Stephen Lane is a teacher at Concord-Carlisle
High School and the author of “No Sanctuary:
Teachers and the School Reform that Brought Gay
Rights to the Masses.”
All too often, educators and
unions are put on the defensive.
We fight to hold our ground
against tightening budgets,
dubious educational “reforms”
and ill-founded attacks on our
profession. Defending what we
have is necessary. But we must
also go on offense. We must be
the leaders our students and