Courageous Love: Betsy Parsons
Betsy Parsons Receives “Love” Award
As part of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Standing on the Side of Love celebrations on Valentine’s Day, the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church presented Betsy Parsons of Portland a “Love Award” for her courageous work with Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA’s) throughout the state.
In the 1990s, then a teacher at Deering High School, Betsy became aware of the suffering endured by many of the school’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. Socially isolated, too many of these students skipped or dropped out of school rather than be ostracized, physically harassed, or even assaulted by their peers. Some of them were at high risk for suicide because of relentless verbal and physical harassment.
A committed teacher who had earned a high level of trust with her students, Betsy found a group of LGBT and straight-identified young people at her door one day in 1998 begging for help in starting a Gay-Straight Alliance to create a safe space for LGBT youth and improve the school climate for everyone.
Several years before, Betsy had become one of the founding members of GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network in Maine. With the goal of creating safe K-12 schools for all, GLSEN was instrumental in helping schools across the country organize Gay-Straight Alliances where students of all sexual orientations could be together and learn creative ways of confronting violence in their schools. With the support of GLSEN, Betsy helped her Deering students organize the second public school GSA in the state of Maine.
There are now 54 GSA’s in Maine schools, in 13 of 16 counties. While Betsy has helped many, if not all, of them get started, she characteristically gives most of the credit to student leaders. “These are the youth,” she says, “who get in there and work tirelessly with other students to organize.”
She points to South Portland High School senior Katie Zema, a full GLSEN board member and head of the Jump Start team. “Katie and her team are the voices of GSA youth with Maine’s educational leaders, policymakers, media and the public. They also go to schools, churches, and civic groups to talk about their experiences and the importance of GSA’s in promoting welcoming and safe schools for all students.” Katie, and fellow team members Kaleigh Colson and Justin Cochran, appeared with Betsy at Allen Avenue UU Church on Feb. 13 and together led the worship service.
Now a teacher at Waynflete, Betsy is GLSEN-Southern Maine’s GSA coordinator, working with GSA faculty advisors and organizing networking opportunities. She is moved by the vulnerability and resilience of so many young people who are still experiencing isolation and bullying in their schools, and she is grateful to be part of a program that makes a real difference in kids’ lives.
“GSA’s support who they are,” she says. “A GSA makes school safer and more peaceful, gives struggling students hope, teaches them ways of coping, develops their courage and leadership, and provides an avenue for them to help their peers learn to be allies for each other. A GSA also helps them know they are a valued part of a community—not just the gay community but the one we all live in. Across the full range of sexual orientation and gender identity, they learn that they have important contributions to share with the wider community and a responsibility to make the world better through creative nonviolent methods.”
Lifted up by: Connie Cross