Richmond’s GLSEN Summit Gives Teen Activists a Chance to Connect
“We’ve had some very powerful enemies which speaks to the importance of what we’re doing, and why we have this outpost.” said John Leppo, Chairperson for Richmond Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network (GLSEN). As he spoke, he was sitting in a freshly painted room at the Gay Community Center of Richmond, eagerly waiting for an unknown number of high school students to come to the annual GLSEN GSA summit.
GSA’s, Gay Straight Alliances, are student-led groups in public high schools. They have a recent history of being a safe place for LGBTQ youth to come together, talk about issues that affect them, and hopefully make some changes in the way they are treated. Teachers and other adults cannot form these groups–students themselves must organize and build them into recognized groups.
But student organizing around such a controversial issue can be hard. That’s why these summits, which help students build skills to organize and work together to form GSA’s, are so important. Leppo, who has a professional background in student management, has a keen understanding of why this voice from within is so important. “Peer-to-peer interactions are the most powerful. You can have rules and teachers, etc. But when it comes to group norms, if there is a voice within their age group, it’s much more powerful than any outsider telling them.”
Leppo speaking in front of some GSA members
The statistics concerning issues in the LGBTQ high school community are bleak. In the 2011 GLSEN School Climate Survey, 63.5% of students said they felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. Additionally, Neal Palmer, a research associate with GLSEN, said things can be worse depending on the area of the country you live in. ”There are different experiences among LGBT students by region–students tend to hear more homophobic language in the South and Midwest.” This puts Virginia on the list of worse-off youth communities.
Ricardo Martinez, GLSEN’s National Community Initiatives Manager, was also in attendance at the summit. He’s worked in the community initiatives role for over a year, helping to develop GSA programs across the country. ”We try to empower youth to really mobilize in their community and have a voice in the type of programing they want and need…”
Martinez and Palmer
The event took place over a number of hours this past Saturday. Several rooms were divided into classroom and meeting areas. There were five workshops dealing with issues across the LGBTQ spectrum. Ted Heck of the VA Department of Health gave a talk called “trans 101,” designed to help create a better understanding of trans issues and gender identity. Rev. Robin Gorsline gave a talk on spirituality in the community. A break for lunch led into a group discussion about what local GSA’s were doing to get other students involved, and keep the clubs active. Though only a few students made it out for the event, many ideas were offered to help build unity in schools and help get the important message of LGBT youth to the broader school public.
Bre Adey, a senior from Douglas Freeman High School, came with some of her club-mates. They had been to a similar summit held by Richmond GLSEN in the fall. “It’s a good way to meet other people in the area,” said Adey. She spoke about how the school’s principal and faculty had given them some support, but the lack of proper recognition from Henrico County meant they could not collect funds. This made things difficult for the already over-worked high school students. But through it all, Adey knew her work with the GSA was important. “Kids need a place they can go to feel supported, and I think GSA’s are a place that provide a good support system,” said Adey.
Adey and Wynn
One of Adey’s club-mates, Alysha Wynn, said she appreciated the all-inclusive nature of the GSA. “It’s not just a gay/straight sort of thing; it’s a very open, accepting place for people to come. It’s a good community in the sense of acceptance.” Wynn said one of the more important parts of the GSA was the group’s ability to show the rest of the school that LGBTQ students exist. “It helps to educate kids about things, and they can educate other people in society.”
Beyond the speakers and organizers, volunteers made up a large part of the GLSEN Summit. A group of students from University of Richmond came to help set up, but stayed to participate and lend support to the high school students. “I feel like, in our community, we need each other. We got asked to help volunteer, and we said yes,” said U of R Environmental Science major Ashley Colon. She participated in her school’s GSA when she was in high school, and remembered a time when they attended a similar GSA Summit:
“I was talking to my mom about putting my sexual orientation on my college applications, and she said ‘No, you shouldn’t do that! If they see you’re gay, they may not accept you,’ or something. I told the college kids that, and they said ‘If they don’t accept you because you’re gay, you don’t wanna go to that school. You’re not gonna be happy.’ And that seemingly obvious bit of advice helped me apply to colleges. So, I thought it would be cool to come back as a college student.”
Another volunteer from U of R, Lydia Wang, wanted to help support the high school students in a time she understood to be so important in their development. “Teenagers are still in the process of getting to know themselves, and the people who surround you may affect you for years to come,” said Wang. Wang, who said she was in the closet during high school, said that the GSA helped, if only by existing on the fringe. “For someone who’s closeted, it’s a presence, it’s a safe place. You know you can go there and discuss issues. Meet people like you.”
The story of Richmond’s GLSEN chapter is as complicated as many of the students in attendance. Leppo has been involved in Richmond GLSEN since it started 13 years ago. He had been working with ROSMY at their youth crisis hotline, hearing story after story from kids that were afraid and had nowhere to turn. ”Spending hours on the phone with the youth – the terrible things they were going through, things they were afraid of from their families and that sort of thing.”
During his time there, Leppo realized just how much support the Richmond teen LGBTQ community needed, and when folks began to gather around the idea of forming a GLSEN chapter in town, he jumped at the chance. The heart of GLSEN is in the GSA’s, and Leppo understood just how much time these kids spent in school. ”I saw this as a very potent area of needing assistance.”
GLSEN Richmond had its humble beginnings in January, 2000. The group of volunteer leaders had to reach certain criteria before becoming an official GLSEN chapter – LGBT youth focused on programming and gaining an understanding of what the community needed. ”When we started, we asked ourselves an initial question: ‘how far would we be willing to travel to talk to schools?’” said Leppo. They received accreditation the following year, and by 2001, GLSEN Richmond had helped set up 3 GSA’s in the Richmond area.
Maggie Walker Governor’s School was the first. It wasn’t easy, but after collecting letters of support, and a letter from the VA ACLU, the principal gave in. Shortly after, James River and JR Tucker high schools followed suit. Now, the Richmond GLSEN chapter, which has most of the state in its footprint (excluding Northern Virginia, which has its own chapter), has 36 GSA’s in its purview.
But it hasn’t been easy – Leppo said that Richmond GLSEN has had to go to bat for students on a number of occasions, and principals and school leaders today have gotten wise as to how to get away with denying the clubs. For example, according to Leppo, principals will let it be known that if “any faculty member agrees to become a GSA club sponsor, that it would be frowned upon.” This puts hopeful students in awful situations in which they will be ready to form the club, and then the sponsor will back out.
Legal avenues have also been used to keep GSA’s out of schools, but luckily groups like GLSEN were there for support. Leppo remembered a number of occasions where state legislatures had moved to require parental permission for students to join clubs, or even attempted outright bans on GSA’s being formed. Through working with Equality Virginia and other civil rights groups and getting students to come testify themselves, all state-level attempts to block GSA’s were foiled.
GLSEN has also been directly attacked by local groups outside the school system or government. Leppo remembered when someone from Chesterfield County’s Concerned Women for America infiltrated a GSA summit some years back. The woman then tried to go to the press with made up information about the summit. Leppo didn’t go into specifics as to what she tried to tell the press, but he said, “it failed, because it was so outlandish. We don’t just open the door anymore.”
But no matter the challenge, Leppo and Richmond GLSEN are here to stay. “We act as a local contact point in case they[students] run into problems, or need support, or just need to know others are doing the same thing.”
GLSEN Richmond can be found here.
Hello everyone, We in PFLAG Richmond want to wish all of you a happy and healthy New Year. For our next meeting, we are honored to welcome Trish Boland, Co-Chair of the Richmond Chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). GLSEN’s mission is to ensure that every student in every school is [...]January 4, 2016
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