05/02/2013 01:10 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

New Program For LGBT High Schoolers Modeled On Big Brothers Big Sisters May Be Groundbreaking


A few weeks ago, Stephanie Tovar, a junior at  Lincoln Park High School in Chicago, met with a group of classmates, the dean of students at the school and a handful of young queer advocates. Tovar had been feeling confused about her sexuality; she'd also been in and out of the hospital for attempting suicide after being bullied at school.

The meeting was "awkward," she said. But it also made her feel less lonely.

"Some people are confused about who they are and what they like, and some people aren't, and the people who are confused need to know that the people who aren't are there for them."

Her high school is one of a growing number of schools around the country offering specialized clubs and programs for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. In a recent survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (or GLSEN) found that almost half of the students surveyed said their school has a gay-straight alliance (GSA) or similar student club. But Tovar's program, still in its infancy, is striving to go beyond the standard GSA to provide one-on-one support for queer students.

According to Robert McGarry, the director of education at GLSEN, the program seems unique.  "In a GSA, students don't necessarily have to identify in any way ...," McGarry said. "So something really targeted for kids who have identified that they're LGBTQ, providing direct service to them is something I'm not familiar with, residing within a school setting."

McGarry said the program could have many of the same benefits of a GSA. In his research, he has found that there are three elements that can improve students' lives and grades: a GSA, supportive teachers and policies that protect LGBT students.

When these features are in place, McGarry continued, "students report a feeling of belonging more to the school, because there is a place for them there."

They also often become more engaged in school life, and less likely to cut classes, he said. "If they know they're going to a place where there will be someone supportive of them, they're more likely to come to that place."

In Tovar's program, called the Lincoln Park Youth Society, each student will be paired with a mentor, an idea modeled after the classic Big Brothers Big Sisters youth mentoring organization. It got started after Christy Walker, who was hired as the new dean of students at Lincoln Park High School this past September, realized there were a lot of students who were struggling with their identities, and that there was no support system for them.

But Walker had in mind something more involved than a school club. "We have a lot of students in the program who are at risk, maybe homeless, struggling at school and just need help with so many other pieces, aside from their identity," she said.

Walker reached out to a former student, and eventually connected with Nico Lang, a 25-year-old graduate student in Chicago with experience in student organizing and LGBT activism. Lang was excited about working on a program that was more structured than the GSA he helped start at his high school in Cleveland.

"It sometimes felt like it was just my friends and I hanging out, which at the time was great," Lang said. "But we were all really scared that when we left that it wouldn't exist anymore."

"On top of that, we didn't have a lot of personal leaders or mentors to look up to."

Many of the mentors working with Lang are motivated to help out because of their own difficult high school experiences. "I guess you could say my experience being a gay teen in Kentucky is one of the driving reasons I want to be involved," said Mark Nott, one of the mentors. "I had no one to talk to, no one to relate to."

After attending the group's first meeting, Nott was surprised to see how similar the experiences of students at Lincoln Park High School -- nestled in a liberal city in a state that appears on the verge of legalizing same-sex marriage -- to his own.

"It really struck me that everything I went through, the identity issues, the insecurities, the lack of support, is all here as well," Nott said. "Going in, I thought, this has to be easier for people in a larger more liberal minded city, but really, that doesn't make high school any less difficult."