Starting a Gay/Straight Alliance: The Nuts and Bolts

Book CoverWhen I was fourteen I thought all there were no gay people under thirty. It wasn't until a friend of mine came out to me as bisexual that I even realized people could be gay in high school. After that, one of my strongest memories from freshman year was telling my friends I was "going home" for lunch and then sneaking off to a small back room in the Home Ec Department where our school's gay-straight alliance met. There were usually about four or five of us at each meeting. We sat quietly, not identifying our sexual orientation. Occasionally a braver student might tell stories about her girlfriend's exploits that weekend while we listened in awe.

That was six years ago. By the time I graduated from Newton North High school in Massachusetts the gay-straight alliance had grown from four kids and a guidance counselor who, according to one friend worried that "we were all going to commit suicide" to a group of twenty or thirty kids, two "out" teachers, a female-to-male transgendered student and same-sex couples who felt fine about making out in the school hallway. What changed? While I was going through the bumps and ruts of adolescence, activists were fighting to get one of the most progressive sexual orientation protection laws in the country. They testified in front of the governor's commission, started gay-straight alliances, battled school committees and principals and faced homophobia themselves for coming out.
To read more about how to start a gay-straight alliance (GSA) in your high school, or to get support to improve one that already exists, check out:

The Gay-Straight Alliance Network

Gay Straight Alliance: A Student's Guide

Their work created the revolution that I experienced in high school. Last year two veterans of this battle, Jeff Perrotti and Kim Westheimer, decided to write a book about what they'd been through to help others who want their schools to change the way mine did. They called it When the Drama Club is Not Enough: Lessons from the Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students.

The issue of homophobia in schools is a serious one. According to the Massachusetts Safe School Report in 1992, gay students are three times more likely to face a physical attack at school than straight-identified students. What's even more frightening, 53 percent of students report hearing teachers using homophobic language in school. But the drive for safe schools is spreading -- states with large rural areas like Washington and Georgia have begun working on initiatives to begin anti-homophobia education. The American Civil Liberties Union made national news recently when it began suing homophobic school districts for violating the civil rights of GLBT students. Drama Club is a straightforward guide about how to get this movement started in your school.

Drama Club is a combination of strategies and anecdotes about the Safe Schools for Gay and Lesbian Students Program. One of the authors, Jeff Perrotti, explained in a Wiretap interview that they wrote the book because they "wanted to end the isolation of people who are doing the work, to show...they're not alone addressing these issues." He pointed out that queer teachers and straight allies can often feel as alone as the youth they work with when they begin to stand up for queer rights. His co-author Kim Westheimer said that there had been a very positive response to the book, because people "found that the mix (of tactics and examples) was really accessible." I agreed, but what I missed in the book was the story of the gay straight alliances -- interviews with students who had not become activists or speakers and what it felt like to have a gay movement at your school, whether or not you were queer. I wanted to know how they thought gay-straight alliances had changed their schools -- for better or for worse. Instead Perrotti and Westheimer use the activist's quotes to explain how they achieved the success stories or dealt with problems. They treat the quotes as case studies, and I think it makes them miss some of the nitty-gritty of high school homophobia.

Still, the "nuts and bolts" that Drama Club does give are really quite good. At a time when the safe schools program has come under attack in many communities, it gives a lot of support to the work that the committee for safe schools is doing. The book carefully and clearly explains exactly why it exists: to make schools safer for queer youth who might be harassed. It answers the backlash against GSAs that has shown up in many communities. As Kim Westheimer explained: "dealing with opposition is not separate from the work, it's central. It helps create dialogue that includes the opposition, instead of driving it underground." The authors of Drama Club explain how to get administrators, students, teachers and even parents behind the idea of queer rights -- so when shit does happen, they can support the GLBT students in fighting back. When I was a junior an out "drama fag" friend of mine was pushed down a steep stone stairway in my "enlightened" school. Even though my friend wasn't out to his parents, our principal helped punish the attacker without calling a parent's conference. Obviously, this situation isn't ideal, but it is a step. If no one is talking about queer rights, it is easy for kids to feel ashamed about their sexual orientation and take the abuse that homophobes put on them. It helps queer students to know that we are worth protecting.

One of the most amazing things about this book was the ways it went beyond addressing administrative problems and started talking about deeper problems in high schools. Instead of doing the usual handwaving that I have seen at many feminist and queer organizations, the book takes time to deal with the questions of race and gender in the queer youth movement head on, and devotes a chapter to each. Perrotti and Westheimer assert that the responsibility for including youth of color should rest squarely on the shoulders of our organizations, saying,
"Dealing with opposition is not separate from the work, it's central. It helps create dialogue that includes the opposition, instead of driving it underground."
"stereotypes in language and in action (are) sure to create barriers that...may be easy for many White GSA members to ignore, but they are likely to keep youth of color standing apart, not included in the group's support and protection." In a movement where the whole point has been to give visibility and role models to people who are used to feeling invisible, it is a serious problem when queer youth of feel unseen.

Gender is especially central in the fight for queer rights. The quote, "Without sexism there could be no homophobia" begins one chapter. Although I never personally been able to put that into words before, reading the chapter on gender helped me understand the connection between women's roles in this culture and anti-gay sentiment. The combination of sexism and homophobia create what they call heterosexual straightjacketing in high school - the fear that students have of being labeled queer for not conforming to gender stereotypes. Sports can be particularly dangerous. The Drama Club points out how coaches can use sexism and homophobia to create a culture that encourages homophobia and hate for students who don't fit in.

"Differences" -- Perpich Center for Arts Education

Perrotti and Westheimer explain exactly how sports can "straightjacket" youth: "boys learn early on that if they are unskilled at sports they face being called sissies and fags. Girls learn that if they excel at sports, they are sometimes assumed to be lesbians and are labeled dykes ...the expectations and stereotypes surrounding athletics and gender roles function to maintain the established the pecking order, with those males perceived to be the most masculine at the top." Girls act ultra-feminine in sports so they won't be called dykes, boys are ostracized for joining a drama club and even queer students are told not to be too butch or "flaming" by GSA advisors so they can "fit in." Although transgendered students (students who do not express their birth sex) and others who openly flout gender norms are beginning to gain acceptance in some schools, these deeper connections between sports, gender, school culture and homophobia are often ignored. If we want to fight homophobia, it is essential to start questioning how sexism and gender roles shape how we treat the men, women, and students in our lives.

Personally, I hadn't thought very much about why I express my gender the way I do until I read this book. As women, do we act feminine because we feel like that fits us best? Or is it just because we've been taught that giggling, wearing makeup and asking for help when we have to lift heavy things is what girls are supposed to do? I think it is revolutionary when high schoolers are given the space to start thinking about how much they fit into gender roles -- and then to decide for themselves how much they want to fit in. High school is about "fitting in" in so many ways that gender-bending might give youth a chance to actually learn who they want to be -- and to fight homophobia.
Book Cover
As for me, I came out early in high school as bi and then proceeded to date boys while staying involved in the gay-straight alliance. I guess that the safe schools program didn't eliminate all the pressure to "stay straight" in high school -- I stuck with checking out the hot soccer players -- boys and girls -- from the sidelines of the field. But as Westheimer said, "two thirds of schools in Massachusetts have GSAs. It's now the exception for a school not to have one. That would have been mind-boggling ten years ago. That's huge."

Abigail Machson Carter, 19, is a WireTap contributor.

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