Out at school: Queer student groups grow and change with student needs

By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
Members of the UO's LGBTA group volunteered in San Francisco for their Alternative Spring Break service trip.

Queer student organizations transform schools, communities, and individual lives. Descended from the first gay-straight alliances of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in only a generation queer student organizations in Oregon’s public schools have grown, changed, and evolved from their roots as safe spaces to their modern expression as organizations that provide solace, empowerment, and engagement for their communities.

THEN: 1994

Susie Alin never intended to be an activist, but the calling came and she stepped up to it. Alin — a former counselor at McMinnville High School who now works as a family counselor in private practice — was inspired to become engaged in creating a safe for LGBTQ teenagers through a horrific and painful tragedy in 1994.

“There was a young lady at our school who was trying to come out, and was in love with another student at the school,” she recalls. “Her parents were adamantly against this involvement, and didn’t believe she was gay. … They were prominent in the community, and just thought she was acting out. She was going through a lot of turmoil.”

The family visited Alin, hoping that she would be able to change their daughter’s sexual orientation.
“I simply can’t change orientation — no one can,” Alin told them. “I’d be really rich if I could do that, because if I could I would change it in reverse and everyone would be happy!”

However, the girl’s parents were decidedly not happy, and their strict and disapproving treatment of their daughter increased steadily. The student ultimately killed herself, sending shockwaves through the small community.

“A lot of people in the community got together — two or three different churches, YCAP — and we tried to figure out what to do for kids in the community who identified as LGBTQ. We … realized we needed a safe place for kids to meet [so they] could talk about things. I was the only counselor who attended these meetings, as well as one of the only people affiliated with the school. I said that I would do it until they could hire someone.”

Alin ended up overseeing this gay-straight alliance for over eight years.

“We would meet on Thursday afternoons at different places,” Alin recalls, “in buildings that were off-campus but were affiliated with the school district, or in the basement of the Baptist church. We always had pizzas and drinks, which I raised money for. We had few rules — no alcohol or drugs, no pornographic things, and absolutely no put-downs. We’d watch films, talk about local and national issues that concerned them.”

Even while some community members strongly opposed the group, they still found many allies in the community, including students from nearby Linfield College who had recently established their own GSA.
In 2005, 11 years after the founding of the off-campus GSA, McMinnville High School agreed to let the group meet on-campus as an official student group.

“The attitude of the school, and that of the principal, became more accepting. We still got some nasty calls from parents from time to time, but the school had started to back me up fully.”

Even with institutional support, Alin says. “I still brought pizza for those kids every week.”

NOW: 2012

Ben Young

Like Alin before him, Ben Young transformed painful experience into action.

“We didn’t have an active GSA at Aloha High School,” says Young, now a sophomore at the University of Oregon. “Towards the end of my senior year, I started coming out, and it sparked my interest in changing a lot of things about the school. I was bullied and harassed quite a bit earlier in my school career, and by my senior year I was tired of people being bullied.”

Rather than go through the process of starting a GSA, Young instead opted to start “speaking truth to power” and being honest with those around him about his experiences.

“I talked extensively with the principal about how I was bullied, before and after coming out,” Young recalls. “He asked me to speak before the faculty and staff before the following school year started. I was able to encourage them to empower LGBTQ students to achieve more by being aware of bullying, and to take a strong stand against bullying language.”

Young graduated and matriculated at the University of Oregon, where he swiftly became involved with numerous queer campus organizations. Rather than serving primarily as social or support spaces, the organizations Young joined encouraged their members to look at the community around them and to enact significant changes in society.

This is a common approach for today’s queer student organizations, according to Glenn Goodfellow, a board member with the Oregon Safe Schools and Community Coalition who works extensively with GSAs and student groups.

“I would say the groups are now less about asserting that gay people exist and what it means to be gay — less about having to define yourself — and instead asking what it is that we [as a community] have to do above and beyond that,” Goodfellow says. “It’s less a bastion of sticking together to say safe, and more about doing things like raising funds, paralleling their work with other organizations, and looking for a purpose in the larger community.”

The UO’s LGBTQA group, for example, created an “alternative spring break” program that sent student activists to San Francisco in order to provide volunteer hours and fundraising help for LGBTQ organizations in the Bay Area. The group’s outreach also extended to the local community in and around the UO campus.

“I helped to start the group UO Equal, an organization that seeks to educate students about issues relating to the queer community,” Young adds. “It’s a student-led space to discuss queer issues, such things as redefining marriage and marriage equality, the Obama administration’s engagement with the queer community, and ways to engage and honor the trans and genderqueer communities on campus.”

Young and others involved in UO Equal also participate in Bridges, a program that facilitates groups of LGBTQ individuals to make presentations in high schools and middle schools about queer rights and answer questions about the realities of queer life.

“We partner with GSAs at local schools, as well as other groups, in order to break down the stereotypes around who GLBTQ people are and what their lives are like,” Young explains.

“Going into schools, I see a lot of promise, with many teachers taking a stand against bullying,” he adds, “even at my old school. I went back this year to talk to some of the teachers, and they said that a lot changed after that; other students who I spoke with said that there was little to no bullying at the school. A lot has changed in a very short amount of time, and I’m excited to see how things will keep changing — and what role I can play in changing things.”