Betsy Parsons taught in Portland public schools  for 30 years. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Betsy Parsons, a longtime English teacher in Portland public schools and a fierce advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, died on Sept. 5. She was 65.

In 1996, Parsons helped to found the southern Maine chapter of GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, an organization dedicated to ensuring a safe and affirming environment for LGBTQ youth. She was also instrumental in creating about 90 gay-straight alliance groups in high schools across Maine.

“Betsy Parsons was a pioneering advocate, who transformed the lives of LGBTQ people in Maine and contributed to changes that are still rippling out across the entire country,” said Eliza Byard, the national executive director of GLSEN. “She was a foundational participant in a transformative movement to get people in education to take LGBTQ youth concerns seriously, to understand the ways these young people are being harmed every day in our K-12 schools, and to start to do something about it.”

Parsons, of South Portland, was an English teacher in Portland public schools for 30 years. In a 2016 Press Herald news story, Parsons described the moment she realized that in order to change the culture at Deering High School, she had to come out as a lesbian. It changed everything. By the end of the day, about 20 students gathered in the hallway and asked if she would help them start a gay-straight alliance at Deering.

She didn’t stop there. She started an LGBTQ youth leadership program, organized gay-straight-transgender alliance monthly regional meetings for LGBTQ youth, and advocated for students to march in the annual Portland Pride parade.

Byard reminisced about the years that Parsons proudly walked in the parade alongside her students.

“When you look at the pictures, …there was so much determination and joy,” Byard said. “Betsy was one of those people who truly dug deep and found ways to do things that people thought were impossible. Her commitment to LGBTQ youth, her commitment to justice, her commitment to using whatever platform, power, or privilege she had – even when it might have felt really daunting – was an inspiration to me. I miss her.”

Parsons was recognized with various awards and honors throughout her life. In 2014, she received the Gerda Haas Award for Excellence in Human Rights Education and Leadership from the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. In May, she was recognized with a legislative sentiment by the Maine Senate and House of Representatives for her leadership in supporting education of LGBTQ students and for helping to found GLSEN Southern Maine.

Her younger sister, Susan Parsons of Arcata, California, said Thursday that one of her proudest accomplishments was creating the gay-straight alliance groups for LGBTQ youth. Susan remembers the day she saw a Maine map behind her sister’s kitchen door with red stickers representing the number of groups she created across the state.

“She would get in her car and no one would pay her a cent for creating safe spaces for children,” her sister said. “It was at a time when parents didn’t like a homosexual agenda being promoted in any school. Betsy was stepping into these waters constantly.”

Parsons was a deeply spiritual woman. For many years, she sang with Women in Harmony and attended Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland.

Another highlight of her life was singing the national anthem for President Barack Obama during a visit he made to Portland.

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