Peer education program teaches freshmen about LGBTQ+ issues


LGBTQ+ rights advanced dramatically in the last decade, and with that, many people feel more comfortable to question and publicly label their gender identity, sexuality, and form of expression. With these dynamic changes, students have taken it upon themselves to educate each other. 

   Acalanes’ Queer Student Alliance (QSA), a student-run club, organized the Peer Education program in which members and other Acalanes student volunteers facilitated dialogue in freshmen English classes throughout the week of Jan. 10. The presenters led conversations about different aspects of the LGBTQ+ community with the hope of creating a more inclusive school environment.

   QSA began 15 years ago under the supervision of Acalanes English teacher Erik Honda. 

   “I have been the advisor for the club since it started in 1997, my first year teaching at Acalanes. I have been teaching here for 25 years. My first year at Acalanes a couple women came up to me and were like, ‘So, we are thinking of starting a gay club.’ And I was thinking, I am going to get in trouble if we do that. They convinced me,” Honda said.

   The presentations began in 2005 and took inspiration from the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) curriculum founded in 1998. The program, which originated in San Francisco, is an informative network that provides curriculum  and resources for student-run clubs all across the nation focused on LGBTQ+ rights.

   “The GSA provided a curriculum saying, ‘If you want to go into classes and talk about these issues, here is what you do,’” Honda said. 

   QSA used the curriculum as a baseline for their own program and continues to update the presentations annually with new terminology, laws, and milestones within the LGBTQ+ community.

   “As more countries legalize LGBTQ+ rights and marriage, the curriculum has put more focus on it. I think that it is important to show the progress that has been made and the importance of this topic,” presenter and Acalanes junior Owen Salmon said.

   The Peer Education program covers the basics, including discussions about sex, gender, pronouns, and expression. Some students feel that the general Acalanes curriculum does not cover LGBTQ+ topics enough, which encourages students to volunteer to present to and educate their peers.

   “I come from Oakland and we learned about a lot of LGBTQ+ history and a lot about identities in middle school, but coming here I found a lot of kids do not know anything. It is really important to teach them because it is just basic human respect,” presenter and Acalanes sophomore Malia Eads said.

   Covering the fundamentals of the LGBTQ+ identity also provides a sense of security for those in the LGBTQ+ community by spreading awareness and empathy in the student body.

   “I feel this program prevents students from being totally blind to the LGBTQ+ community and its struggles. I think it also shows LGBTQ+ kids on campus that there is a place for them here, no matter their gender or sexual orientation,” QSA Co-president and senior Autumn Long said. 

   The preparation process for the presentations is extensive to confirm that presenters are up-to-date on current information and that the progress goes smoothly. 

   “We had two academy sessions and then club time on Monday to rehearse what to say and to go over all the information to make sure we can give the best presentations to frosh, and to be prepared for any questions that arise,” Eads said.

   Student presenters cover a variety of topics to educate their peers on as many aspects of the LGBTQ+ community as possible.

   “The material we covered for the Peer Ed presentation was about terminology, identity, and social-emotional awareness. Most folks knew some terminology, and left knowing more than before, such as clearer definitions of gender, sex, and expression as well as a knowledge of intersex existence,” presenter and Acalanes junior Skylar Thomas said.

   The presentations also focus on issues of equality and discrimination in an everyday context.

   “We presented on LGBTQ+ issues like homophobia faced in a school setting and other important topics about inclusion and being kind and respectful,” presenter and Acalanes senior Stella Bobrowsky said.

   Although many frosh knew some of the information beforehand, the presentations allowed them to achieve a deeper understanding of LGBTQ+ topics and issues that have not gained as much attention through media and popular discussion.

   “I knew a good majority of it because I had a similar lesson in eighth grade with Emerson [the QSA co-president], but I did learn a lot more about the umbrellas of gender and sexual identity as well as some of the statistics. I did not know a lot about the suicide rates and the actual numbers of people who identify as LGBTQ+,” Acalanes frosh Robin Parmelee said. 

   As a result of the focus on the impacts of discrimination and homophobia, presenters made frosh aware to the level of severity these issues currently pose.

   “I feel that the presentations made people take these issues a lot more seriously, especially after hearing other people’s stories and how much they were affected,” Acalanes freshman Kalia Johnson said.

   New staff members also witnessed this year’s Peer Education presentations for the first time and enjoyed the presentations’ material and delivery.

   “I appreciated how much thought and effort the presenters put into creating these presentations. I thought the presenters did a great job answering questions, sharing personal stories, and making this information relevant to the students,” Acalanes English teacher Aviva Maslow said.

   In turn, many presenters expressed their appreciation for the class participation they received.

   “The class I taught was lovely. They were a bit shy and slow to open up, but we got some volunteers that made my day,” Thomas said.

   The presenters created an educational and welcoming environment for many audience members throughout the classes.

   “I think most people were pretty engaged and understood the material well. Some were a little confused because there was a lot of information, but were understanding and supportive.” Parmelee said.

   To QSA, student-to-student interaction is a vital aspect of Peer Education. Presenters feel that it evokes more empathy and sparks more profound conversations between students. 

   “The students being taught are more likely to open up and have deeper conversations [with student teachers]. I think students are less intimidating than teachers to other students, so it creates more of a conversation during the presentations,” Long said.

   The presentations were a learning experience for not just students, but for some presenters as well.

   “It was stressful but it helped me grow as a presenter and educator, especially on topics that might be uncomfortable for some people,” Bobrowsky said.

   The long history of Peer Education is just one more aspect for students that make them feel welcome at QSA and the greater Acalanes community.

   “QSA has not only given me a feeling of community within the broader Acalanes community, but it has also given me leadership skills and confidence when presenting in any other area of my life due to my leadership role in the club. QSA has made my Acalanes experience feel more connected and supported,” Long said.

Acalanes student Reid Aldrich contributed interviews to this story.