LGBTQ teens find hope at Maggie Walker GSA Conference
Saturday morning, long before you woke up and got brunch, kids like Zach Beck were on a school bus heading from Louisa County to Maggie Walker Governor’s School to do something truly unique.
The 17-year-old Louisa County High student identifies as straight/questioning. He’s the leader of his school’s GSA – Gay Straight Alliance – and he’s returning to Maggie Walker this year to learn more about what his club and other clubs like his around the area are doing to make things better for LGBTQ students.
He and several dozen other kids from six schools around the region were all coming together for the Governor’s School GSA Conference (GSAC). In its second year, GSAC offers students a chance to meet, organize and share skills and tools to try and make things a bit better for sexual minority students.
Beck described his local group as “pretty active.” One of their biggest events this year was a Gender Bender day where students got to dress as any gender they felt like.
“It provided an accepting space for that, I had a lot of fun with that and a lot of other people did too,” Beck said. “I learned a lot. I would have expected there to be more conflict around it, but there wasn’t. There were stares, but that’s always there.”
The conflicts these kids face come from a lot of different directions, and the GSAC was held only a few days after Trump’s big win; a win that could diminish a lot of the progress made for kids like River Holland.
Holland, a 17-year-old Godwin senior and queer trans woman, is admittedly on one activist extreme of the kids in the room. Beyond looking beautiful in the makeup she put on that day, she spoke of her school’s LGBTQ club, the Student Association For Equality (SAFE), taking some pretty clear political stances in the face of other students and administration.
“Faculty doesn’t like us much,” she said. But it’s those controversial events and campaigns, like one called “boycott the pledge” that has led to more club turn out.
The varying names for the clubs, from GSAs to SAFE to other acronyms, have changed as much as the kids have. Holland said they started out with a “Gay Straight Alliance” but that led to less attendance. She tapped into the schools growing Middle Eastern population with SAFE which now touts not only LGBTQ inclusiveness, but also a fight against what she called “right wing extremism.”
Jess Liu, River Holland, Ryan Kehoe and Sarah Law, members of the 2016 GSAC staff
For other schools, like Maggie Walker’s GSA, there’s less a political angle and more of an opportunity for students to come together and be themselves. And that safe space came in handy on November 9th.
“It was a sad day. It felt like a funeral at school,” said Sarah Law, a 17-year-old non-binary bisexual senior at Maggie Walker. Law is also the Executive Director of GSAC for the second year in a row.
While Trump’s win was a let down, if not a soul crushing let down, their impromptu meeting that Wednesday led to one of the biggest meetings they’ve ever had.
“They were being in community with one another,” Law said of the students who were all dealing with the future conservative administration in different ways. “We were mourning and grieving together. But the next day we were celebrating because we found our people and we found our community. We found people who we knew were going to support us for the next four years no matter what.”
And if Trump’s conservative backers and incredibly anti-LGBTQ platform are any kind of inference to what he’ll do as a leader, they’re going to need that support – especially the trans kids who made up a large portion of the group I spoke to.
“We’ll get back to you eventually,” was what the school administration told Jordan Johnson, a 16-year-old Black trans male Maggie Walker student, when he asked about using the boy’s restroom. “I’m a boy,” he said matter-of-factly.
It’s been three months and they still haven’t told him where he can or can’t go.
Law walks to the first floor to use a restroom in the nurses office; the only one they’re comfortable with. Most of their classes are on the third floor.
But still, for other schools, talk of bathroom policies is a bit more nuanced. Ryan Kehoe, a 17-year-old gay trans guy and junior at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, said his school doesn’t have a policy one way or the other, but he’s working with other clubs to get one hammered out and approved.
He’s been using the boys room without issue for now, but he knows, “If someone had a problem they could report it and I’d be banned from using the men’s restroom.”
But he and other club presidents got together and drafted a policy and a petition with the hopes of garnering support for their cause. They haven’t submitted it to administration officials yet, but they’re getting there.
Still, the unknown President Trump and the historically anti-LGBTQ Vice President Mike Pence loom like a shoe waiting to drop. The Obama administration’s support for transgender students through Title IX of the Civil Rights Act is probably the first to get the ax when the reality TV star gets sworn into office.
Arriana Woody, a 16-year-old a-gender, a-romantic Appomattox junior called it the “MS Paint rainbow of uncertainty.”
“On one side, it’s general bureaucratic nothing, where nothing happens to negatively impact society,” they said. “[Or] we could be sent straight into the pits of Hades and never be able to crawl out… People always say a lot of things that don’t think they’re gonna do when they’re trying to get elected.”
I was impressed by Woody’s optimism, but when I looked around the room and asked the group of kids if they still had hope – something many of us are still searching for as we get closer to GOP-dominated Congress and Executive branch – they all responded in the positive.
“For about three days after I kind of felt like I was in a dream… I was watching sophomores yell “Trump train” pretty much all through first period,” Beck said, still smiling despite the weight of the topic. “I don’t know where we’re going… If we fight this with love then I think we can get past it. People will see who the oppressor is in this situation. I think there is hope, I think it’s a scary time too, though.”
Emily Martin, a 17-year-old lesbian Senior at Maggie Walker and the Associate Director of GSAC, agreed.
“The LGBT community has always been focused on actively changing things,” she said. “A lot of us have grown up in an environment under Barack Obama and now we have to confront the idea that change doesn’t always happen.”
And it was Holland who offered one of the brightest outlooks on it all.
“Its not Trump we have to fight,” she said. “It’s his ideas we have to fight.”
Governor’s School GSA Conference returns to Richmond to educate and offer safe social space for LGBTQ youth
“There isn’t something else like this, with this degree of education for LGBTQ youth, in Central Virginia… It’s one of the best ways to meet other people like you.”October 27, 2016
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