By Elizabeth Gracen:
We continue our Making the World a Better Place series with an interview with a Denise Bell-Bottomley— an elementary school educator for twenty-two years in La Crescenta, CA, in the Glendale Unified School District.
Establishing the Connections Club in 2019— a weekly lunchtime gathering “safe place” in a campus classroom of the elementary school where she teaches, Denise supervises as kids come together to talk, listen and support each other. She is committed to helping young people and continues to devote time and energy to supporting LGBTQ students and any student who needs that extra bit of encouragement. Over the past year, the Connections Club has grown from a handful of students at its inception, to a bursting-at-the-seams, vibrant community where kids are allowed to be themselves, express their concerns, share ideas on how to make their school a more inclusive community for ALL and make unlikely connections and friendships.
Denise’s story is unique. When her son, Blake, now twenty-one, was only three months old, her husband left her to raise the baby on her own. She suffered depression and often felt suicidal, but with the help of friends and her "angels," she successfully raised her son and began a journey of self-discovery. Along the way, something quite unexpected happened. Denise realized that she had fallen in love… with a woman.
Although her wife, Christina, has no problem with identifying as a lesbian, Denise refuses to be labeled—much like many of today’s youth. She is simply a woman in love with a woman. Now married for seven years, Denise and Christina, both educators, have two children together, aged five and three. With a common goal of raising awareness and establishing support for the LGBTQ community, both Denise and Christina envision a world where no one feels left out, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.
Her idea to create a GSA(Gay-Straight Alliance) organization at her school originated in 2014 when Denise became aware of a fourth grade student who identified as transgender. Some of the school staff knew the student and felt compelled to reach out in support, but the staff was encouraged by the school not to interfere. Denise and another colleague were concerned that the student was being silenced and that her transition was only spoken about in secret and behind closed doors. The following school year, Denise brought her concerns directly to the school administration where she was told that nothing could be done because the administration was respecting the family's wishes. This compelled Denise to move into action to change the culture at her school.
Afraid of push-back from parents and community should the Glendale Unified School District (GUSD) support an alliance with any gay, lesbian or transgender organizations, the school administration was initially unsupportive of her ideas… but that didn’t stop Denise. She recognized the tremendous obstacles that face today’s youth, and she refused to sit back and do nothing. She asked for financial support from her administration to attend the CTA (California Teachers Association) sponsored GLBT Issues Conference and was denied. Several educators in her district who attend the conference every 2-4 years advised Denise and her wife (who was also declined funding for the conference from her school administration) to seek funding from their union, GTA. Denise and Christina applied and were successfully funded and attended the life changing conference.
Soon after the conference, Denise applied to the California Teachers Association (CTA) for the LGBTQ + Safety in Schools Grant and Scholarship Program and was awarded a $500 grant to help support any additional costs for the club. With the grant, she purchased gender inclusive books for kids in the club, club student created wristbands (rainbow with CONNECTIONS CLUB and BE INCLUSIVE) and supplies for the club’s art submissions to the glendaleOUT Pride art show.
I spoke with Denise about her journey and the exciting work she is doing with the Connections Club.
EG: Denise, thank you so much for this interview. The work you are doing is incredibly inspiring and so important. Let’s pick your story up when you were finally given permission to start the Connections Club at your school.
DB: We finally got going once it became authorized by the school district. I told my administrator that the kids wanted to put up posters like the other clubs do at school. I asked, “Can we do that?” And she said yes—because she really couldn’t stop us. Then the kids made a logo and came up with the name of the club. And we got little wristbands. They wore them very proudly!
EG: None of this happened overnight. It took quite a bit of determination on your part. Do you feel like you made any enemies during the process?
DB: No. And, even if I did, I don’t really care, because I know it’s a need, and I’m doing what’s right for these kids.
EG: What would you say to people who don’t agree with your beliefs? What do you think they’re missing about the importance of what you’re doing?
DB: I think there’s a lot of fear out there. There is just a lot of ignorance, unfortunately. Some people think that we’re trying to instill our beliefs into these kids—which we aren’t, because it’s a student run club and a safe place where kids can be themselves and not get teased, ridiculed, or judged for not fitting the stereotypes of today’s youth. Maybe some people think that we’re trying to “convert” these kids or that we have an “agenda," and that they’re not ready to have honest conversations with their peers about the realities of what they are faced with in our culture and the hatred, bigotry and fear amongst society of anyone who is seen as “different” from them. Some might think that kids will turn gay as a result of being around and having conversations with those who identify as LGBTQ. And that’s just pure ignorance and fear.
I see these kids every week. I get emotional just talking about it, because as advisors, we just sit back, and the kids run the club. And when we hear the conversations that are taking place and how they introduce the new kids who come to the club, and the leadership and the support they have for each other, we feel validation. There’s a need, and we know that we are providing a safe place for them. They need to know that it’s okay if you don’t fit a stereotype. It’s okay if you’re a boy and you have long hair and you don’t want to be an athlete. You can be into plays and have other interests, and it’s okay.
It’s also about spreading the message of inclusiveness—including everybody. It doesn’t matter what you look like or what ethnicity you are. Or if you’re being raised by your grandparents, or if your parents are in jail and you have to stay at your friend’s house. We have it all in the Connections Club.
If these kids can find a connection with each other and find a safe place and spread that inclusiveness, then we’ve done our job. We were kind of concerned about the sustainability at first, but we have 4th, 5th and 6th graders. So, there are a lot of 4th and 5th graders who will continue with it next year.
EG: Can you tell me a little about what a typical meeting is like?
DB: They come in. My classroom is open, and there are three of us advisors who are usually sitting at one of the desks. The kids sit in my library area. We told them that they have to sit together. The club has grown so much. One of their goals was to have it overflowing with kids so that we wouldn’t have enough space. They thought that would be a beautiful thing. And now, it’s gotten that big, and they’re spread out all over the room, but the rule is that they have to sit together. They eat their food, snacks, lunch. Typically they run “restorative circles” —kind of like a powwow where you get in a circle and share your ideas with each other. They might have a topic and share their ideas about how to restore the community, restore any harm that’s been done. We’re trained as a school to do that. They basically just talk to each other. They just kick back and talk and share things that have happened at home or in the morning—what they’ll be doing on the weekend or after school.
It’s very eclectic group—every race, all different genders, identities.The guidelines are posted. They came up with the guidelines— the rules for the club. They are posted on the screen in the room. We always talk about those in the beginning to focus everybody, and then they start doing their thing.
Kids sort of trickle in at different times depending on when they get their lunch. If there is ever a new member, a new face to the group, they stop what they’re doing. They have a signal. They say “Connections” and the group says “Club.” So, they stop talking to get everyone’s attention. Then they introduce the new member. The new member has to say their name and their favorite color—which is pretty cute. It’s kind of like an AA meeting!
EG: You’ve been an educator for twenty-two years. Do you notice any difference in these kids compared with the kids who came before them?
DB: There are so many differences. They are a lot more aware of the world around them. More interested in politics and things that are happening on a community level. They seem more worldly to me. I think that’s partly due to social media. They are exposed to so much more at such an early age. Some of them, way too much. They are smart, and they pick up a lot from conversations that they overhear as well. I think they are more open-minded than previous generations, which is a good thing. However, at the same time, their parents are of a different generation, and I feel like a lot of the kids are being silenced for their views at home. They are more opinionated and feel free to voice their opinion and take a stand and be vocal and march and be more visible. I’ve seen a lot of that —on our campus alone.
I also think that they are surrounded by people who kind of spark that open-mindedness. We have a lot of teachers at school who are very open-minded and some who are not — some from my own generation.
Art doors created by students for the glendaleOut show
EG: Why do you think this wave of protest and activism with our youth is happening? When I talk to kids from Gen Z, I walk away feeling very hopeful. I feel like they can actually save the world if we don’t blow it up before they get to take charge of it.
DB: That is why we are trying to do our part. That is why I feel so passionate about it. They do give me hope. There is a student who just graduated. She came out as a lesbian at school, and she was wearing t-shirts about gay pride. My administrator came to me and said, “She needs to be a part of the club.” And I said, of course, but I’m not going to approach her. She needs to come on her own. And she did—she came to the club quite organically. And she… of my gosh… she just gives me… I’m so immensely proud of her. She has support at home from both of her parents. She’s okay to be whoever she wants to be, and the kids in the club have embraced her because of that. It’s been amazing to watch her journey. I had her in 4th grade, and now to see her two years later, it’s just amazing. It’s really exciting. I’m just so proud of her.
Another student who joined the club late in the school year, found the space to be safe and welcoming. She has now moved on to middle school and identifies as non-binary and is an advocate and student leader for change and inclusiveness. She is a perfect example of why I'm what I'm doing for these kids.
EG: It can get confusing—all the different categories of gender. My daughter identifies as pansexual. When she told me, I thought, “What the hell is that?” And when I read that it means that pansexual people are “gender-blind”—that gender and sex don’t determine a romantic or sexual attraction, I was fine with it, but I asked her if it was necessary to put a label on herself. She said, “Mom, we can just change it if we want.” So, I thought, well, I guess that’s fine then!
DB: (Laughs) In the club, they know I’m married to a female. I’m very open about it. I don’t identify as a lesbian, and I don’t identify as gay. I just happened to fall in love with a woman. Love is love is love. If you want a label for it...”LOVE." My friends and family tease me about it, but that’s who I am. I don’t put a label on it. My wife is a lesbian, and I am married to one.
EG: Do you have any recommendations about where parents or family can go for guidance and support?
DB: That’s the other part of activism that I’m involved with in addition to the club. After I went to the conference, my wife and I started to work with the district in creating a family community support here in La Crescenta for families of LGBTQ so that kids can have a safe place to go. If families aren’t accepting of their kids for whatever reason, those kids need to find somewhere to go to find a connection with somebody so that they don’t become depressed. We’ve had a lot of suicides in the area at the high school. The mental health situation is really bad right now, so finding the support and knowing where you can reach out to find the support is important. That’s what we’re in the process of trying to create. A place where like-minded people can come together for support and making connections. Books are a wonderful resource as well. I am in the process of working with a local bookstore, Once Upon a Time in Montrose, to acquire diverse books for our school and my classroom library. This is one step forward in creating LGBTQ normalcy.
EG: What resources do you refer people to if they need help?
DB: GLSEN.org, Gender Nation, lalgbtcenter.org, gaycenter.org, pflag.org are all terrific organizations to look into. We do have some resources that are in LA. LA Unified already has a community outreach similar to this. We also have an old house, called The Firehouse, in this area that serves as a safe place for anybody, including LGBTQ. It’s primarily for middle school age. They can go there in the morning and after school. It’s facilitated by a church and some volunteers. We have a few different organizations like that, but we want to make it more localized, more personal. That is why we are in the process of creating this kind of community center. We’re starting at our house, just having families come here, with the hope that it will grow.
We have families from my school, my wife’s school, who come to us and say, “We feel like we’re the only gay couple. We’re the only ‘two moms’ in our school. We don’t feel like there are any other families like us.” There are, but a lot of them feel silenced. We’re trying to create that space for them. We’re starting small, working with the district, getting their support. That is what we’re in the process of creating now – maybe for next year.
EG: My last question. What would you say if you could meet a young version of yourself? What would you tell her?
DB: Take time to listen, not judge, and appreciate and respect the generations before me and those yet to come. Intergenerational relationships are vital to healthy relationships, communities, etc. Also, I'd say to not judge, to be open-minded. I’ve learned, especially being with my wife now—she’s very nonjudgmental. I thought I was a nonjudgmental person, but it turns out that I have a long way to go! You know, everyone has a story. It sounds cliché, but you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Our differences can actually bring us together, and that’s the beauty of it.
Connections Club update from Denise for October, 2019:
We have about 20 kids, grades 4-6.
We have met 3 times this year and we have 2 student leaders. The club is in the process of coming up with activities to do to “get our voices heard” on the topic of creating an inclusive community here at Mountain Avenue. My other advisor and I were met with some resistance again, but we powered through and the club is up and running.
The student who now identifies as non-binary and who has moved on to middle school has an amazing story. When I saw “they” parents at the beginning of this school year, they were so appreciative and thankful for me having the club and a space where “they” could be themself.