Supporting students of all orientations: Gay-Straight Alliances in Amherst
T he recent well-publicized spate of suicides of gay and lesbian teens has thrown a spotlight on the fact that despite the many gains in acceptance, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens still have a very hard time in school.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network has been studying the situation in secondary schools nationwide for 10 years.
According to its 2009 National School Climate Survey, 85 percent of LGBT students reported verbal harassment, 40 percent reported physical harassment and almost 19 percent reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. Also, 72 percent of students surveyed had heard homophobic remarks at school, and nearly two-thirds of students surveyed feel unsafe at school.
On the positive side, however, the same survey noted that students attending schools with gay-straight alliances report less harassment and homophobia and a greater feeling of safety.
According to Marvin Henchbarger, director of Gay and Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York, Sweet Home High School has one of the longest-running gay-straight alliances in the area.
Adviser Ann Nowak said that eight years ago, an openly gay student who transferred to Sweet Home started the GSA. Nowak has advised the club for six years and states that there are approximately 20 students involved in Sweet Home’s GSA this year.
The Sweet Home GSA has shared its personal experiences in presentations to faculty and staff. Members have also spoken to middle school students to tell them about the club. The school is also poised to host a regional GSA conference during this academic year. Nowak reports an overwhelmingly positive reaction and strong administrative support for the organization.
“We have 100 percent backing from the School Board and superintendent; they've been very supportive. The administration’s been phenomenal,” she said.
Nowak says the club represents a cross-section of students with a variety of motivations for joining. Some are straight, with gay or lesbian parents. Others simply wish to show support to friends or family who are gay.
“We don’t push kids to identify themselves. It’s not the only thing they’re about. They’re teenagers, they’re students of Sweet Home first,” Nowak said. “It’s a hypocrisy that gay kids are identified by orientation, and straight kids are not.”
Henchbarger stated that straight ally participation is an important facet of GSAs. She noted that young people who are not ready to come out fully can join the club as straight allies and still get support. She also stated that the participation of straight students is crucial to promoting an atmosphere of tolerance in schools.
Tolerance was a key issue identified by Amherst Central GSA co-founder Ally Hart.
“It’s pretty bad. Generally, it’s not a very friendly atmosphere,” she said, when asked about the climate in her school. Last year, she and fellow student Katie Smith started organizing a GSA at Amherst. In most high schools, the first step toward establishing any new club is finding a faculty adviser. And waiting in the wings was special education resource teacher Wendy Teplitsky.
“I’ve been waiting for about 10 years for this club to start,” Teplitsky said, adding that she felt it needed to be a student-led endeavor.
“There was a lot of on-the-down-low discrimination before the club started,” said club member Mary Lister. “We hear a lot of pessimism. Some people don’t see the discrimination, and others are actively doing it.”
“We want to make gay not be a bad thing. We don’t want to hear ‘Yo u ’re so gay,’ when they mean ‘Yo u ’re stupid,’” said GSA co-founder Smith.
The administration at Amherst High School has supported the club a great deal. Hart says that even extended toward financial support, helping members get T-shirts made. This month, they decorated the display case near the front entrance.
The GSA attended an annual regional conference at Niagara-Wheatfield and participated in the Pride Parade in Buffalo. It has an open mic night planned for December that will be open to all GSAs in Western New York. Last year, Teplitsky hosted a parents’ night to help parents understand the purpose of the club.
“We ’re not promoting anything but acceptance,” she said, and Henchbarger verified that’s a common misconception about GSAs.
“Sometimes, the anti-GSA contingent, they think GSAs promote homosexuality, or they think all the students will talk about is sex. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Henchbarger.
Members of the Amherst GSA said their parents have been supportive of their participation in the club. Several parents have become actively involved, helping to make the rainbow tie-dyed GSA T-shirts and serving as chaperones for the Pride Parade.
Williamsville South had a GSA at one point, but Principal Daniel Ljiljanich says the club has since folded due to lack of student participation. Williamsville North and East both have diversity clubs, but no organization dedicated specifically to the needs of LGBT students. Henchbarger says that students who do not have a GSA at their schools and need support can contact her organization.
“We have safe contacts at each of the Williamsville schools,” she said. She also added that her organization has donated books to each school’s library, and that it has a drop-in center at 371 Delaware Ave. near Tupper Street in Buffalo. GLYSWNY will provide support for advisers and students who start a club. Ljiljanich stated that any South student interested in restarting the GSA should find an adviser, and contact him.
Henchbarger ties acceptance for all students to increased school safety.
“It puts everyone at risk when you have a school that’s not safe for everyone,” she said. “Having GSAs in high schools and providing kids with support and awareness that there are adults they can talk to has probably saved kids from feeling so devalued and dehumanized that they think the only way out is suicide.”
Gay and Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-0221. Its website is www. glyswny. org.