Middle school can be a tough experience. From hormones to homework, from changing friend groups to changing bodies, the years can be challenging to navigate. Add in exploring gender identity, and walking the halls of middle school can feel like a minefield. A few years ago, a group of Percy Julian Middle School students decided that the school needed a safe place for LGBTQI students and set out to create a welcoming club for LGBTQI students and their allies. Now in its third year, Rainbow Tribe has become a home for many.

Ashley Kannan is the faculty moderator. He says two eighth graders created the group. “They wanted to create a safe space, and they wanted it to be for students, by students.”

The founders of the club wanted to make a space within the school where dialogue about LGBTQI issues encountered by young adults could take place, and three years in, Kannan says their efforts have paid off. “When the girls brought this up three years ago, we didn’t have a place in our building where being trans was normalized, where being bisexual was normalized. As teachers, we would do our part to be allies, but that wasn’t enough.”

Kannan says the year the club began, he had a student in his class who was transsexual. “I tried to be an ally, but I couldn’t really tell him, ‘This is your school too.’ Either you lived in the closet, or you lived in the shadows at school. These kids needed a place to go, and it needed to be engineered from the top down.”

Once the club began meeting on a regular basis and was given a room at the school, Kannan says the change was evident. “Rainbow Tribe fulfills a function by way of saying it’s completely OK. You can be bisexual, gay or straight, and this is your place.”

Rainbow Tribe meets every Wednesday, with student leaders getting together with moderators the day before to plan the week’s activities. Kannan says that each week is different, but the kids in the club might work on an arts and crafts project, talk about young adult literature or discuss issues as significant as how kids come out to their families and friends.

Each meeting begins with the question, “Why do you need a safe space today?” Kannan says safety is a key component of the club. “Research shows that students are often targeted for bullying based upon their sexual identity, and suicide rates among kids who are not hetero-normative sky rocket.”

While the club can’t solve all problems, Kannan says it gives kids a place where for one hour a week they don’t feel different. He recalls one student who attended his first meeting and said, “This is the first time I don’t feel like a freak.” For Kannan, those who attend take away that feeling. “It allows a certain segment of our population to feel for a time as if they are the norm in middle school.”

Outside of its members, Rainbow Tribe also affects the wider population at Julian. Kannan says the group’s visibility is viability for kids at this age. If they see that there’s a meeting being held on a regular basis, or hear that a friend or classmate attends, it is a part of the process of acceptance and erasing the idea of LGBTQI students as the “other.”

He says it also teaches boundaries. “Kids might learn that they can’t say ‘that’s so gay,’ or ‘you’re a fag,’ as derogatory remarks. You take the victories where you get them.”

At the end of the day, Kannan says Rainbow Tribe is a great addition to the middle school landscape and likens it to other activities that children join during those years. “The high school has a great Gay-Straight Alliance. Just like athletes look forward to making the team in high school, or actors look forward to doing the productions at OPRF, our kids look forward to the GSA. We’re like the minor leagues here with Rainbow Tribe. When the kids go to high school, they come back and tell us how great it is.”

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY). 

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