Dozens of students from as many Virginia school gathered for first annual GSA Conference
It’s around 11:30 AM on a chilly Saturday in November and a group of about 40 kids are incredibly excited to be in school. That’s not something you’d normally expect, but when it’s a chance to network and meet other LGBTQ youth from around the state, and learn about what they can do to improve the lives of other students, it’s chance these kids jumped on.
I sit down in the back of one of the open foyer’s at Maggie Walker Governor’s school and just watch as ROSMY Youth Programs Director Jessica Rathbun-Cook dives into her role as Keynote Speaker for the first annual Governor’s School GSA Conference.
Rathbun-Cook is talking about words – what they mean and how people use them.
“What are some words that you hear or that you’ve used where people tell you ‘that’s not a thing’?” she asks the crowd.
The students shout back answers – trans-masculine, asexual, gender queer – all terms “the kids use” but others might not be familiar with.
The attendees break off into groups and are instructed to make up their own words. This might seem like more of an exercise in imagination rather than social politics, but Rathbun-Cook has a point to make.
“It’s the idea of recognizing, awareness, learning the rules so you can break them,” Rathbun-Cook says. “When people are getting push back, when they’re trying to navigate parents or schools… people will say ‘I don’t know what that is, it doesn’t fit within my rule book’ so it’s something people perceive to be a threat… but people come to ROSMY and continue to be who they are, and recognizing they are not alone is a big part of that… you’re not alone in the space you’re occupying.”
Around this point, 16-year-old Conference Executive Director, Sarah Law, taps on their wrist and Rathbun-Cook bows to the clock. They’ve got lunch waiting – burritos from Qdoba – and they’re already running late on the day’s events.
The 40+ students from 12 different schools break off and sit in the cafeteria, eagerly awaiting for more chances to learn about who they are and who they can help.
Clarke said her own school’s GSA club, as well as the GSA conference, was about imparting knowledge and bringing it back to fellow students.
“Everyone could recognize us as a part of the community and something that could educate people through some-kind of osmosis of knowledge,” she said. “If the knowledge is near them, its more accessible, and even if they don’t intend to go out and look for it, its there.”
The day hadn’t run as smoothly as they hoped – some computer issues required access to new rooms and the fast thinking of the conference’s Technology Director, Andrew Wilson.
“It was pretty stressful and unexpected, but we wall handled it pretty well,” he said.
This sense that things were handled well is an understatement for someone like myself who spent his high school GSA days watching LGBTQ movies and making puffy paint posters.
Meanwhile, these kids started their conference planning in September and used Google Docs and Facebook to pull together a unique and powerful event.
“It wasn’t unusual to wake up to 200 missed facebook messages,” Wilson joked.
They didn’t do it totally alone. Folks like Rathbun-Cook helped put them in touch with some speakers, and Katie Turner, Director of Outreach for the event, said it took support from members of the community to help get them to their goal.
“All the people we’ve reached out to and [had ]the trust to see us and think ‘this is a good idea’” they said. “It’s one of the amazing things about the LGBTQ community in Richmond; we’re all a community [with] connections to people and they’re down to help LGBTQ youth life ourselves up.”
I’ve got at least 12 years on almost everyone in attendance but it was incredible to hear these kids take such an idea and make it a reality. But it was less of a Surprise to Rathbun-Cook.
“There are times where I hear youth at ROSMY say something that makes my jaw drop, in a good way,” she said, and with four years at the youth support group, she knows a thing or two about LGBTQ youth. “In terms of their self awareness and motivation and living as who they are, I think this is a beautiful example of that. They saw the need and it happened. It’s awesome.”
You’d figure, in such a digital age, conferences or meet ups like this would be a thing of a past. You don’t need to search Tumblr too hard to find someone who shares your point of view or experiences, but Rathbun-Cook thought events like this were still very important.
“For a lot of LGBTQ youth, social media is kind of a two sided coin in that you have this great benefit to meet people who share your identity maybe in ways you’ve never had before … but there’s also not that personal one-on-one interaction. So if you have conflict you can just drop the conversation.” she said.
Rathbun-Cook referred to ROSMY and the GSA Conference as a kind of extension of Tumblr in that way – providing youth with the chance face those conflicts and engage in conversations they might otherwise miss out on.
“They have the beautiful opportunity to figure that out,” she said. “You can’t just cut off a conversation with someone when you’re sitting in a circle with [them]. Any sort of electronic communication can do a lot but nothing beats face-to-face interaction.”
As I ended my group interview with the student board, they joked about how the youngest member, Law, was also the Executive Director. But with almost every member except Law graduating next year, this might not be a bad thing – leaving them with the leadership skills and experience to recruit a new board.
“I walked in during breakfast and saw people who didn’t know each other talking and hanging out. Some from Louisa, others from private schools. People from all sorts of different places meeting and talking to each other,” said Law. “Being able to see all of these different students come together… It was everything I had hoped for.”
Keep your eyes and ears peeled for the next Governor’s School GSA Conference coming (hopefully) in 2016.
**Please note this is a Friends of Side by Side event and is therefore 21+ only.January 30, 2017
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